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 (http://bit.do/instrumental). 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.