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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. 

“It was about this time I had my first vision.  I had borrowed a book on meditation and was sitting on a beach in Brighton in the lotus position, trying to meditate.  It was only for a few seconds but I saw two birds fly across each other, and where they crossed, I saw a golden Buddha in the sky.  I was wearing shoes for once, but I took them off.  I started to climb the earth embankment by the sea because I thought the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were on the other side.  Later, I felt I wanted to stare death in the face and started to climb on top of a high wall overlooking the railway track.  People shouted at me to get down and when I did so one of them bought me an orange juice.  But they also called the police, who asked if I was trying to kill myself.  I said I just wanted to get a better view of Brighton.  They also asked me ‘have you seen things?’ I did not tell them about the golden Buddha.  The police were good to me, though I thought it was a bit much to be arrested for having bare feet.”

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:

“Ironically doctors often noted that Henry had lack of insight into his disorder, which mean that he did not acknowledge that there was anything wrong with him.  But the insight of professionals was also limited.  Over the last century psychiatrists and psychologists have proved singularly unsuccessful in finding either causes or cures for mental disorders. “

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. 

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  1. I must read this! I like Henry’s description of the vision episode, as it really exemplifies the bizarre and disconnectedness of significance/meaning of events in psychosis.

  2. I have read it, and it’s wonderful. Dad’s journalistic and fatherly view, Mom’s diary entries, Henry’s accounting of his episodes told with simplicity and truth. Another great resource to help understand schizophrenia.