I was used fucked, broken, toyed with and violated from the age of six. Over and over for years and years. And here’s how it happened.
So begins an autobiography, a love story about music and a son, and a polemic about the classical music industry. It’s so viscerally, and at times, brutally honest in confronting abhorrent facts, that I struggled to read parts of it, even though I’ve read and heard many painful stories of abuse. James Rhodes’ Instrumental nearly didn’t make it to our shelves, as his ex-wife sought to protect their son from it’s raw details with an injunction. It doesn’t surprise me that Rhodes successfully overturned the Court of Appeal though – he has an indomitable life force best experienced on hearing his awesome piano playing. However, the paradox remains that he has spent years coping with his anguish with various forms of self-annihilation. ‘Sadly I’m only ever two bad weeks away from a locked ward.’
Rhodes throws us in the deep and dark end. His story begins with him aged five, beautiful and shy and at a prep school in a well-heeled area of North London. He becomes a favourite of Mr Lee, the gym teacher, who grooms him and repeatedly rapes him until he leaves that school aged ten, a shadow of his former carefree self. ‘You want to know how to rip all the child out of a child? Fuck him’. Rhodes is unsparing in his language throughout, and at no point does it feel unnecessary to use the words he does. Seemingly only one other teacher suspects something when she finds tiny Rhodes in tears with blood running down his legs (or at least is the only one who has gone on the record since), but her alarm is dismissed by colleagues. And appallingly, years later, no alarm is raised by medical staff when Rhodes has the first of three operations on his spine – shattered by the rapes.
Rhodes copes in the best way humans can – becoming the ‘automaton version’ of himself, riddled with shame (‘Shame is the legacy of all abuse. It is the one thing guaranteed to keep us in the dark, and it is the one thing vital to understand if you want to get why abuse victims are so fucked up)’, tics and behavioural rituals, auditory and visual hallucinations, promiscuity, and a year of drink and drugs. He doesn’t dwell much on these, clearly desperate to focus on his path to far better health, and to avoid being defined by his suffering. Denial it may be, but the book is set out to be far more than a lived-experience one.
Rhodes’ self-awareness is acute throughout, perhaps as a result of all the psychological work he has done, but it allows for excruciating insight into the psychic realms he has been to. This is particularly so when later on in adulthood, with few details spared, he turns to the temporary high of self-harm. We get to learn, very close up, how he needs to feel, although clearly terrified at this stage, to approach what really needs to be felt. Another saviour is his all encompassing love for his son Jack, whose very presence in his mind pulls Rhodes away from suicide more than once. Unsurprisingly though, Jack approaching five years old triggers James into another period of disintegration and hospitalisation.
Rhodes refers to early experiences of dissociation, which began as a tiny child in the gym: ‘So I leave my body, floating out of it and up to the ceiling where I watch myself until it becomes too much even from there, and then I fly out the room, straight through the closed doors and off to safety It was an inexplicably brilliant feeling’. He alludes to continuing lapses in concentration and ‘loss of time’ states (although never when having to learn thousands of notes for his piano recitals), but again, he doesn’t linger on these much and those around him know this of him.
He refers to a number of diagnoses he’s received throughout the years – including PTSD, autism, ADHD and ‘…dissociative identity disorder, where I have a number (thirteen if you are curious) of ‘alters’ who, depending on the situation, take turns to run the show…..all share one common goal – to survive no matter what. We don’t hear more about how it is to live with these alters – I quote the only reference in the book – nor indeed much detail about his therapeutic care and treatments, apart from a miserable episode on medications following his first breakdown and a brilliant psychiatrist he meets in later years.
We repeatedly experience a see-sawing between explicit descriptions of despair and anguish and a steely will to become the best person he can be, which involves self-recrimination. He powerfully conveys the tormenting nature of his mind that can dismantle and scramble good things said and done to him, leaving him powerless to trust in another, yet simultaneously he kicks himself for self-indulgence and selfishness and for wrecking his first marriage, and other relationships. And he always returns to music, which held his hand tightly throughout the years of hell, and organises his mind in a way other people can struggle to. People can always let him down, Bach won’t. Rhodes’ stated ways of coping show us how brilliantly resourceful human beings can be, even if we may interpret them as defences.
It’s at a recovery centre in Phoenix that Rhodes experiences a crucial turning point in his recovery. There, reluctantly at first, he begins to confront his past and turn toward some terrifying feelings. He struggles with being vulnerable and this leaks out in his slightly dismissive (yet also respectful) explanation of some therapeutic exercises he eventually engages in. Later on, he describes the next leap in his recovery when his manager and dear friend gives him two books – Waking the Tiger and Homecoming. Rhodes is explicit in his embarrassment at being helped by these books (viewing self-help books as toe-curling), but also honest in describing how much they help him to make further sense of his past, and to integrate it in his present. One thing he learns is how the body stores trauma which needs attending to: ‘The most helpful thing I learned was to experience painful, shameful feelings but to drop any kind of storyline attached to them…..I would just see where in the body they were gathered (invariably in the heart or stomach), watch them, experience the pain, sit with it. And I promise you when you do that, all starts to heal’.
Ultimately, Rhodes is far keener to emphasise the healing power of music above any other intervention he’s had, along with the loyalty and love of certain people. A talented pianist as a child, he picked it up again properly in his mid 20s after a brief money-making career in the City and a decade away from a piano. Music has saved him more than once and I’d urge you to hear him play to understand how. He describes in fascinating detail how certain composers grabbed him and took him to pleasure over pain – the Bach-Busoni Chaconne as a very young child and much later, the Bach-Marcello Adagio which is smuggled into him on a locked ward by a very wise friend. Other powerful pieces accompany the book as a playlist that Rhodes put on Spotify for us – including Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2, Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, Op 49.
Each piece links to a chapter, boosting the impact of the writing, if that were at all possible. Rhodes also gives us a potted biography of each great composer – he clearly empathises with their difficult lives and ruptured relationships and wants us to contextualise their creations. In the same way I think he wants us to focus more on his piano playing with an awareness of his past – rather than focusing on him as a survivor of abuse who is a talented pianist…’if living life is the equivalent of running a marathon, then sexual abuse in childhood has the net effect of removing one of your legs and adding a backpack of bricks on the starting line’.