Review: “Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music”

30038981“Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music” by James Rhodes

Bloomsbury USA, 304 pages (originally published in 2014 in the UK by Canongate Books)

Expected publication date: Feb. 7, 2017

ISBN: 163286696X

“My own personal ‘Goldberg Variations’ began as a 7lb baby screaming my lungs out, and my life so far has consisted of many variations – some of them delightful, some brutal, some hopeful and some soaked through with grief and anger. I lost my childhood but gained a child. I lost a marriage but gained a soulmate. I lost my way but gained a career and a fourth or fifth chance at a life that is second to none.”

If you need proof that “music heals,” look no further than “Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music.” This brutally honest memoir encapsulates concert pianist James Rhodes’ turbulent and triumphant life thus far, from a vulnerable, broken child to a still-troubled but insanely gifted musician.

Rhodes gives all the victim-shamers the middle finger (he is a pretty salty guy and he doesn’t try to hide it) with this book. He goes into just enough detail about his history of sexual abuse, promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm and mental illness without being gratuitous. As he mentions early on, he tried to avoid making this a book that anyone could get some kind of sick pleasure from reading. Anyone who does is in need of serious help. Needless to say, those who have experienced similar trauma should be aware there are plenty of triggers throughout this book.

I don’t think I have to tell you that this is not the kind of book one can breeze through in a couple of days (at least, I couldn’t). The first few chapters in particular are gut-wrenching. But woven through all the ugliness is a message of hope as Rhodes describes how classical music and the piano saved his life. His expressions of love for his son Jack (not his real name for privacy reasons) just about tore out my heart. Having had no children of my own (yet), the prospect of bringing life into this world sounds terrifying enough. Rhodes was up against so much more – he wants so badly to see that Jack is safe from the terrors he faced, and yet he feels he hasn’t been the father Jack needs because he hadn’t fully dealt with his past when Jack came along.

As Rhodes’ story unfolds, we see him shifting his focus from the baggage he’s carried to the career he builds with the help of a manager who is so much more than just a manager. He defies the stereotypes associated with classical music and calls out those in the industry who seem hellbent on destroying it. He takes to task the government’s inadequate funding of performing arts in the schools. He goes public about his struggles, even doing a BBC miniseries that takes him into a mental hospital to play classical music for patients.

And best of all, he opens up in the afterword about a legal battle that almost killed “Instrumental” thanks to a certain individual who didn’t want him to continue airing his “dirty laundry.”

“At any stage I could have given in and dropped the book, sold my flat, paid the legal fees I owed, and moved on with the promise I would never again talk about my past abuse or any aspect of my past and current mental illness. But were I to do that, then they win. Not just those behind this action. No. Those who rape. The six-foot, two-hundred-pound man who for five years pinned me down and half spat, half whispered to me that bad things will happen if I told anyone.

“Well f*** you. F***. YOU.

“I’m going to tell the world. … Because I didn’t do anything wrong. Because there are too many like me who didn’t make it and now can’t talk about it. Because it is not something to be ashamed of.”

I hope Rhodes’ story gives other abuse victims the courage and hope to stick around, to get the help they need, to pursue the dreams that their abuser(s) may have tried to snuff out – and, ultimately, to be a voice for those who are still trapped in the shadows.

I received an ARC from the publisher via a Goodreads giveaway, in exchange for an honest review.


About the author

James Rhodes is a British classical pianist.


Photo and bio courtesy Goodreads author page

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in St John’s Wood, North London, he was educated at Arnold House School, a local all-boys independent preparatory school, where he was sexually abused by a teacher.

Aged seven, Rhodes became interested in classical music and began learning the piano. He entered the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, but failed to make it past the second round.
In 1993, he was offered a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But due to mental health issues and his father’s insistence, Rhodes took a psychology degree at University College, London. On graduation, Rhodes took a job in the City of London, married, had a son and later divorced.

In 2008 he took up the piano again, and the next couple of years saw his profile go from complete unknown to rising star, attracting celebrity fans such as Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sir David Tang. Having performed in non-traditional classical venues, Rhodes built on this performance approach, and became the first core classical pianist to be signed with the world’s largest rock label Warner Bros. He also had articles published in UK newspapers The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

In 2014-2015, Rhodes’ memoir, Instrumental was the subject of a court case, in which his ex-wife attempted to place an injunction on the book, on the grounds it would cause distress to their son. The Supreme Court lifted the injunction so the memoir could be published in May 2015.

6 thoughts on “Review: “Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music”

  1. I’m the daughter of a violinist with the L.A. Philharmonic who had bipolar,. I noticed this book on Amazon when it was slated for pre-orders Amazon right away! I can’t read it yet. I’m on deadline with my publisher for my memoir about my life with bipolar, peripartum onset (postpartum bipolar) – I just wish my father was alive to see it published in October.

    In case anyone wants to learn about this rare form of bipolar, please read my article for The Huffington Post; I hope you don’t mind I included the link. Thanks for your insightful review, and take care,

    Dyane Harwood

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind at all; thanks for sharing! I will have to check out your article when I get a chance. It’s so cool and so brave of you to share your story. I’m sure your dad would be so proud of you.

      Liked by 1 person

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