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Memoirs as narratives and January First by Michael Schofield

January First by Michael Schofield Memoirs as narratives and January First by Michael Schofield

 

Although I read  January First late last year, it’s probably apt that it’s my first review for this new year. The book’s title is one of semantic multiplicity: it represents not only one family’s efforts to put their troubled daughter January (Jani)’s needs first, but also the sheer atypicality of January and her needs, as well as the many new beginnings and resolutions they experience along the way. But to be honest, a more apt title given the book’s perspective would be Michael First. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

From birth January Schofield has been developmentally unusual. Requiring almost incessant stimulation, she’s never slept regular hours, and needs to be engaged by her parents to the point of exhaustion in order to wear down what is seen initially as a sort of emotional and intellectual hyperactivity. When Jani’s IQ is found to be off the charts, her parents think that they’re on the way to understanding just why Jani is so different from other children. But her parents Susan and Michael have differing parenting approaches: where Susan encourages Jani to engage with her peers with a view to her “fitting in”, Michael encourages what he sees as Jani’s whims and eccentricities, which he sees as the product of her brilliance.

The heartbreaking denial that subsequently pervades the narrative is evident from the book’s early pages, where Michael plays along with January’s make-believe games far beyond what might be expected, positioning himself as an appointed protector, someone whose responsibility it is to shield January from a world that will never understand her gifts. January might be brilliant, but there’s something neuro-atypical about her behaviour that borders on disturbing. And with the birth of newborn Bodhi, things only get worse. January’s manic tendencies turn increasingly violent, and the subject of these violent outbursts is almost always Bodhi. Struggling to cope with January’s behaviour while caring for a newborn, Susan and Michael begin reaching out to mental healthcare professionals. They endure a marathon trek through America’s underwhelming healthcare system, being shunted back and forth from institution to institution, all the while attempting to stretch their health insurance to cover costs–and trying to deal with January’s increasingly erratic, dangerous behaviour.

January First is utterly compelling, and if ever there’s a memoir suited for “single sitting” status, this is it. And yet at the same time it’s frustrating on a number of levels: the more distance I’ve allowed to pass between reading the book and reviewing it, the more dissatisfied I’ve grown with it. And it’s not just the sometimes mind-boggling parenting style on display here: that’s not for me to judge. I think in large part it’s that this doesn’t read at all like a memoir, but rather like a novel–although given its bland writing style, one that’s highly reliant on premise. It follows the kind of narrative arc a fiction reader would anticipate, and the way in which the chapters are broken up, particularly towards the end, are almost chillingly redolent of a horror novel. There’s an unshakable sense of this book’s being less than honest, of it being a sort of memoir-style sleight of hand. Much of this is due to the way in which Schofield has positioned himself as a narrator: he’s afforded himself a sort of martyr/hero status where it’s his undying love for January against the world. As a result, his wife, his son, his father, and anyone else appearing in the narrative is portrayed either negatively or in a seriously diminished way, and I found this weird de-emphasis unsettling.

Throughout the book, Schofield speaks of how he wants January to be different, special, a genius who will be remembered by generations to come, and the way that the narrative (for it really is a narrative) plays out, I couldn’t help but feel a creeping feeling that perhaps a good deal of all of his actions–and his writing about them in this book, his blog, and so on–are his way of guiding January in this direction. There’s a scene towards the end of the book in which Schofield undertakes what I’ll euphemistically deem a “cry for help”, after which he abruptly does an about-face, casting himself in a redemptive light. There’s something about the way in which this is written that smacks of artifice, of a story being less remembered than reworked for the glory of posterity, and given this and the angle of the rest of the book, I just felt uncomfortably as though the whole thing was a bit exploitative.

January First is undoubtedly a page-turner, but it’s disquieting as much for its subject as it is for the way (and perhaps the why) in which it’s written. It’s a book you read despite Schofield’s narration, because although the topic is a fascinating one, his narcissistic tendencies and insistence that only he has the answers to helping his daughter–and indeed is the only one who cares enough to do so–may leave you feeling oddly uncomfortable.

With thanks to Hardie Grant Australia for the review copy

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4 comments

  1. What an intriguing analysis. I both want to and don’t want to read this book now. LOL The subject sounds interesting, but I wonder if I would be rather annoyed with the narration by the end of it.

    • Stephanie /

      I’m curious to see your response, too, Jami! It’s hugely compelling, but it took me a while to figure out what was creeping me out about it (hence why I took so long to write this review!)

  2. Great review Stephanie, I agree the father’s bias obviously intrudes into the narrative. I was fascinated by the both Jani’s and his pathos.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Shelleyrae! It’s certainly a fascinating, page-turning read, and it definitely gave me the heebies! For contrast I read My Life In A Pea Soup (a memoir about a daughter with autism) right after, and felt a lot less unsettled by it. I’ll review that one tomorrow. :)

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