Before Honey Boo-Boo, There Was January Schofield

Should the father of a little girl with schizophrenia be telling her story?

When I first wrote about now 10-year-old January Schofield, the little girl had been recently diagnosed with schizophrenia and was on heavy-duty psychiatric medications. Her father, Michael Schofield, was blogging about his experience raising a child with a severe mental illness, and his writing was controversial, to say the least. There are valid questions to be asked about such an unusual early diagnosis: How do we know at that age if hallucinations aren’t simply the product of a very creative brain? How do we distinguish between a difficult child and a seriously ill child? How do antipsychotic medications shape a developing brain?

I was most concerned, though, by her father’s control of her story. He was able to construct January (nicknamed Janni, then Jani) as a character on the blog and define the course of her illness through his eyes. It’s not a problem now, when she’s little. But one day, this brilliant child may not want to be known as the face of childhood schizophrenia. It’s a Honey Boo-Boo situation, but with a medical twist.

Too late to worry about that now, it appears. Michael Schofield has just published a book: January First: A Child’s Descent Into Madness and a Father’s Struggle to Save Her. The resulting media coverage has been unenlightened and depressing.

Here’s the New York Post headline about the book: “Her world is illusion. Voices tell her to kill. She is schizophrenic. Her family is terrified. She is 9 years old.”

Here’s a passage quoted in a Fox News article:

“My mind shifts to what life is like for schizophrenics, and it terrifies me,” Schofield wrote in the book. “(She) will probably never be able to go to school, let alone college. She’ll never have a boyfriend or get married. … I look down at Bodhi. He will never have a normal big sister.”

This is an excerpt quoted in a different publication:

There is no cure for schizophrenia. Janni will have it for the rest of her life. I don’t mourn for shattered dreams of Harvard or Yale or for the Nobel Prize. I mourn for Janni never being the big sister to Bodhi that we all wanted her to be. And I mourn for Janni herself.

This is all ridiculous and overwrought. There are plenty of people who have been diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia who go to school, go to college, and get married. And as Schofield surely knows, the most famous American with schizophrenia, John Nash, did win a Nobel Prize.

Such passages, I imagine, come early in the book. I’m hoping he’s beyond all that self-pitying crap about shattered dreams by now. There’s every reason to believe that if anyone can succeed despite an illness, it’s January. We’re talking about the daughter of healthcare-savvy, devoted parents. She’s part of a public narrative that almost guarantees she will matter to people beyond her family circle. Compared to most people diagnosed with schizophrenia in the U.S., she is at a distinct advantage.

But the media coverage of the book promotes the notion that Schofield imagines his daughter’s future as a black hole of padded rooms, which makes the average reader see the diagnosis as a death sentence. In fact, long-term studies that have followed patients after release from psychiatric inpatient facilities show a different picture, with recovery rates ranging from 34 percent to 60 percent. Granted, 100 percent would be better, but the reality is, recovery is possible. Shifts in the mental health-care system—called the transformation—substantiate this new reality.

The best thing a parent of a child with a mental illness can do is to hold onto the hope the child no longer has, to insist that their child will be part of the 34 percent. That’s what my parents did: They were relentlessly insistent that I could get well. If they had conversations privately about how I’d never finish my PhD, never be a good sister, never get married, that’s something only they know—because neither of them chose to write a book about my illness. That way, when I wanted to tell my story, I told it msyelf.

  • adoss2012

    I finished reading the book January First this morning. While I felt bad for January, I had a very strong negative feeling about her father. He appeared in the book to be a matyr, someone who’s only desire to care for his daughter was, to me, creepy. He seemed obsessed with her and while I am a mother of four and a grandmother of six, I understand the totality of feelings that surface when one of your kids needs you. I get it, and I have one special needs son and two special needs grandsons. But, the fact still remains, to me, January’s father comes off as the person you don’t want your kids to be around. While some parts of the book were okay, I don’t recommend it. January has an uphill battle, and I wish the family the victories in the little things. One day at a time. Godspeed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stella.marshall.58 Stella Marshall

    I am suspicious as well – the parents seemed too keen on interpreting things in this light. As a schizophrenic myself, a lot of things sounded more like someone’s idea of what that would be rather than the reality. Also noted that when one of the hospitals wanted her left alone by parents they insisted on visiting every day to make her shower (saying she wouldn’t do it otherwise, seeing this as evidence of negative symptoms whereas most parents of a young child would simply see that as normal behaviour) and not supporting the hospital. There’s a video on youtube of them taking her in for an “emergency” psych appointment saying she was suicidal, which doesn’t seem to show anything other than a normal child playing along with mommy’s neurosis.

  • jahacopo2221

    If she were a ‘typical’ schizophrenic (one diagnosed in adolescence or early adulthood) you could have a valid point. But she’s an early childhood onset schizophrenic, diagnosed with ‘extreme childhood schizophrenia’ by the folks at UCLA. From everything I’ve read, childhood schizophrenia is 20 to 30 times worse than ‘typical’ schizophrenia. Her doctor estimates that she is hallucinating 95 percent of the time that she is awake. Can you understand now why her parents believe she won’t achieve those milestones? They, and the doctors, have no idea if puberty will exacerbate her already severe symptoms. Her story is a fascinating case study.