Even though I was diagnosed in 2015, I am still learning about myself and my brain illness, schizoaffective disorder. Schizophrenia books like Ben Behind His Voices and The Center Cannot Hold help me understand my symptoms. That’s why I picked up January First by Michael Schofield a few weeks ago at Barnes & Noble. I was drawn to the story of a child with child-onset schizophrenia because I had my first hallucination around ten years old. My partner cautioned me against the purchase because he told me it got terrible reviews, but I decided to buy it because of the positive review of Elyn R. Saks on the back of the book.
Riveting and compelling…
said Saks. She is my hero, so I took her word for it. This review is not spoiler free, although I did leave out the incident at the end of the book.
January First Book Review – 2 out 5 stars
Michael Schofield – Author, narrator, and father of Jani.
Jani Schofield – Daughter, 4 years old when the book begins.
Susan Schofield – Mother and wife to Michael.
Bodhi Schofield – Son of Michael and Susan. Brother to Jani.
January First is a memoir written by a father with a child who is eventually diagnosed with child-onset schizophrenia. The purpose of the memoir was to bring the reader into the terrifying and confusing journey of a father who is trying to get his daughter help because she is emotionally disturbed and violent. Schofield succeeded at this, and he did so eloquently. No doubt he’s a good writer. This reason is why I gave the book two stars instead of one. However, the story was unfortunately filled with stigmatizing statements, misinformation, and what seems to be straight up lies.
Schizophrenia And IQ
In the first lines of January First, the author mentions that his daughter Jani (January), is a genius. If I had known at that moment that the author would basically mention her IQ at least once a chapter, I don’t think I would have kept reading. What began as a necessary part of the story to explain the author trying to make sense of Jani’s behavior grew into an insufferable amount of bragging.
The book opens with a series of scenes that portray Jani’s troubling behavior. She is violent, misbehaves, and does not make much effort to interact with people in the real world as her hallucinations hold her attention. She exhibits antisocial behavior and engages in stimming. Schofield believes Jani’s misbehavior is the result of her 146 IQ. Essentially, he lets her misbehave because she is highly intelligent. He believes the disconnect between her body and mind is causing her to misbehave. She is 4 years old but according to a therapist, “mentally, she’s between the age of ten and eleven.”
On top of this, Schofield’s distaste for his wife is clear immediately. It made me uncomfortable to read. I understand that Jani’s behavior was hard on their marriage, but Schofield’s attitude is one of him and Jani against the world. And I get that. I do. Jani cannot connect with other children because they don’t interact with her hallucinations. Schofield is the only one who even attempts to interact with her hallucinations. So I get that Schofield felt alone, and I understand that Jani’s behavior was hard on their marriage, but the disrespect toward his wife doesn’t end. It is continuous and not an isolated incident.
I liked that Schofield interacted with Jani’s hallucinations because he was trying to be a good father. Now, was this the right thing to do? I don’t know. In the past, when people have attempted to interact with my hallucinations, it has made my hallucinations angry. Schofield didn’t know Jani was hallucinating, though. He did the best he could with the information that he had. I admired his effort to reach his daughter in her imaginary world. But because only he tries to interact with Jani’s imaginary world, he appears to look down on everyone else because they do not understand.
Jani’s parents’ come up with a solution to her not being able to connect with other children her age. Somehow find the supposedly small number of people in the world who will be as smart as her… as if she can’t be expected to interact with people below her IQ level. It was jarring to read their conversation,
‘Jani’s IQ is higher than 99.9% of the world. That means out of six billion people, Janni is smarter than all but six million of them!’
‘They could be anywhere in the world! Do you know what the odds are of finding them?’
It was like they are trying to find this elite group of geniuses that Jani must belong to. It was ridiculous to read, especially because people with schizophrenia do not have a higher IQ than the rest of the population. Schofield doesn’t try to make his daughter be nice or teach her manners because he thinks her high IQ makes her exempt from having common decency.
You’d think that because Schofield has a daughter with schizophrenia, he’d do research about the illness and choose his words carefully. At least have some sense of sensitivity. However, when the possibility of Jani having schizophrenia first comes up, he says,
Schizophrenia is the worst illness known to mankind. Schizophrenics are those people raving to themselves on street corners.
The worst illness known to mankind? Not only is that subjective, but it’s also not true. HIV? Cancer? Radium poisoning? Experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia can be devastating, but I am able-bodied, and my privileges shouldn’t be taken for granted. Neither should Jani’s. Sure, when I was first diagnosed with symptoms of schizophrenia, I had similar thoughts to Schofield. I thought my diagnosis meant I was inherently violent even though I never had been. However, Schofield never remedies his initial and incorrect perceptions of the disease. I kept waiting for a moment when he would say something like, “Schizophrenia is much different than in books and movies. It is not the worst illness, just one of the most misunderstood.”
…Anything along those lines would have worked, and I kept reading, hoping for him to redeem himself, but things only got worse.
One of the technicians at the psychiatric ward had tattoos, and Schofield writes that “she looks like she just got out of prison, but she is nice.” He writes this after he’s judged the psychiatric patients on the ward with blank expressions (this is called the flat affect, but he never clarifies because he apparently did zero research for this book).
He doesn’t want Jani near these troubled adults, which makes sense, but he judges them so harshly when he himself was in a psych ward as a teenager:
I don’t want Jani exposed to these people… What really bothers me is the blank expressions on their faces…I don’t want Janni to start thinking they are what her future will be. Jani is brilliant.
It might seem like a small detail but taken in conjunction with the other statements in January First, it’s clear that the purpose of the book was neither to educate nor destigmatize mental and physical brain illnesses.
Misinformation And Deception
In chapter eight, Schofield writes about a memory in which he bites Jani’s tablet of Risperdal in half. Half of the pill dissolves in his mouth by accident. He gives Jani her half, and she continues to run around the park, while he begins to feel “hundreds of pounds heavier” with “an intense urge to just lie down and go to sleep.”
This can’t possibly be the Risperdal. It’s a kid’s dosage and I’m five times her weight, but Jani took the same dose and she’s fine.
The point of this scene is to explain how wildly unique Jani is, and that a medication which almost put her father to sleep had no effect on her. The problem is, I’ve taken Risperdal before. And an adult’s dose, not a child’s dose. It started to give me lock jaw, but it didn’t put me to sleep. Medications work differently for each person, and while Risperdal could have made Schofield drowsy because that is a side effect, Schofield doesn’t ever clarify that medications work differently for each person.
He only hammers home the point that his daughter is SO different and special because the medication didn’t make her drowsy. He never mentioned in that chapter that he’s also taking Lexapro (something I found out later in the book), which could have led to this reaction. It’s deceptive and annoying. Jani is unique enough. Schofield doesn’t need to exaggerate to prove that.
Furthermore, Schofield uses Jani’s illness against her at one point. He tried to convince her an earthquake happened when it did not. It was shocking to see him gaslight his own daughter. He writes,
If Jani’s grasp on reality was basically gone, maybe I could make her believe something that didn’t happen.
Being gaslighted is one of my worst fears. This part actually upset me the most.
Then, Jani tries a medication that makes her heart rate speed up. Schofield puts his hand on her chest and writes,
From the moment it first begins to beat, the heart has an internal clock. Genetics has programmed a certain number of beats, and when that number is up, the heart will stop. The faster it goes, the closer to the end we get.
Okay… this is a straight up lie. Was this book never edited? Why was this line never caught by an editor? The concept that our hearts have only a certain number of beats is a myth. Neither Schofield nor his editor could be bothered to conduct a simple Google search? That’s just lazy writing.
Was January First Worth The Read?
Throughout January First, it felt like Michael treated his daughter like an ethereal being. He was at once in awe of her and terrified of her. The concept of schizophrenia making anyone a genius, a healer, a violent criminal, and the like is common in the media. I thought Schofield would work to debunk that, but he only added to the noise, and I was deeply disappointed.
All in all, January First did touch on topics I appreciated, such as how cruel insurance companies can be, and how the eradication of state hospitals has been detrimental to the mental illness community. I related to Schofield’s feeling that the doctors wouldn’t listen until it was almost too late. Almost like you have to PROVE how sick you are to get any help.
I also did hear about the allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence, but from what I could find, there are no actual charges. I can’t say whether these accusations are true or not, so it’s not my place to comment. The focus of this (long and angry) review is the book itself. I also have problems with Susan Schofield and the way she treats the mentally ill like test subjects, including her children. But again, the focus of this review is on January First.
Overall, I appreciated the parent perspective. I grew up with a brain illness that wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was 20. When looking back, all I ever thought about was my anger and my frustration. January First helped me understand how hard it must have been for my parents, too. It was worth the read for that, but it was still an intensely irritating book. Schizophrenia books should educate and destigmatize. January First did the opposite of that.
About The Author:
August Blair is the blogger behind Writers With Mental Illness. She is a freelance writer and student. She is passionate about writing and psychology. She studies at The University of North Georgia. You can find her writing online and in print. Connect with her on Instagram and Goodreads.