Bravo to a survivor who refused to be silenced: Week in Books column


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James Rhodes’s memoir arrives out of a maelstrom of pre-publication controversy: his ex-wife tried to stop Instrumental from being published; a court lifted an injunction last week and the pianist has justified his reasons for writing it. It might otherwise have been another celebrity memoir, although one that includes Rhodes’s child rape, self-harm, attempted suicide and bouts in locked wards for severe psychoses. All honestly, graphically, and eloquently described (minus rock’n’roll levels of swearing).

Rhodes had several breakdowns as a result of the childhood abuse before his glittering second career (his first was in the City). Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music is, without question, a shocking – even appalling – read, for all that was done to Rhodes by a paedophile gym teacher from the age of five, and all that he subsequently did to himself. His ex-wife had said that the book would cause psychological harm to their young son. Its publication continues the debate on the writer’s rights, balanced against responsibilities. We have seen it played out publicly before: in the memoir of Michel Houellebecq’s mother; in the close-to-home fictions of Hanif Kureishi and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The exposure in Instrumental though, only involves Rhodes; he does not blame others around him. He does not even spend too much time describing them. It is a book about Rhodes, and works within this boundary. In that respect, it has a right to be published and read. But is it worth reading? Well, yes, actually, although I had my doubts in the seemingly obnoxious, self-loathing, self-involved first chapter. 

Instrumental marks the intersection of two genres: celebrity memoir spliced with misery memoir, with the narcissism and name dropping of the former, and the terrible arc of abuse in childhood, self-destruction in adulthood, of the latter. First, the misery memoir: Rhodes’s rapes and sexual molestations continued in secret for years, turning him from a sparkly, beautiful child into a spaced-out “automaton”. The will to self-destruction waited in the wings at Harrow School, and manifested in fullness when he settled down with a wife and child, by which time he had a history of drug and alcohol addictions, a compulsion to self-harm with razor blades, had lived with suicide fantasies and had been in and out of secure wards that medicated him back into zombie mode.

And the celebrity memoir bit: the transformation from a “mental patient” into a confident and  unconventional concert pianist (he talks to audiences) without formal training is intriguing to read, though the name-checks – Stephen Fry is a friend, Benedict Cumberbatch is just lovely, Geoffrey Rush “came to one of my Melbourne gigs” – has a dull predictability about it.

In between the two, there is the music. It is clear that Rhodes has a natural facility for music, and that it transports him from his suffering. But what really marks this book out is his confrontation with the unsaid (or rarely said) aspects of child sexual abuse and mental illness: details of the horrific medical damage to the back and groin left by child rape; descriptions of life inside a psych ward; the fact that an abused child can recognise a paedophile just by “that look”; the description of promiscuity at school, and the description of marital intimacy, both equally defined as “bad” by the legacy of his abuse; and the sad admission that those who are the most psychologically damaged, the most in need of love, often present themselves as the most unlovable –the idea that mental illness makes the sufferer deeply selfish. Some of these thoughts verge on the taboo and it takes clarity, courage and intelligence to say them as plainly and honestly as Rhodes does.

There is a flip side to his high level of self-awareness though: to admit “I’m so narcissistic”, as he often does, does not absolve him of blame for the unpleasant effects of that narcissism on others. Self-awareness is not always the solution.

The other remarkable factor is the privilege in Rhodes’s life, and not just in his schooling but later on when a rich friend pays for him to go to an expensive treatment centre in America; another generous “gazillionare” pays his bills while he gets his career as a pianist off the ground. At least he is aware of his privilege. That’s something.

Each chapter starts with a short biography of a figure from the classical music canon. They were the rock stars of their generation, Rhodes reminds us, with Bach, Beethoven, et al’s hard-luck stories. If he is comparing himself to the “Greats” (he doesn’t seem to be) the one thing he proves is that suffering can be great indeed, but also that music – for these men and for Rhodes – can offer the miracle of its own beautifully wordless refuge.