Book Review: January First by Michael Schofield

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Rating: B-/ I feel weird criticizing this book. The author has obviously been to hell and back, so pointing out his shortcomings feels a bit like kicking a puppy. January First is the alternately powerful and frustrating true story of the writer’s five-year-old daughter’s horrific struggle with childhood Schizophrenia and her subsequent diagnosis and treatment. The little girl, January, initially seems to be hugely creative and imaginative, and has a host of imaginary friends at her disposal. Later her father Michael discovers that the ‘imaginary friends’ are in fact paranoid hallucinations who, although sometimes comforting, force January to act out violently against her parents and baby brother, Bodhi.

I have a couple of problems with this book, but my quarrel is not with the writing. Michael Schofield has a gift at telling his family’s story, but the way he handled the situation with his daughter was often infuriating. Now I have no doubt that Schofield loved his daughter, his love for her was nakedly apparent throughout the book. But he also continually enabled her psychotic behavior and by refusing to put her in a home even as she continually tried to hurt her infant brother, I felt he was choosing his daughter over his son.

The author was also extremely defensive and hostile toward everybody in the book, including his wife. I guess I should say, everybody except his daughter. I agree that some of the mental facilities that took January in were horrible and should have had their asses sued off, including the one that put January on Thorazine and left her for hours in a puddle of her own urine. But it felt like if anybody in the school system suggested that January might need to be treated differently or be placed in an SED class, Michael became very angry and dismissed them as ‘idiots’ who didn’t ‘understand his daughter’s brilliance.’

The thing I felt Schofield overlooked is that if a child is acting out violently and is disrupting a class, having a 146 IQ doesn’t mean jack shit. If a student is tearing up the classroom, how are the other kids supposed to learn anything? Michael Schofield seems to be in denial about his daughter’s serious mental illness for most of the book. He backpedals and makes excuses for her and accuses teachers and nurses of holding a grudge against her or being utterly incompetent at their jobs. Perhaps most troublingly, he vents his frustration at his wife Susan and acts like he’s the only person in the world who understands January and cares about her enough.

Now, I found this book fascinating on a psychological level. I’ve been interested in everything that could go wrong with the human brain ever since I was a pre-teen. Maybe my interest was my way of dealing with my own mental health problems, but I have a sort of morbid fascination with stories that deal with severe mental illness. The realization that January is mentally ill feels kind of like a revelation halfway through a movie that you figured out within the first five minutes. Maybe that’s not a fair statement since it says on the dust cover that January has childhood Schizophrenia, but the powers of denial must be strong for Michael to perseverate thinking for ages that his daughter is a ‘quirky genius’ and not a full-blown psychotic.

I understand that denial is often a big part of the process when a loved one is suffering from mental illness, but I swear to God I wanted to shake the author so bad at times. Even at the end, he’s still pretending that his daughter’s hallucinations are real beings. I thought to myself, “That can’t be healthy.” I think this book is a must-read if people are interested in mental illness and the way the system fails families who struggle with this epidemic. Personally I found the attitudes the memoirist held frustrating, and I imagine many other people will too.

Technically, however, this book is very well-done. It gives the reader a glimpse into living with mental illness on a day-to-day basis, and how completely exhausting it can be for both the sufferer and the sufferer’s family. It makes the reader perceive families where the child is ‘out-of-control’ and walking all over their parents differently. A child who might seem to be a petulant brat might actually be suffering from a mental disorder, but when someone else’s kid is throwing a tantrum in public people love to  pass judgement.

January First paints a disturbing portrait of a family where the parents are terrified of their five-year-old daughter’s violent outbursts, and where life revolves around making sure the child doesn’t hurt herself or anybody else. It’s not a light of fun read, but it’s an informative look into a illness that is often misrepresented and stigmatized. Most people can’t imagine being legitimately scared of a five-year-old. But January First is about loving someone so much you can’t stand it, so much that you’d do anything for them; that you’d die in order to take their pain away. January is lucky to have a father who loves her as much as Michael Schofield does. But I think the way he handled certain things was all wrong, even if he did them for the right reasons.

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