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A world of talking trees

Patrick Cockburn is a foreign correspondent who has reported from war zones in Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan.

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

Henry's Demons Patrick and Henry Cockburn

Simon & Schuster, pp.222, 16.99

Patrick Cockburn is a foreign correspondent who has reported from war zones in Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan. While he is covering the fall of the Taliban from Kabul in 2002, his talented, bright and amusing elder son Henry is a first-year art student at Brighton. Who is in more danger?

The sad answer is Henry. The trees and the wind tell him to remove his clothes and swim in freezing water: fished out of the sea at Newhaven in February, he is taken to hospital and subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. This book is an account of the next seven years of Henry’s life, both from his father’s perspective and his own.

The result is remarkable, as important an addition to our understanding of altered mental states as William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, or the work of Kay Redfield Jamison, who writes about bipolar disease, or Oliver Sacks’ extraordinary navigations through the secret realms of our brains. Like these, Henry’s Demons never loses sight of the personality, the uniqueness, of the sufferer. It would be impossible not to like Henry, who is candid, touching and often funny. 

‘It’s amazing the number of people who stare at you when you are not wearing shoes,’ writes Henry:

Do I have schizophrenia? My mother and father and the dreaded psychiatrist definitely believe I am schizophrenic. They have grounds for their belief, such as my being found naked and talking to trees in woods. Yet I think I just see the world differently from other people.

Unfortunately his vision of things often puts him in mortal danger. Schizophrenia can alter the body’s thermostat: Henry’s habit of taking off his clothes does not help. He is found naked in the snow in someone’s garden, suffering from frostbite and hypothermia. His feet get sore and infected from walking barefoot. He goes hungry. Sometimes he is very frightened.

Henry is detained in various institutions, in order to keep him safe. Despite having smoked a lot of pot in his teens, he is not keen on prescribed medicine: ‘I didn’t agree with taking substances that would affect my mind.’ He hates being locked up, but not taking his medicine prolongs his incarceration. At every opportunity, he runs away:

I wanted to run away because running away had become crucial to my life. I felt I was being liberated and I was being brave.

At first, Henry’s parents hope for a quick and happy resolution. They imagine that their lovely son will recover over the course of a few months and then go back to art school. ‘Until Henry became ill, I knew little about madness: like so many other people, I found it frightening and alien’, writes Patrick.  Looking back, later, he sounds very much wearier: ‘For all the setbacks and disappointments, he did not die, and this was our main achievement during the years when he was locked up in mental hospitals.’

Patrick praises the kindness and commitment of nursing staff, doctors and police but is critical of wider health policy. ‘ “Care in the community” must be one of the most deceptive and hypocritical phrases ever devised by a government’, he notes. Unlike depression and stress, schizophrenia remains poorly understood and treated: ‘It is as if, on the battlefield of mental health, the psychiatrists and psychologists will treat only lightly wounded members of the officer class.’

About a third of the book is Henry’s own account, and I wished he had written more. I kept wondering who it was his quirky style reminded me of, until I realised it was one of my favourite writers, Denton Welch. Welch too describes walking alone around Kent, and, like Henry, has a matter-of-fact way of describing things and a sort of innocence which lends him great charm. Anyone lucky enough to read this book will wish that he continues to get better, and to write.

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