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The Reading Room: A review of James Rhodes’ ‘Instrumental’

2 Sep, 15 | by cquigley


Instrumental by James Rhodes

Canongate Books, 2015. £16.99 hardcover, £14.99 E-Book

Reviewed by Vivek Santayana, Postgraduate student in Literature and Modernity, The University of Edinburgh


James Rhodes’s controversial memoir, Instrumental, is about many things. On the one hand, it is about the trauma of child rape. There is an ethical dimension to the way this book talks about the trauma of child rape, suggested by its use of an epigram from US Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay about honouring stories of victims. This memoir is, in some respects, about a victim of severe trauma speaking out about his experience. Rhodes describes, with terrifying candour, his lifelong struggle of dealing with the catastrophic events of his childhood and the self-destructive state of victimhood the experience left him with for almost all of his life.

On the other hand, as Rhodes emphasises in the preface (and in his interview on Newsnight on 20 May), this is also a book about the power of music, and is intended to serve as a rejoinder to the bastardisation of the classical music industry. Supplementing this is a playlist of the many pieces discussed in the book, available free on Spotify ( Woven through this discussion of music is the harrowing story of Rhodes’ life, which he sees as the ultimate example of the profound and transformative impact music can have on one’s life, and how artistic expression gave him both the hope and the means for coping. Instrumental is nevertheless deeply complex, not just because of the difficult and painful main subject matter, but also because it challenges the expectations that might arise from classifying the book as either about trauma or music. What made this book particularly challenging for me was how rapidly it alternates between both of these narratives. This is a personal account of Rhodes’s life, and the sudden shifts in tone and texture serve to emphasise that the traumas of his past and his musical career are equal and contiguous parts of his life. There can be no clear demarcation between the one and the other, both in narrative and in practice.

Reading this book, it is important to bear in mind the context in which it has appeared in print. Publication came after a protracted legal battle between Rhodes and his ex-wife that lasted over a year, ending in May 2015 with the Supreme Court overturning the Court of Appeal’s decision to grant a temporary injunction on publication. It is open to interpretation whether or not Rhodes’s insistence that this is a book about music is in some ways an attempt at negotiating this censorious legal climate. However, even with the greatest of sensitivity to the parties involved and the greatest of care for their security and privacy, there is a sense in which preventing Rhodes from telling his story would in some ways be a repetition of the same attitude of secrecy and shame through which victims of abuse are silenced, much as Rhodes himself was when he was a child. Rhodes’ voice, when telling the story of his abuse, is inflected by these circumstances.

While he states quite passionately that music is what saved his life, there is a sense in which this is not an entirely accurate conclusion to draw from the story that Rhodes presents. He describes in great detail his experience of abuse, and subsequently his struggle with the self-destructive cycle of victimhood, self-harm, depression, breakdowns, suicide attempts, drug abuse, alcoholism and dysfunctional relationships. He elaborates on what he considers the numerous symptoms of chronic sexual abuse – OCD, dissociation, visual and auditory hallucinations, hypervigilance and eating disorders – as well as the painful process of his treatment through reparative surgery, forcible institutionalisation, therapy and, of course, music, which is one of the more significant contributing factors to healing. Music gave Rhodes something positive to aspire towards, as well as a sense of security and achievement that comes with a rigorous regime of practice and successful performances. Many of the experiences he describes, like the first time he heard Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for Violin No. 2 transcribed for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni (36), the sense of comfort and security he felt when sitting at a keyboard the first time he performed live (113), the ‘spiritual epiphany’ he experienced when he smuggled an iPod into a psychiatric ward and listened to Bach under the sheets (133), as well as his experience of recording his first album (163), exemplify the transcendental power of music to heal. Rhodes claims that ‘creativity is… one of the most profound ways through trauma’ (225). However, despite his passion for music, there were times when his career as a musician, and the pressures and frustrations involved therein, only served to aggravate his condition. The transcendence and escape afforded by music were temporary, and he ultimately imploded again in a similar manner to before.

In addition to music, there were numerous other factors that contributed to Rhodes’ on going recovery, the most important being the birth of his son. Moreover, while he is quite scathing about mental health facilities in Britain (which he describes through allusions to Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in terms of their lack of empathy and their over-reliance on medication), it is clear that the private facility that he went to in Arizona, with its emphasis on therapy and support groups, was also vital for his treatment. Similarly, the relationships he formed with his son, manager, new partner and some of his closest friends, and their kindness and generosity in his time of need, were crucial to his recovery. While music did have a profound impact on Rhodes’ life, and while creative expression is a powerful mode of therapy, he is circumspect about claiming it as his sole miraculous, transformative force, and emphasises that music is one of many things in his life, along with psychiatric treatment, medication and support and empathy within a broader community, that are part of his ongoing recovery.

Rhodes’ narrative is conscious of its chaotic nature and sense of artifice. This is most strikingly observed in the preface, where Rhodes imagines the morning in which he writes the book as if it were a play in which he, quite graphically, commits suicide, leaving a shocking note to his partner (xvi-xviii). Interspersed within the memoir are a number of self-referential remarks that emphasise his awareness of how the story is an attempt to structure his experience into a coherent narrative. The narrative voice frequently vacillates between suffering and joy, such as when a sublime experience of listening to Bach in a psychiatric ward is juxtaposed with a botched suicide attempt, or when graphic descriptions of self-harming are followed immediately by lyrical descriptions of music. In the most unexpected of moments, the narrative is laced with a bleak sense of humour. The texture of this narrative, with its uneven tone and the sudden, drastic changes in mood, are especially important in the way they embody the disordered nature of Rhodes’ experience.

It is tempting to romanticise the notions of mental illness and suffering and see them as intertwined with creative expression. I found one of Rhodes’ remarks quite troubling, when he states in the context of Robert Schumann that ‘composers and mental illness go hand in hand’ (193), although it is quite probable that this is meant to be ironic. Evan Davis, when he recently introduced Rhodes on Newsnight, made a similar connection between suffering and musical talent, describing Rhodes as having a ‘tormented soul’ that ‘comes out in his music’. The notion that mental illness is in some way constitutive of genius ­– that it gives access to some heightened state of aesthetic sensitivity – is a dangerous oversimplification of the experience of mental illness. However, Rhodes’ narrative complicates this romantic image of the tortured genius. His celebration of composers’ lives and works is contrasted by the self-deprecating tone that he adopts while describing his own struggles when attempting to make music. Rather than depict his suffering as eventually culminating in his musical talent, he describes his experience exactly as it is, and instead suggests that music is a way of healing. When he discusses the lives of various composers, he does so to emphasise how music can be a source of hope when dealing with trauma and pain. While talking about his own life, Rhodes avoids the romanticised notion that all artists are tortured individuals, or conversely that all suffering leads to artistic excellence, and his attitude towards art and music needs to be considered in this light.

As promised in the preface, Instrumental does indeed contain a strong and broad focus on music. The later chapters are a scathing criticism of the Classical BRIT Awards, the snobbery of the gatekeepers of high culture and the dumbing down of the music. It also describes Rhodes’ ambition to start a new record label as part of a campaign to broaden access to classical music, to improve music education and to reverse the tide of the decline he describes. His story of dealing with the trauma of child rape becomes part of this argument, demonstrating the profound impact music can have on one’s life and why it is of paramount importance to save it. His campaign to change the music industry is as significant to his career as the trauma he suffered as a child. This goes to show that Rhodes’ life story, and the way he writes about it in his memoir, is about much more than just giving voice to a traumatic experience, as he shares his experience of being able to live through the trauma and of finding a positive and lasting outlet for his creativity.



Rhodes, James. Instrumental: a Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015.

—. Interview by Evan Davis. Newsnight. BBC, London: 20 May 2015. Television.

Mark Making: An Experience of Dementia and the Arts by Hannah Zeilig

28 Apr, 15 | by BMJ

Rose sensed that I was nervous. My façade of confidence was not convincing, I was holding my papers a little too defensively across my chest and my shoulders were tense. I stood awkwardly at the edge of the circle of people, feeling outside their camaraderie. It was strange but also salutary to feel an outsider amidst a group of people with dementia. Instinctively, I wanted to make a note about this. However, the point of the day was that I should participate so reluctantly and feeling slightly naked I put my notebook down. I wondered how I could remember without notes. If we are our memories, then I am contained in small black notebooks. Then Rose made her well timed move. Loudly pushing her chair away she stood up and came to embrace me. ‘Enjoy the day’ she exhorted me loudly in a rich Jamaican voice. Rose’s warmth dissolved my hesitations. I began to understand that I might not need my notebooks here and that I would remember ‘feelingly’ to borrow a phrase from King Lear.


From this point onwards, I joined the music making, art viewing or tea drinking: all activities that were integral to the participative arts projects that I worked with during Mark Making. This AHRC funded project was an exploration of the participative arts for people with dementia. In the last decade, arts activities for people living with dementia have flourished; these include singing, drama, painting, photography and puppetry (to name a few). The context for this burgeoning interest in the arts and dementia includes a widespread awareness that in the absence of cures, interventions that emphasise quality of life are important [1]. Despite being a small-scale project Mark Making tackled some big, existential issues. These include what we mean when we refer to ‘dementia’, what we think the ‘arts’ are and can do and what value means in the context of the arts. Of course we do not have satisfactory answers and this was never our goal. However, it was through actively participating in arts projects that we came closest to asking the right sorts of questions.


Putting aside pens and digital recorders helped me shed my own assumptions and enter the moment creatively with others there. I was too occupied attempting to singing notes in harmony or exploring John Van Ruisdael’s Waterfall to do anything other than feel the presence of other participants intuitively. In a brief period, my identity as a researcher and reliance on analytical, cognitive skills to investigate how the arts ‘work’ disappeared. I noticed that other group members, the majority of whom were living with some form of dementia, were perceptive about my feelings and could sense when I felt hesitant about singing out my name or using a shaker. On one memorable occasion, during a session of music making Edith showed me how to use the shaker. She took it from me to demonstrate and said laughingly: ‘The shaker will be your best friend.’


Due to past experiences of working with people with dementia, I knew that when I engaged attentively with individuals I was able to learn a lot about their feelings and experiences. I have also spent time educating the dementia care workforce, students including medics and nurses and the general public in an effort to dispel the prejudices that continue to cloud our collective vision about dementia. Until I worked closely with the arts projects that I was also researching, I did not suspect that I still had my own prejudices concerning what people with dementia can do.


However, by becoming part of the sessions that I attended I began to understand the creative process in way that was embodied rather than solely intellectual. Along with other participants I experienced how the arts projects provided an opportunity to become part of an alternative group that was engaged in a structured activity distinct from the everyday routines that define normal life. Thus living with dementia became a social experience (as opposed to an isolated, singular experience).


During the focus group one participant eloquently articulated his sense that he was part of a group:

‘We became a little group within ourselves. …’

In addition, the security of being part of this new group was evident, as the same respondent noted:

‘It wasn’t only me, there were other people’.

The sense of collective identity that to some extent afforded participants (and myself when I was there) a sense of camaraderie mirrors observations by other researchers that supportive social contexts can promote identity adjustment.

However, attending a public concert in the Wigmore Hall with the group of participants from Music for Thought really challenged my preconceptions. Despite my lively imagination I could not quite predict how the diverse group of individuals would experience the concert. There were practical issues including how we would physically access the concert hall with our group, some of whom walked with several canes, others who were without language but prone to making unexpected sounds and others who needed the toilet at regular intervals. The pre-concert meeting with tea proved essential. This allowed us all to gather and reconfigure ourselves as a ‘group’. I spent time with Harold who treated me as both a co-conspirator and later as his date. He called me his gal. I felt delighted as he held my arm proprietorially in the concert hall.


There was some anxiety about ensuring that everyone was able to get upstairs into the main concert hall and find their seats before the concert began. The concert was a formal event, performers were in suits and ball gowns and it consisted of a song cycle based on Goethe’s poetry set to music. To my surprise and delight the group seemed able to concentrate throughout the performance (in some cases better than myself); there was a tacit understanding about how to behave in this environment.


This event demonstrated the ability that some people with dementia have for participating in cultural events, even those living with a fairly advanced dementia. The grandeur of the setting, the emotions expressed by the performers, the vibrations of the music which could be felt physically as well as aurally, combined to create a space in which the condition dementia was less relevant than the sense of being present in the musical moment. Even if there were moments when those with dementia were not fully engaged it seemed a more appropriate activity than, for example, watching TV. This is because it was a form of living communication that was facilitated by the immediacy of the performance. In addition, the equality of simply being part of a concert-going audience was noticeable.


Concluding thoughts

Mark Making demonstrated that the participative arts groups stimulated a distinct social experience, one that was partly connected with a shared identity but that was also characterised by an ability to transcend the habitual constraints that define life with a dementia. I felt lucky to be able to learn from those people with dementia that I worked with and humbled by how much I am also hampered by judgements and assumptions. However, I am heartened by the ability of the arts to dispel stigma by uniting groups of people who are otherwise disparate in generation, gender, occupation and physical or mental health. After all, the arts rely on taking a broad, imaginative view – appreciating context and privileging feelings rather than relying on certitudes. Living with uncertainty is something we should all aspire to, as it is a fundamental part of life whether you have dementia or not.


  1. Zeilig, H., J. Killick and C. Fox (2014). “The participative arts for people living with a dementia: a critical review.” International Journal of Ageing and Later Life: 1-28.

Further Information:


Dr Hannah Zeilig

University of the Arts, London




James Poskett: Material and visual culture of conferences

9 Dec, 11 | by James Poskett

Conferences can be somewhat dry affairs. Papers delivered as long droning monologues are liable to send even the most hardened academics into a dreary stupor. The more enticing discussions can also take their toll as the days wear on, debate often returning to ancient disputes. So what better way to break up the day and keep everyone fresh than with an outing to the cinema?

At the recent Communicating Reproduction conference we were all sent to see Helga (1967). Of course, this outing wasn’t frivolous but rather an opportunity for us to engage with the substance of the conference: the history of reproduction through communication including text, images, film and sound.


Singing for the Motherland, Singing Medicine’s Cure.

4 Jun, 11 | by Ayesha Ahmad

A recent evening attending a live Greek music ensemble revealed some important characteristics about human nature; and significances for medicinal practices about the interconnectedness of our human condition with the Land on which we are born, live, love, suffer, and die.

The words of the song bore no meaning until my friend kindly whispered its translation, and then, suddenly I could understand the deep, lonely sentiments conveyed by the singer’s gaze and harmonies.

The song spoke of the distress of having to migrate from Greece during the 1960’s, forging his adoration to the land from where he was borne with the endearing reference of “Mother-land”.

For so much of medical practice, the gaze is on the life as it is now. We often, carelessly, forget that the origins of where we once were endured the beginning of our story, and carved the paths within our bodies towards both our health and our illness.


Dr Ciraj A.M. writes about ‘An Unusual Annual Day’ in an Indian Medical School

16 May, 10 | by Deborah Kirklin

This write up will share the experiences of an educational intervention with a difference.  It narrates the story from a medical school located at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. For the annual day celebrations of this school, the faculty used to host a cultural show as a mark of their love and reverence to the students. The cultural performances used to take different forms, ranging from songs, skits, dances and a lot more. On this year’s annual day, they decided to perform something unique. The movement was spearheaded by microbiologists who incidentally had many of their members involved in medical education research and cultural coordination committee.  A meeting was convened and the medium of theatre and dance was finalized to depict certain educational themes.  As usual, the process gained momentum just two days before the event. more…

Medicine, Literature, Art and Music: Royal Society of Medicine, London 1st April 2009.

18 Mar, 09 | by Deborah Kirklin

If you’re in the London region you might be interested in this symposium on medicine and the humanities. Focussing on literature, art and music it features some excellent speakers. In keeping with other RSM events, lively debate is sure to follow.

Venue: The Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, London, W1G 0AE

Speakers to include: Stephen Golding, Aileen Adams, Richard Hull and Anne Hargreaves.

Boston Medics Make Music in London: 21st -29th June 2008

16 Jun, 08 | by Deborah Kirklin

Please see below details of a musical tour of London with a medical humanities flavour. 

Details provided by Dr Lisa M. Wong, President and Violinist Longwood Symphony Orchestra. more…

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