Pianist James Rhodes is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults and horrific abuse as a very young child, which tragically (but unsurprisingly) had an extremely damaging effect on him.
His adult life was marred by a series of mental breakdowns, necessitating a number of admissions to psychiatric hospitals. But he is fortunate to have a great musical gift, which sustained him during his darkest moments. He is now a highly successful concert performer and best-selling author. His first book was entitled “Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music”, published by Canongate Books in 2015. It is dedicated to his son.
When Rhodes decided to write a memoir of his life, and how music had saved him, he found himself embroiled in a remarkable court case. His ex-wife, with whom he had come to an amicable settlement, was by then living in the United States with their eleven year old son, who has Asberger’s and a number of other problems.
In 2014, she started a court action on behalf of the boy to prevent publication of certain passages in the book, arguing that they posed a risk of harm to him. This was despite the accepted fact that, in practice, it was most unlikely that the boy would come across the book. It was not even due to be published in the USA. The ensuing legal battle resulted in a landmark court ruling about freedom of speech.
The mother relied on a report by a psychologist named Christine Tizzard, who opined that the boy:
is likely to suffer severe emotional distress and psychological harm in the event that he is exposed to the material in the publication.
At first, in the High Court, Mr Justice Bean ruled that:
there was no precedent for an order preventing a person from publishing their life story for fear of its causing psychiatric harm to a vulnerable person, nor should there be.
He refused the mother’s application for an injunction, and struck the case out as disclosing no viable legal claim. So the mother appealed. The Court of Appeal decided that there was no viable legal claim based either on misuse of private information, or negligence.
But, in an extraordinary decision, it ruled that there was an arguable case of intentionally causing harm, that should go to trial. It made an interim order banning Rhodes from publishing a whole series of sections in the book,
which give graphic accounts of the First defendant’s account of sexual abuse he suffered as a child; his suicidal thoughts and attempts; his history of and treatment for mental illness and incidents of self-harming; his thoughts about killing the appellant; his fears that the appellant would also be a victim of sexual abuse and linking this account to the appellant.
It also banned Rhodes from publishing any information liable to identify the boy. Lady Justice Arden said:
We take the word “graphic” to mean vividly descriptive. In judging what is vividly descriptive, we have borne in mind that the person to be protected is a vulnerable child. In these circumstances, we consider that what should be injuncted is that which we consider to be seriously liable to being understood by a child as vividly descriptive so as to be disturbing. [emphasis added]
Rhodes and his lawyers appealed this tendentious ruling to the Supreme Court.
It is true that some of Rhodes’ language in his manuscript was blunt, even coarse. As the Supreme Court went on to explain in its decision:
….the author’s life has been a shocking one. And this is because, as he explains in the first of the passages to which exception is taken, “I was used, fucked, broken, toyed with and violated from the age of six. Over and over for years and years”. In the second of those passages, he explains how he was groomed and abused by Mr Lee, the boxing coach at his first prep school, and how wrong it is to call what happened to him “abuse”:
“Abuse. What a word. Rape is better. Abuse is when you tell a traffic warden to fuck off. It isn’t abuse when a 40 year old man forces his cock inside a six-year-old boy’s ass. That doesn’t even come close to abuse. That is aggressive rape. [….]
I went, literally overnight, from a dancing, spinning, gigglingly alive kid who was enjoying the safety and adventure of a new school, to a walled-off, cement shoed, lights-out automaton. It was immediate and shocking, like happily walking down a sunny path and suddenly having a trapdoor open and dump you into a freezing cold lake.
You want to know how to rip the child out of a child? Fuck him.”
Before I get into the nitty gritty of the legal arguments, it’s worth contrasting how some other literary parents have encountered problems when writing about their private and family life, though their experiences did not result in litigation. This is a contentious area, about which there can be a variety of views and reactions.
A A Milne won international acclaim for his Christopher Robin books, which became phenomenal best-sellers. But his son was bullied at school as a consequence of this literary fame, and in adulthood became completely estranged from his parents.
In more recent times, the acclaimed novelist Julie Myerson got into hot water after she was outed as the author of a regular Guardian column called “Living with teenagers”, based on her own children. She then turned the columns, which had been anonymous, into a book. In 2009, Myerson became the subject of a major controversy after publishing The Lost Child: a True Story, describing her 17 year old son Jake’s battle with cannabis addiction.
It is a moving account of the havoc this had wrought on the family, and the distress they all experienced. Jake, an aspiring musician whom Myerson made leave the family home after he assaulted her, waded into the debate calling his mother “slightly insane”. He announced that he would change his surname. Jeremy Paxman gave Myerson a memorably hostile grilling on BBC2’s Newsnight. A number of columnists put the boot into her.
But other influential critics hailed Myerson’s courage in tacking a deeply painful and important issue. Myerson had lost her son (or so she feared) to addiction and writing about their life was a symbolic way of holding on to him. Myerson stuck to her guns and reserved the right to sell the film rights to the book, in the longer-term.
There was eventually a happy ending, after Jake kicked the weed and became reconciled with his parents. But in a Guardian column in 2017, Myerson admits that when deeply immersed in literary creation, she is “mad, distracted, terrible to live with, a solipsistic maniac who can think of nothing but the book.”
The litigation over Rhodes’ memoir is particularly unusual in that, in contrast to Milne and Myerson, what he was seeking to publish was his own childhood experience, which pre-dated his marriage and his family life with his son, and the ongoing effects of that on his life. His memoir is interspersed with chapters about key musical works which had helped him over the years.
In the second half of this post, I will look at the legal arguments as they panned out in the Supreme Court. But first, I must go cook some dinner.