Friday, December 07, 2012

What’s the point of biography if the writer can’t be trusted to write the truth? My thoughts on Michael Schofield's book

There are so many great books that I haven’t read, with more being published every day, but my spare time is really quite limited, after my many parenting, housework and paid work duties are done, on top of all of the varied and numerous range of mostly preventable problems that take up my time and everyone’s time, as the result of well-paid people in our community not doing their jobs properly. There are so many great books and so little time, so why have I just spent time reading a book that I never had much regard for? My writing about Jani (Janni, January) Schofield, a young intellectually gifted American girl who has been diagnosed with child-onset schizophrenia and has also been placed at the centre of a mass-media circus by her parents, has been read by a great many people. It isn’t too far-fetched to think that my writing about Jani has been influential in some way to some degree. I feel some responsibility to continue my scrutiny and commentary in relation to Jani and her story as told by others, and to that end I had to read the book (titled January First) that Jani’s father Michael Schofield has written about his time as Jani’s father.

I refrain from calling this book a biography of Jani, and my judgement is mirrored by others. The subject heading on the back of the book categorizes Michael Schofield’s book as autobiography, presumably meaning it is a book about the author father, not the child, and the library that stocks the copy of the book that I borrowed and read has given it the Dewey number of 618.92898, a shelf location in libraries that is overwhelmingly taken up with books about children diagnosed with autism or Asperger syndrome, but which occasionally houses a book about schizophrenia in adolescents. It’s not really a book about Jani, it’s a book about the world that she unfortunately finds herself within, a world of medicalizing labels and parents who embrace them.  While I feel that I should look at the book and write about what I see, I also have no desire to help to publicise a book which I believe is the central element of Michael Schofield’s unethical plan to make money at the expense of his daughter. I didn’t buy a copy of the book; I borrowed a copy that had already been ordered by a library before I had placed my book request. I urge readers to also look to the library system rather than the bookstore should they feel curiosity to read for themselves.

I’m compelled to start my review of the book by outlining the many important things that this book does not offer. I’ve not set out to be perverse in taking this approach. The most remarkable and revealing aspect of this book is all the stuff that the author has chosen to leave out of it. Michael Schofield left out of this book an admission that he and Jani’s mother both hit Jani with considerable force on at least one occasion. This account was once published in his old blog, but was apparently not carried over to his new blog or his book, but many commentators have not forgotten what has been written and once existed in the public domain. I’m not one to take issue with a parent hitting a child. In a perfect world no one would hit anyone else, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and some little tykes do behave as though they are junior envoys from Hell. Of course, no parent or adult should beat the crap out of a young, small child, obviously, and I take issue with that, if it did happen. As a book reviewer my gravest objection to Michael Schofield’s omission of his account of him and wife attacking Jani is that it appears to be a part of a strategy to skew the truth in the writing of the book. Throughout the book there are descriptions of shocking violence by Jani, descriptions that frankly strain credulity because it is hard to understand how a grown man could be beat up and injured time and time again by a young child. Every time in these accounts of violence Michael took great pains to portray himself as taking great care to avoid harming or hurting Jani while defending himself and others from ferocious violence. In the book Michael Schofield portrayed himself as a fatherly punching-bag exercising a Ghandi-like avoidance of inflicting violence, but readers of his old blog might recall an admission that “…Susan and I both lost it and hit Jani as hard as we could.” There couldn’t be a bigger gulf between the way the author depicted his own behaviour in the old blog and in the book, and regardless of which account is closer to the truth, at least one account must be a conscious deception. Michael Schofield is a writer who cannot be trusted to give a true account. I don’t quite see the point in reading any book by this author as a work of non-fiction, as his account can’t be trusted, but at the same time, I’m quite dumbfounded that Schofield has included a lot of information in this book which I think reflects very badly on his and his wife’s parenting of Jani. Is this honesty, stupidity, lack of caring or a conscious cultivation of controversy? I see that this book has been given many positive reviews by Amazon customers and many readers still hold the author in high regard, so perhaps most readers are blind to the many issues that I see.

Another omission from the book which I was struck by is nothing in it about synaesthesia. It’s not mentioned as an alternative explanation for Jani’s “hallucinations”. It’s not mentioned as the only explanation of why the theme of items that are learned in a set sequence pervades Jani’s imaginary world through-and-through. Synaesthesia is not mentioned at all in this book. I don’t like to look as though I have tickets on myself, but I think my writing about synaesthesia as an explanation for many aspects of Jani’s apparent inner life is well-known enough that Michael Schofield must have been aware of synaesthesia as one of the many alternatives to schizophrenia as an explanation or diagnosis for Jani that have been offered by many writers on the internet. Schofield must have had some awareness of synaesthesia as a good explanation of his daughter’s unusual thoughts, but he chose to leave synaesthesia out of his book, but he did acknowledge autism, child abuse and demonic possession as alternative theories put forward by others. I think the author chose to leave synaesthesia out of his book because it is a convincing competing explanation of Jani’s supposed “hallucinations” that are the basis of her formal diagnosis of schizophrenia, and the Schofields favour child-onset schizophrenia as a label for their child, because the rarity of that diagnosis makes Jani seem more unique and special. In contrast, every second mother I meet seems to think one of her kids has a smidge of autism or Asperger syndrome, and synaesthesia researchers now acknowledge that synesthetes are something like one twentieth of humanity, hardly rare. If you wrote a book about your child’s Asperger syndrome or synaesthesia in 2012, the text would have to be something exceptional as a piece of literature to attract much interest and gain publication, but this book certainly isn’t that. If Jani wasn’t regarded as a scientific/medical curiosity this book would never be interesting enough to win commercial publication, rather like Daniel Tammet’s dreary autobiography, which no one would bother to read were it not for Tammet’ unique but questionable scientific status as an articulate savant. Jani’s reported IQ of 146 would make her rare and exceptional for a reason other than being a child schizophrenic, but there’s nothing particularly new about intellectual giftedness, and I’m sure the market for books about kids who are smarter than yours is a limited market indeed. The centre of this book is an exotic diagnosis, and without it, the book would be nothing.

The author has left a lot out of this book. In addition to not citing synaesthesia even once, I noticed that the many interesting and quite detailed descriptions of Jani’s inner world that can be found in media reports and videos on the internet aren’t hugely represented in the book, which is odd considering that the subtitle of the book is “a child’s descent into madness and her father’s struggle to save her”. Readers who aren’t convinced of the given explanations for Jani’s supposed madness might wish to read more about the “symptoms” and form their own opinions, but I don’t think that interest is encouraged. Many readers will simply be more interested in madness than some parent’s worthy struggle. This is politically incorrect, and it isn’t encouraged either. Another thing that cannot be found in the pages of this book is an explanation of why Jani’s parents decided to name her after a month of the year, and not a month that has a record of being used as a personal name. This is no trivial question. The reason why I have identified Jani as a synaesthete is her reported inner world that is populated by entities that all seem to have names that are concepts that are typically learned in set sequences, abstract concepts like numbers, days of the week, and even things like temperatures and planets. Jani’s thoughts appear to be dominated by such concepts, and schizophrenia as a diagnosis does not explain this at all. Synaesthesia is the only explanation for this important feature of Jani’s style of thinking. I believe Jani is a multi-synaesthete, including an ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthete, and as synaesthesia is an inherited condition, it is likely that one of her parents is one too. It seems just too much of a coincidence that Jani’s parents chose a month of the year as a name for her. Was synaesthesia the inspiration for Jani’s name? There is no answer in this book.

My theory is that this book has been cynically designed to provoke debate and discussion on a popular level, to gear it to the book club market. I’m not completely sure that this is a feature of book club books, as I’ve never been a member of one, but it stands to reason. I believe a book that engages this market will be a commercial winner, so I imagine that must be motivation enough for many writers to pursue this market. I can see that there is much material within this book that could provoke discussion of at least three topics that engage the popular mind. One is the tired old cliché that “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity”. Michael Schofield described in the book how Jani was IQ tested and found to have an IQ in the highly gifted range, this IQ score is repeated throughout the book, and the author also used the contentious word “genius” throughout the book. By the end of the book Jani will be diagnosed with child-onset schizophrenia. In the popular mind schizophrenia is often thought to be associated with genius, and there is a thread of scientific thinking that asserts a connection between psychosis and creativity, but I find it all unconvincing.

Another clichéd topic of discussion that I believe this book was designed to engage is the notion that children of today aren’t disciplined properly, and thus are brats. I find this idea tedious, especially when recounted by octogenerians, rednecks or people who would repeat any old guff just to make conversation, but the depiction in the book of the way that Jani’s parents raised her offers overwhelming evidence that any reader could appreciate, that her parents had utterly failed to understand or apply the concepts of discipline, self-discipline, personal responsibility or parental authority to their parenting of Jani. I’m sure most readers rejoiced on page 143 in which a doctor advised that Jani’s parents need to “Let her know that her behaviour is unacceptable” and Michael admits that “As soon as the violence started, we ran straight to a shrink. We never stood up to her.” Unfortunately, in the pages of the rest of the book there’s little evidence of the self-discipline, consistency, mental strength and sincere belief in the concept of personal responsibility that is required to effectively turn a neglected child into a socialized child. Michael Schofield’s understanding of disciplining a child seems to consist of little more that the catch-phrase “get tough”. Schofield applies methods of discipline to Jani at age six that most parents apply to toddlers. Is there are a limited critical period in a child’s development in which they can be socialized? I’m sure a child as bright as Jani would be able to sense the inconsistency, or at least experience a profound confusion, should her parents require her to start taking responsibility for her own actions, while still holding onto the belief that Jani has a devastating mental illness and is thus unable to assume responsibility for her own actions. Unless parents clearly delineate areas in which a supposedly impaired child can or cannot be held responsible for their own actions, they are simply trying to impose a regime of absurdity. There are very serious consequences when a parent tells a child they are insane or mentally disabled, a fact that seems to be under-appreciated by many parents today.

The third concept which I believe the book was designed to engage is speculation about the author and the nature of his relationship with Jani. I’m somewhat surprised that the author father was so open in the book about being accused of sexual abuse, about taking on the parental chore of bathing a girl-child, and also revealing his odd belief that he is the only person able to properly care for or understand Jani. By the end of the book the author’s concept of his relationship with Jani looks quite warped and odd, in my opinion. Sure enough, Jani has an IQ score and intellectual needs that are most unusual, but there are clubs and societies for gifted people and parents of gifted children, and I’m sure at least some other parents of gifted kids manage to find some kind of niche in the world for their children beyond a claustrophobic relationship with one interested parent.

I could regard this book as a good one because I have found much in it to confirm my previously-held beliefs about Jani, that she is a highly gifted, synaesthete and somewhat autistic child who is troubled because her educational needs have been severely neglected for a long time, and possibly also because of the horrible experiences and the destruction of her self-image that are the inevitable consequence of being cast in the role of psychiatric inpatient. Parental abuse could also be a factor. I could also regard this book as a bad one because it has added little that is new to my understanding of Jani and her story, above what I’ve read in many media reports and Michael Schofield’s blog. 

The biggest surprise in this book is the openness of the author in sharing information that confirmed my existing bad image of him as a father who failed his gifted daughter. By his own account the author spent countless hours trying to engage Jani in activities that he deemed to be intellectually stimulating, but on closer consideration there really is not a lot to nurture the mind of a gifted child in a cheap and impulsive life of television, fast-food, gender-stereotyped Disney toys and wandering between free and unexceptional activities geared to the simple desires of the masses such as zoos and playgrounds in retail and fast food businesses. What a trashy, commercialized world was offered to Jani. The book reads a bit like an infomercial, so peppered is it with business names. The author father stated his willingness to assume the role of home-schooling parent of a gifted child, but a therapist that the family were referred to by a paediatrician and who gave Jani an IQ test told them that “She needs to go to a gifted school” and then recommended one. Even though Jani proved that she could perform at a level high enough to score in the highly gifted range in an IQ test, by his own admission the author dismissed the idea of Jani gaining admission to that gifted school as an impossible dream and never gave his daughter the chance to even try for admission. It is also perfectly clear that Jani’s parents understood that Jani needed the company of other children with intellects that operated on her level, but there is nothing in this book to suggest that they made any attempt to contact any school, group or association geared to the needs of gifted kids that might have made that much-needed intervention possible. I know how hard things can be as a parent of gifted children, but they didn’t even try. The Schofields didn’t even do as much as regular parents do to get their child into the mainstream education system. On page 67 the author recounts the guilt he felt when he realised that they had both neglected to enrol Jani in school and it was a school day, and that was why there were no other kids her age at the playground. What the Hell kind of parents are these? Schofield could well have given this book the title of “Ruined potential: how we fought hard to get our highly gifted daughter admitted to psychiatric hospitals but never lifted a finger to get her a place in the school for the gifted that we knew she needed”. I’ll admit it’s quite a long title, but I think it really hits the spot, and after reading this book I very much feel like hitting something.

Another striking fact that can be found in this book is the admission that up till the end of 2007 Jani had never actually hit her infant brother Bodhi, even though most of the media and parent reports about Jani make much of the idea that her parents were living in two separate apartments to keep a violent daughter away from a vulnerable infant son. I found in the book only one description of Jani hitting her brother, a much less violent relationship than that between many siblings.

Setting aside the rights and wrongs of the book, one could ask whether it is an entertaining read for this summer or winter, depending on which end of our doomed planet you live on. The author is a teacher/lecturer of writing at a university, so one would expect the text would be constructed with a high level of competence. It is indeed an easy book to read, without any major flaws in the writing that are obvious to me, but what would I know? There are some pretentious writing devices including a neologism and a cute way of describing facial expressions which are both used often enough in the book to eventually draw attention to themselves. I was surprised that the book wasn’t written in a more creative style, because the many posts at the author’s blog that I’ve read are generally most pretentious, but I guess it might have been judged that a less artsy style was more appropriate or marketable for this book’s subject matter. There are many melodramatic flourishes written in italics in the text, enough to give me and some other readers concerns about the author’s mental health, but I suspect that these features might simply be typical of a genre that this book might fall into, and might be completely contrived. Like most truly awful things, unintentional humour can be found in this book. Jani’s mother Susan is depicted as having the unfortunate habit of identifying just about any crisis or problem as being the result of someone failing to take or respond to a psychiatric drug in a clinically correct manner. Jani is hitting her father! The meds aren’t working! Michael has lost it and he’s driving the car too fast! He forgot a dose of his meds! Thousands of protesters are rioting in Tahrir Square in Egypt! Their meds aren’t working! Is this the way that American mothers of today think? If this screwy perspective is typical, you people have major, major problems. I shudder to think what life will be like in the US when a generation of drugged kiddies reach adulthood. Good luck with that!

My verdict regarding this book – read it if you must, but for heaven’s sake, don’t buy it. Don’t be a part of the ethics-free and evidence-challenged industry of psychiatrists, therapists, drug companies, hospitals and miscellaneous business-people offering unproven services, and parents who depict themselves as martyr carers of mentally ill offspring while making a career out of it. Don’t fund this racket, because these bastards prey on children.

P. S. Discussion of Michael Schofield's admissions at his old blog about hitting Jani can be found here in a comment posted on August 21st 2012:


Anonymous said...

Wow! You could have been one of Charles Dickinson's friends! Very wordy Victorian style you have there dear.

Lili Marlene said...

Yes, it's not exactly poetry, but I think it gets my message across.

Anonymous said...

your critique of the book is fine.. i haven't read it and have no interest. but you are playing some serious internet doctor here and that's a little repulsive.. i mean it's no different than the other internet trolls who want to judge these people are doing, who think they're the devil for medicating her.

please. synesthesia would be a fine diagnosis for her pleasant delusions, but her violent delusions? i don't think so. it is not even classified as mental illness. and surely you are aware someone could be a synesthete and also have schizophrenia.

child psychosis is real and be happy you don't know that. my friends 8 y/o suffers from psychosis, i know him and he is a very sweet kid who switches on a dime into a violent nightmare. he will tell you he has to cut you with a knife til you're dead and then 20 minutes later want to play. I've seen it. no one would medicate him until @6 he tried to kill his 3 y/o brother with scissors. he also has some pleasant delusions, so is this not a real illness?

your opinions on the people are fine, they rub me the wrong way and i really don't like them. but Jani's illness is very real, whether they're cashing in on it or not.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone considered the Munchausens by Proxy for the Mother. I find she is oddly accepting of her fate to raise two children with schitzoprenia. I have a feeling she is creating this herself and possibly medicated the baby (Jani) at an early age, almost immediately. I have been thinking the children may have been dosed with LSD. I could be completely off though.

Brenda Rivera said...

As a parent of two children similar to jani and bodhi, I too, have experienced done I'd the horrors Michael describes. I, however, go not believe he is consciously deceptive. It is difficult enough to raise such children, and more difficult to admit when we as parents, as human beings, have reached or limits and "lost it"...going public cannot be easy. Always in the forefront....if you have not lived it, you cannot possibly understand it. I personally have been repeatedly abused by both of my mh children..needing medical attention even....they are unbelievably strong during an episode....

To Anonymous.....I find it offensive and heinous that you would suggest Susan could be drugging her children in order to produce these symptoms...utterly ludicrous....

Anonymous said...

Some of the notions alluded to and referenced directly in the book inspired me to wonder if the parents were depriving the child of sleep. The idea of separate apartments seemed to suggest tag team supervision of the child where they could keep her from sleeping, while they, themselves, could sleep. If the child manages to grow to adulthood without being damaged to the point of never achieving critical thinking skills and self-awareness and an awareness of her environment (something so-called normal adults find challenging), it'd be interesting to see what she says about her experiences.

Lili Marlene said...

That's a serious accusation, Anon. Deliberate sleep deprivation is a form of torture, and would certainly constitute child abuse.

I think it is pretty clear that Jani has had issues with sleep. I recall references to this in stuff I've read and in so many photos she has dark rings around her eyes and a sleepy or drugged look about her. Of course, this could all be due to the stupefying drugs her parents openly admit she has been given.

I have not checked the latest news on Jani for a long time, so I have no idea of her current state.

Margaret said...

I'm the mother if a 12 year old high-functioning Autistic boy. My son used to have these crazy-violent episodes that flared up at the drop of a dime - I mean, calm to punching and clawing at me to get to a knife because he wanted to kill his father. Why? Let's see, one time it was because I didn't come right home and another time it was because he didn't want to eat dinner. We were advised by doctors to use our own bodies to restrain him, but by age 5 or so, he was much stronger than me, especially in the throes of one of his rages. I honestly don't know how I never ended up with black eyes or a broken nose.

He's been on many, many different medications - including some very strong anti-psychotic meds. Ultimately, a regimen of Wellbutrin and Tenex, along with maturity and learning coping and self-regulating skills, have finally worked for him. For now.

I can't say we never resorted to corporal punishment in severe desperation; we're flawed human beings. Do we have any regrets about how we handled our son? Absolutely. There are so many things we should have done and just as many we shouldn't have.

My point is that I rarely judge how parents of special needs children parent their children unless I see abuse or something clearly detrimental happening. Every vhild is different and so are the parents and it's always a very steep learning curve. I'm not going to even judge Michael Schofeld for his affairs (although I kind of want to). But I do take issue with his moving so far away and, basically ditching his wife and kids. He admitted on TV that he hardly has a relationship with his son because Bodhi is pretty much non-verbal meaning Face-Timing / Skyping is useless. I also take issue wiyh Susan stating that Jani is her right-hand and like a 2nd mother to Bodhi. That is way too much responsibility for an NT 13 year old, much less a schizophrenic one.

One thought, though, for the author of this article: you wonder about Jani's name and any correlation between it and her preoccupation with sequential sets such as months. They named her at nirth, long before any of this came to light. I really don't understand the basis for your questioning any subversive, secret meaning behind her name.

Lili Marlene said...

I thought it would be clear enough that I believe it likely that one or both of Jani's parents are also synaesthetes, and thus I'm suggesting that it was the synaesthete parent who thought up the weird name. January is mid-winter in the USA and that's an odd concept to name a daughter after (its like naming a daughter Antarctica), unless the month has some special personal meaning for the parent, as is possible with synaesthesia associations that can link colours or even personalities with abstract concepts like days of the week or numbers. I could have made this point clearer in my writing, sorry.

It is highly likely that one of Jani's parents is a synaesthete as it runs in families, synaesthesia is common (despite what a collection of lazy unknowledgeable science celebrities like to say) and Jani is clearly a synaesthete.

Yes, I'm familiar with the very hard life that parents of severely mentally disabled kids and adults face with challenging behaviour (I try to avoid using the term 'autistic' these days as the term has been so misused as to be meaningless). I can fully understand how a child or adult with limited mental faculties might swing to violence, not being able to understand stuff like proper behaviour or harm to others, and being generally confused about the world. But this isn't Jani. In her own father's writing she was identified as having scored well into the gifted range in some professional assessment of intelligence. So something else besides mental disability must be going on in her case. Something as serious as violence requires an explanation. To simply say "The child is autistic" or "The child is schizophrenic" is not offering an explanation.

You wrote:
"My son used to have these crazy-violent episodes that flared up at the drop of a dime - I mean, calm to punching and clawing at me to get to a knife because he wanted to kill his father. Why? Let's see, one time it was because I didn't come right home and another time it was because he didn't want to eat dinner. We were advised by doctors to use our own bodies to restrain him,..."

No way in the world would I be satisfied with these explanations for the behaviour or the response of the doctors. Were these episodes genuinely triggered by events or were they actually extreme changes in mood? If you think the latter, I'd be looking at epilepsy as a possible explanation. If the violence was triggered by events, why the extreme response? I could go on. I think it is a disgrace that you are apparently left to care for your son as a family. I believe your government should provide quality, trustworthy residential care for your son, if that is what your family would want. I also believe that 'autism' should never be offered by any doctor or psychologist or professional person as 'the' explanation for problematic behaviour, because it is a non-explanation. It is a way of avoiding the cost and hassle of a proper genetic-medical-social-psychological-neurological-educational assessment of the child and the child's situation. Any civilized society should be ready and able to meet these needs.

DubLife said...

I agree totally I watched several documentaries about childhood mental illness and it seems this family yes I believe you are right and she has synaesthesia and I think her mentally ill parents have failed her and her intelligence. Fascinating read and I definitely see the truth in your statements