The art of medicine
Review of 'Henry's Demons' by Patrick and Henry Cockburn
In February 2002 journalist Patrick Cockburn received a call from this wife. His student son, Henry, had nearly died swimming across the Newhaven estuary whilst fully clothed and had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Henry is diagnosed with schizophrenia and ‘Henry’s Demons’ is an account of the Cockburn family’s experiences of the next nine years. Henry is unable to finish his degree and spends a majority of his time under section as his behaviour often puts his life in danger. Despite this he is often at large for days at a time, having escaped from locked wards with an ease that dismays those that care about him. He does not accept his diagnosis and will not take any medication, as to do so would mean that everything he thinks is wrong. The hallucinations he experiences are for him beautiful and revelatory, not a sign of illness.
Whilst the majority of the narrative is related by Patrick Cockburn, Henry Cockburn also contributes several chapters to the story in which he is so central a figure. It is not just that his viewpoint is different; his story is strange and disjointed as he recounts being driven by forces that few understand. To the frustration of his family neither in his writing, nor in his life does Henry take responsibility for his actions and nor does he show remorse for the emotional distress these cause.
Patrick Cockburn’s writing is more journalist: it’s fluid and obviously polished; he often turns his journalist’s skills of observation towards the professionals he meets. He is critical of the closure of the asylum system where he considers that ‘one could safely behave bizarrely or even madly without derision or persecution’. He is also particularly unimpressed by the breadth of psychiatric knowledge:
As a document of the difficulties faced by a family affected by schizophrenia this book invites comparison with Tim Salmon’s recent Schizophrenia: who cares? The Cockburns’ dual narrative is an obvious difference and in addition is also a gentler read with less of a sense of vented anger than is Salmon’s work. The two books complement each other, and are both worth readings, but there is surprisingly little overlap.
This post originally publised on the frontier psychiatrist blog
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