Review #45: January First by Michael Schofield
January First is a memoir written by January’s father, Michael. The Schofield family, and Jani in particular, first came to the public awareness after being featured on the Oprah Show. Jani, at that time only 7 years old, has a rare diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia. Her parents, Michael and Susan, had made the difficult decision to keep two separate apartments (one for Jani and one for their son, Bodhi) in order to keep Bodhi safe from Jani’s violent outbursts. Jani’s story stood out in many ways, and the Oprah Special was certainly deeply jarring, especially as we saw how deeply invested Jani was in her delusional world, an island called Calalini, and hallucinations (often animals named after numbers). I remember vividly her father saying that their biggest fear is that she would retreat entirely in to her world, and become catatonic.
This memoir, however, tells the story before Oprah and before Jani’s diagnosis. Michael is telling the story of everything that happened leading up to Jani’s diagnosis, including his own thoughts and feelings during that time. I understand, from some googling, that Michael Schofield is quite a controversial person as he has admitted openly in hitting and restraining Jani on his blogs. I have to say though, that his candidness and honesty in this book is incredible, for whatever it is worth. He is open throughout the memoir that he felt that he was the only parent that could help Jani (before her diagnosis) and feeling during that time that his wife Susan, quite frankly, could not handle the situation. He is also open about his attempts to train the bad behavior out of Jani by locking her in her room, often shoving her inside because of her powerful fight against them.
Again, this is all pre-diagnosis, and after years of living with Jani’s ongoing violent outbursts with minimal help from medication. His marriage was strained, his job was compartmentalized, and he had his own history with depression. Quite frankly, I’m amazed they held it together as well as they did. Michael is also incredibly candid about his own descent into despair, as all his hopes and dreams for his genius daughter were smashed as they received no answers and things got worse. Jani was asking to be hospitalized, and also expressing ongoing suicidal ideation, at FIVE years old.
It is notable that Michael is frequently unlikeable, so don’t expect this to be a super inspirational “super-Dad overcomes all” tale. Michael often behaves in an immature way, especially early on before Jani’s symptoms get too bad when he tries to foster her genius.
The book is incredibly well-written and compelling. We all have a natural curiosity, I think, about unusual psychiatric cases, and January First shows us that Jani’s case, while unusual is not something to gawk at. Her story is unbelievably sad and the impact on her family, devastating. There is not a lot of positivity once she receives the diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia, except knowing that her family has answers after years of not knowing what was going on with their child.
Shallow note: that the cover, while soft and pretty, is somewhat of a fail as Jani has an incredible head of curly hair, but the little girl on the cover has straight hair.