Review Blog

Apr 03 2013

January First by Michael Schofield

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Hardie Grant, 2013. ISBN 9781742705033. pbk., 332pp
Every now and then I picked up a book which so absorbs me I read it almost without pause. January First was one of these. While it is subtitled A child's descent into madness and her father's struggle to save her, it is so much more than that. I first became aware of January (or Jani as she insists on) through the wonder of daytime television, and when I discovered her father had written a book I couldn't wait to get it.
From birth, Jani is a challenging child. She never slept for more than 20-30 minutes at a time and then only if her parents, Michael and Susan, spent the day stimulating her and taking her to places to tire her out. By the time she was one she was speaking in complete sentences, by the time she is two she is asking about negative numbers. She has a number of imaginary friends, particularly a cat called 400 and seven rats named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and they all live on Calalini. Convinced she is a genius, her parents are finally able to get an IQ test done which shows that it is 146 - not quite as high as they were expecting but given her age, still significant. At the same time Jani is showing very different behaviours from that expected of a toddler, and she is quite antisocial. Her parents put this down to the disconnect between her chronological age and her mental capabilities and her father is determined to protect her potential often clashing with his wife who wants her to socialise in the way that regular pre-schoolers do. It becomes a cause of friction between them, and in some ways, blinkers Michael's approach.
Only when her brother Bohdi is born and Jani is so violent towards him from the day they bring him home that neither child can be left on their own, do alarm bells start to ring and Michael and Susan begin to search for answers. Jani is assessed by psychologists and psychiatrists, hospitalised, medicated at levels which would turn an adult to a zombie, yet her behaviour scarcely changes. Nothing can stop Jani obeying Wednesday's commands to hit Bohdi, and even though Michael and Susan put themselves in harm's way to protect him, nothing will distract her until she has carried out what needs to be done.
January First is Michael's story of his daughter's life, the battles he took on, the mistakes he made, his roller-coaster relationship with Susan as both seek to give Jani a stable, if not ordinary, life and a safe haven for Bohdi. It is a story of frustration, despair, hope and faith.
But it is also the story of a society that still sees mental illness as a stigma rather than accepting a broken brain in the way it accepts a broken leg. It is a story of a society where there appears to be little support for parents of mentally ill children so there only respite is when the child is in school in a situation never designed to cater for such extreme needs or when she is hospitalised in circumstances that make your jaw drop at the lack of empathy and care. It is a story of a system that is not geared to cater for and manage mental illness in children. It is a story of a system where health care is dependent on your ability to pay and the health insurer's willingness to do so, so that as well as battling the illness, you also have to battle bureaucracy. It is a story that will break your heart and make you want to fight for the rights of Jani and others like her.
When I was at teachers college as a young mum, we had to visit a local hospital where severely physically and mentally disabled children lived and I gave thanks that my newborn son was so healthy. As a grandparent, I give thanks that my little people are not Jani. As a teacher, I gained great insight into what it must be like for parents living with a child with a mental illness. Jani's story puts things into perspective. There's a saying that there is always someone worse off than you, but in this case, it would be hard to know what that would be particularly as it now seems that Bohdi is following Jani's path
I thank Michael Schofield for writing it - there is so much we can learn from his baring his soul in this way. I hope he and Susan continue to have the courage and strength and love that shine through this book on every page, and that the rest of us listen and do what we can to make life better for parents and children in this situation.
This book is an absolute must-read - just ensure that you give yourself a long, interrupted time to do so, and give every child in your life a warmer smile today.
Barbara Braxton

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