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.
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:
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: