Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia - a Father and Son's Story

In 2002, the foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn was in Kabul reporting on the fall of the Taliban when he received a call on his satellite telephone from his wife, Jan, who was at their home in Canterbury. She told him that their son Henry, who had then just turned 20, had been placed in a mental hospital after being hauled, fully clothed and cold, from Newhaven Estuary by a passing fisherman.

A few days later, after he had returned to England, Patrick was presented with a diagnosis of his son's condition: Henry, the psychiatrist surmised, was in the initial phase of schizophrenia. The prognosis was chillingly inconclusive. "A third of people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover completely," the doctor told Patrick, "one third have further attacks but show improvement, and one third do not get better." For much of this book, the reader is unsure of which category best fits Henry.

This book is the record, written by both father and son, of Henry's descent into psychosis. The condition would keep him in its grip for the next seven years, during which the voices in his head and the visions he conjured became, as Patrick puts it, the "centre of his world". For Henry, like Blake in his notes on A Vision of the Last Judgement, "Mental things [were] alone real." As for corporeal things, Henry was mostly indifferent to them. He would soil his trousers, when he wore them at all. His feet became sore and infected - and, in one horrifying episode, frostbitten - after he gave up wearing shoes. During this period, he absconded compulsively from accommodation of varying degrees of security, often being discovered naked in public places by the police forces of Kent and Sussex, which came to know him well.

Patrick's account of his son's treatment is gruelling - the often vain attempts of health-care professionals to get him to take his meds, the opaque workings of an NHS bureaucracy which sometimes moved Henry from one institution to another at a moment's notice. A section in which he reproduces the diaries that his wife wrote during an especially difficult period of their son's illness makes for particularly uncomfortable reading.
The book's principal strength - and the reason, I think, why it doesn't belong in that debased subgenre, the "misery memoir" - is that it includes Henry's own testimony. In the preface, Patrick says he thought it important that his son be invited to "defend the reality of his experiences", or at least describe them from the inside. "Only someone suffering from this strange and terrible illness," he writes, "can describe what it is really like."

Henry's prose has a kind of stunned, telegraphic terseness: "I didn't want to use telephones, though I can't remember why." Patrick notes the "radiant simplicity" of his son's style. However, Henry's reports on his mental states leave the reader with little idea of how it feels for inanimate objects to instruct one to, say, climb a viaduct or jump into a river. The father's assertion that Henry's Demons is "unique in its description of mental illness" is overblown. More persuasive is the judgement of a health tribunal - that the young man "did not show insight into his illness".

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East