Henry's Demons, By Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn

The man who mistook a tree for his friend
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The Independent Culture

Books that detail the personal "journey" of someone who has survived an illness or traumatic experience are more often than not self-indulgent tripe. This is not one of those books.

It is a frightening, gut-wrenching and fantastical story of a young man's voyage into madness. It is also about a father's attempt to understand and help his first born son, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 20.

Patrick Cockburn, The Independent on Sunday's veteran foreign correspondent, applies his considerable journalistic expertise to explaining his son Henry's illness, and tells the family's story elegantly. But Henry's own words leap out. His descriptions of visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations are so extraordinary and fanciful that they could be stories from a fairy tale. As he details how talking trees drove him to run naked in the snow, swim in freezing rivers and run away from psychiatric hospitals 30 times, his writing is so vivid that you almost taste the dangerous mixture of fear and elation.

Like most parents in his situation, Patrick starts from a point of almost total ignorance, and initially simply accepts what the psychiatrists tell the family. He discovers that, unlike the huge medical advances made in the past century – for example in preventing and treating polio, which had left him disabled at the age of five – there has been lamentable progress in understanding and helping people such as his son.

Over the following years, Patrick talks to friends, colleagues and doctors in his search for answers. He explores medical research and family history and goes back two generations, looking for a genetic cause. He reflects on his own career choices and the implications of long absences away from his son, and investigates the influence of cannabis, which it turns out Henry frequently smoked from the age of 14.

There is guilt, sadness, frustration and helplessness. But there is also optimism. In one of Patrick's most vulnerable passages, he writes: "For all the endless setbacks and disappointments, [Henry] did not die, and that was our main achievement during the years when he was locked up."

Despite the undeniable pain of watching his boy descend into another world, Patrick writes without ever over-dramatising events. As in his reports from such ravaged countries as Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no need for additional drama. Patrick writes two chapters to Henry's every one, and although each is perceptive, interesting and well written, it would have been nice to read more from Henry. His vivid reflections are truly insightful, and provide a window not just into his own experiences, but into the alternative realities in which thousands of people exist, and survive.

Henry's Demons is not just a book for those with a personal or professional interest in mental illness. It is for anyone who appreciates good story-telling and good journalism, and for anyone curious to know what living with demons is really like.