On February 8, 2002, I called my wife, Jan, by satellite phone from Kabul, where I was writing about the fall of the Taliban. It had been snowing, and as I leaned out of the window of the guesthouse where I was staying to get better reception, I felt very cold. Jan’s voice sounded thin and distant but more anxious than I had ever heard it, and I felt a sense of instant dread as I realised there had been some disaster. I could not make out the details, but I grasped that Henry, our twenty-year-old son, had nearly died when he swam Newhaven estuary fully clothed and was rescued by fishermen as he left the near-freezing water. The fishermen feared he might be suffering from hypothermia and took him to a general hospital in Brighton. The police had been called, they had decided that Henry was a danger to himself, and he was now in a mental hospital. Jan gave me the phone number, and as soon as I had finished speaking to her, I tried to call the hospital. After many failures on the satellite phone, I got through and explained who I was. A nurse said that Henry was all right, and I asked to speak to him. When he got on the phone, he said, “I’m okay, Dad,” in a weak and frightened voice that did not reassure me. I replied, with an assumed confidence I certainly did not feel, that he should not worry because everything would turn out all right in the end.
I had told Jan I would rush home as quickly as I could. Kabul was then the worst place in the world from which to leave swiftly in an emergency. The only way of getting a flight out of the city was to fly on a United Nations or foreign aid organization plane from Bagram airport, north of Kabul. But I knew these flights were infrequent and often refused to carry journalists. I had recent experience of the land routes out of Afghanistan, and all were highly dangerous. I decided the only way to get home quickly was to drive east to Islamabad in Pakistan and take a plane from there. I explained my plan to my driver, Gul Agha, who gulped a little at the thought of going through the Kabul Gorge to Jalalabad and the Pakistan border because roving bands of Taliban were still attacking travellers on the road. They had executed four journalists in a convoy that had stopped at one of their checkpoints. I told Gul that my eldest son was very ill, and he said that, if such was the case, he would simply drive over anybody who tried to stop us. In any event, the road was mostly empty. There were few other vehicles or gunmen manning checkpoints, and I thought that the bandits or Taliban fighters must have become discouraged by the cold and the lack of travellers to rob, and gone home. We reached the Khyber Pass and the Pakistani border, where officials issued me a transit visa, and leaving Gul Agha behind in Afghanistan, I took another car to Peshawar, where I spent the night. The following morning I drove to Islamabad and got a plane back to England.
There was probably something expiatory in this mad dash. As I sat in the back of Gul’s car, I wondered what I had been doing talking to Afghan warlords and drug smugglers when my own son was in such trouble. I was completely shocked and taken by surprise at what had happened to Henry. In late January, Jan had mentioned on the phone what we later realised were some warning signs, such as Henry going barefoot, being stopped by the police when he climbed up a viaduct wall, and his suspicion of mechanical objects such as clocks. At the time I did not quite know what to make of this behaviour, but I was perplexed rather than deeply worried because I suspected that eccentricity on Henry’s part had been misinterpreted. It never occurred to me that these might be dangerous signs of a mental disorder, since I knew nothing about mental illness. When I had last seen Henry at Christmas six weeks earlier in our house in Ardmore in Ireland, he had seemed to me to be his usual intelligent, charming, and humorous self.
Ever since he was a child, Henry was intensely alive and interested in everything and everybody around him. He had elfinlike good looks, with curly light brown hair, sparkling grey-green eyes, an impish smile, and great warmth. Over the years I had become used to reading reports from Henry’s teachers praising him enthusiastically for being able, original, likeable, and articulate, but often adding, with varying degrees of frustration, that he could be spectacularly ill organised, was forgetful of all rules and regulations, and did only what he wanted to do himself. This praise and criticism of Henry was consistent over the years, from infants’ school in Moscow in 1985 when he was three to his private school in Canterbury when he was eighteen. He was naturally rebellious, but his rebellion took the form of evading the rules rather than confrontation. There was a certain quirkiness in his nature. He found King’s School in Canterbury, an ancient foundation beside the cathedral, too snobbish, so, to meet more ordinary townspeople, he started to juggle coloured balls in the streets while a friend stood beside him playing the violin. From an early age, his artistic talent was apparent. His paintings and sketches were strikingly elegant and original, winning him at least one valuable prize. For all his messiness and disorganisation, he could work very hard when he had to and had no difficulty getting the right A-levels to enter art college in Brighton at the end of 2001.
Henry and I had always been very close, and as he entered the final years of his education, I was pleased that his early life appeared to have been happy and untroubled. He was invariably high-spirited and good company. In the back of my mind, I was glad his childhood had not been torpedoed by any disaster, which was what had happened at least in part to my own when I caught polio in Ireland at the age of six in 1956. After a nasty time in the hospital, I had, for several years, worn a plastic waistcoat to keep my spine straight and used a wheelchair to get around before graduating to crutches. I threw these away at the age of ten, but I have always had a severe limp, cannot run, and do not drive. As I watched Henry growing up, I felt all the closer to him because the evident happiness of his childhood seemed to compensate for the occasional misery of my own. As he grew older, I was proud of the way he got on well with my friends, mostly foreign correspondents, though they were far older than he was. Very occasionally, I worried about the lack of friction between Henry and me, thinking it might be a sign of a lack of maturity on his part that his sense of identity was not developing a hard edge. He was not emotionally tough; he was too reliant on an easy social manner and too easily cast down by small setbacks in his life or occasional rejection by other people. I wondered if he might be something of a Peter Pan, a boy whose magical charm made it difficult for him to grow up.
Just before Jan rang me in Kabul to say that Henry had almost drowned, I had been far more concerned about Henry’s thirteen-year-old brother, Alex. He was having a difficult time at King’s, where he was in his second year as the top scholar. He had always been shy and more introverted than Henry, his smile gentle rather than impish. He read more, studied harder, and in a quiet way, was highly competitive. He always did well at school and was spectacularly good at mathematics, passing exams years before he was supposed to take them. I would find pieces of paper in the house in Canterbury covered with his abstruse mathematical calculations. He had a shock of dark hair, grey eyes, and a look of studiousness emphasised by a pair of black-framed spectacles, which made him look, as a young teenager, like the film version of Harry Potter. French schoolchildren, who often came to Canterbury to see the cathedral, would point excitedly at him in the street and shout: “’Arry Pottayr! ’Arry Pottayr!” A year earlier, when Henry was at art college in Brighton, Alex had won a valuable scholarship offered by King’s, which cut his fees in half, and I had hoped this would boost his self-confidence. Unfortunately, it had exactly the opposite effect; during his first year, Alex felt that as the top scholar of his year, he was not living up to his own or others’ expectations, and this depressed him. He had many friends at his previous school, but he was not making many new ones at King’s. Some months earlier, when I was in Afghanistan covering the start of the war to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11, Jan had told me that Alex was very unhappy at school. I came back for his half term, travelling through the Hindu Kush mountains with some difficulty, but it was not clear what we could do about his distress. I said to Jan that it was unclear how to help Alex, but it was a relief that Henry’s life seemed to be coming right at his art college. When I saw Henry at Christmas, I asked him how he was enjoying being a student in Brighton, and he said: “I have never been happier in my life.”
I slept most of the way on the flight from Islamabad to England. I had prearranged a car to take me from the airport to Canterbury. Jan had lived in the ancient cathedral city for over twenty years in a little seventeenth-century house on Castle Street, opposite a park filled with lime trees that had pale green leaves. At one end of the street were the battered remains of a Norman castle which gave it its name, and looking down the street in the other direction, one could see the great tower of Canterbury Cathedral rising above the rooftops. The street itself had once been full of ordinary shops such as a watch mender and a green grocer, but at the time of my return from Kabul, a housing boom had led to almost all these being replaced by estate agencies, the windows of which were filled with depressing pictures of ugly houses at high prices.
I had disliked the house for years because it was too small for me, though Jan, Henry, and Alex just fitted into it and were happy there during the years when the boys were growing up. As they loved the house, and I spent so much of my time living in houses or apartments of my own in other countries, I never felt I could insist on selling it and buying a bigger one. This was symptomatic of Jan and my relationship: very affectionate but bearing the marks of long separations. Jan and I had lived apart for extended periods since we first met, when we were both students at Oxford in 1970. I had then gone to Belfast to write my Ph.D. at the height of the troubles, and while there, I had decided to become a journalist rather than an academic. My father, Claud, and my two elder brothers, Alexander and Andrew, were all journalists so it seemed a natural thing to do. During the following twenty-five years, I covered crises, rebellions, and wars everywhere from Haiti to Afghanistan, working first for The Financial Times and later for The Independent. I had been stationed as a correspondent in Beirut, Moscow, Baghdad, Washington, and Jerusalem, as well as living out of a suitcase for long periods in places such as Port-au-Prince, Tehran, Kabul, and Chechnya. All this while Jan stayed in academia, teaching English literature briefly at Liverpool University and then for many years at the University of Kent at Canterbury. My job was highly mobile and hers was largely stationary, though she did manage two years in Moscow and also in Washington. Ours was a marriage which seemed to work, though too many of our communications were shouted messages over decrepit and antique telephone lines from Beirut or by a satellite phone powered by a car battery from villages in northern Afghanistan. Sitting in the back of the hired car as I was driven from the airport to Canterbury that chill February evening, I wondered if having his parents living in two different countries had contributed to Henry’s breakdown.
I was not sure what this breakdown amounted to or how permanent it would be, and when I saw Jan’s slim shape outlined by the light as she stood in the doorway of her house, I felt relieved that I could learn the seriousness of what had happened to Henry. Even though on one level, I knew he had suffered a disaster and come near dying, I thought instinctively of mental illness as if it were a physical ailment, albeit a very serious one like a brain tumour, which might be dangerous but was also curable. After a quick embrace, I walked into the downstairs sitting room of Jan’s house, which was dominated by an ancient brick fireplace to one side of which was a small red sofa. We sat on it together as Jan described the sinister changes she had seen in Henry since Christmas. It was, she said, as if another personality had been invading his mind and taking him over. Only then did I get an inkling of the depth of his psychosis. As she spoke, I began to see that our son was entering a different, nightmarish world induced by a mental disorder, though I did not yet really know what this implied or whether it was permanent. Jan knew a little more about mental illness than I did because there were signs of it in her family. Her grandmother had suffered from bipolar disorder and had been in and out of mental hospitals. Jan had also received sage advice about what Henry’s symptoms might mean from her therapist, whom she had started seeing eighteen months earlier, when she was suffering from a severe depression brought on by a series of family deaths and disasters.
“It was not one single thing that Henry did which was so worrying in the days before he almost drowned at Newhaven,” explained Jan on the night of my return. “It was rather an accumulation of many small but bizarre things that he did and said.” Jan has a photographic memory, better than that of anybody I have ever known; she is able to recall pages of poetry she has read only a few times. She could remember in great detail all of Henry’s actions since I had last seen him. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was still hoping that at least some of Henry’s actions could be explained by student eccentricity or his original cast of mind, but as Jan spoke, these hopes evaporated. The first incident had happened two weeks earlier, on January 28, when Henry had been arrested by the police and spent some hours in a cell. Passersby had seen him, barefoot and dishevelled, climbing the dangerously high wall of a railway viaduct and reported him as a potential suicide. He stoutly denied to the police that he was trying to kill himself, claiming that he had climbed the viaduct to get a better view of Brighton. Henry, as we were to find over the coming years, could often sound convincing when explaining his most bizarre behaviour, and the police had let him go.
Henry’s explanation of the viaduct incident might have been true, but Jan was worried enough to go to see him for lunch in Brighton the next weekend, taking Alex with her. The two brothers had always got on very well. The plan was that Alex would stay the night in Henry’s room, which was in an apartment he shared with other art students in the Phoenix hall of residence in Brighton. The visit rapidly turned into a disaster. Jan and Alex drove down from Canterbury, arriving at the Phoenix at one P.M. on Saturday, expecting to meet Henry and go out to lunch. He was not there, though the door of his room was open, so they went in. The place was an appalling mess even by adolescent standards, with empty coffee cups, discarded takeaway meals, and dirty clothes all over the floor. On a table was a new-looking Indian book on teaching oneself meditation. A large cartoon-cum-doodle daubed on the wall looked half-finished, as if inspiration had run out before it was completed. Henry’s mobile phone was lying on a desk, but it had been taken apart. Alex pointed out to Jan that Henry had taken the SIM card out so as to make absolutely sure it did not work. Jan noticed a strange object hanging out of the window: It turned out to be a plastic bucket full of rubbish attached by a string. Jan and Alex waited for three and a half hours in a state of increasing anger, but there was no sign of Henry. Jan was phoning the police to report him as a missing person when he finally turned up. He said unapologetically that he was so late because he had been “lost in town,” though this seemed strange, as he had been living in Brighton since the previous October.
“Why did you ask Alex and me to lunch and then stand us up?” asked Jan, who was relieved to see him but at the same time furious.
“I’ll make you lunch right now,” Henry replied.
Jan told him they’d had a snack while they waited, and a shouting match followed. She saw that this was upsetting Alex, who was in a fragile emotional mood because of his troubles at school, and she decided it was best to calm down and agree that Henry should make lunch. He made an elaborate meal of Chinese dumplings and fish, though by now neither Jan nor Alex wanted anything to eat. As he prepared the food, Henry explained that he had become an almost total ascetic: He no longer ate meat, drank alcohol, or smoked cigarettes or cannabis. He said he felt the better for this self-denial because “I’m not polluting my body anymore.”
The original plan had been for Alex to spend the night in Henry’s room, while Jan would stay with friends about twenty miles away. She was nervous about going ahead with this because Henry was acting so strangely, but she finally agreed to it. Surprisingly, it went well; Henry and Alex got on fine together. The next day she came back, and all three of them went out to lunch at Henry’s favourite café. Going there, Henry insisted on walking on the other side of the street from Jan and Alex. In the café, Henry could scarcely stop talking, mostly about eco-lifestyles.
“Everybody should live only in the daylight, get up at dawn, and go to bed at dusk. We should not get our orders from clocks.”
“Do you really think clocks tell us what to do, Henry?” asked Alex, who always had a highly rational mind.
Alex pointed to Jan’s wristwatch. “But this is an inanimate object. It cannot give orders.”
Henry looked at them mulishly, drawing his eyebrows together, as if his mother and brother were in a conspiracy not to understand him. The visit ended amicably enough, but the following day Jan told her therapist about how Henry had behaved. The therapist was alarmed and said that to her it sounded like he was heading for a psychotic breakdown: “He needs to see a psychiatrist as soon as possible and be put on medication.” But even after the weekend, Jan could not quite take in what was happening. No more did I. She had told me on the satellite phone to Afghanistan that Henry was walking around barefoot in the middle of the English winter. I replied, “But that’s crazy.” I meant that his behaviour was weird and irrational, not that I thought he was showing the symptoms of a general mental breakdown.
Henry’s final decline was very swift. When Jan had let Alex stay overnight with Henry in his room, she had insisted that he reassemble his mobile phone so she could make contact with him. But as soon as she and Alex had gone back to Canterbury on Sunday afternoon, Henry dismantled it again as part of his general suspicion of all things mechanical and electronic. Over the next few days Jan called him again and again on the landline at the Phoenix hall, but failed to reach him or anybody else. Close to panic, she called Brighton University to find out whether they knew where he was. As if the strain of coping with her son’s disappearance were not great enough, Jan found herself the victim of an infuriating official secretiveness masked by a pretended concern for the rights of the ordinary citizen. Asked about Henry, officials at Brighton University said they could not tell Jan anything because of the Data Protection Act. This was a law brought in in 1998 to protect an individual’s privacy by banning an official body from disclosing information without his or her consent. The law was notoriously misused by many branches of government—such as police, hospitals, and universities—to refuse to dispense any information about anybody at any time.
In Henry’s case, Brighton University was refusing to say what had happened to him until they had his permission to do so. In the interim, Jan went through an agonising time, since she knew the officials would be citing the act only if something were very wrong with Henry, but she did not know what it was. Only on Friday morning, Henry having given his permission, did the university call Jan to say that he was in the Priory Hospital in Hove, a twin town to Brighton, and had been there since Thursday evening. Aghast at hearing that her son had almost died and was being held in a mental hospital, she called the Priory and was able to speak to Henry. He sounded remote and subdued. Asked if he wanted anything, he would say only that he would like some nuts, but, he added, there must be no raisins with them. An hour later, I called from Kabul, and Jan told me what had happened.
It was not possible for Jan to go immediately to Brighton, about 120 miles or a two-hour drive from Canterbury. She had to cancel a lecture she was due to give on women’s poetry at Birkbeck College in London, to the voluble dismay of the organiser. There was also Alex to be considered. Jan decided to go to the Priory the next morning, Saturday, after Alex had gone to school at King’s. She brought a basket full of things for Henry, including the nuts—pistachios and hazelnuts—that he had asked for. She also brought him some wild-flowers she had picked in a wood near Canterbury where they flowered early. There were primroses, purple violets, and bright yellow celandines, all wrapped in damp moss to keep them fresh. Jan had lunch with some friends in Brighton to fortify herself for her visit to the Priory, a private group of hospitals specialising in mental health care, where visiting hours started at two P.M. The friends suggested that Henry would need toiletries, such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, a facecloth, shower gel, and deodorant. He had grown a beard, so there was no need for a razor. Jan also brought a book, because like me, she read books all the time and felt that being shut up with nothing to read would be a nightmare for Henry, worse even than not having a toothbrush. In the past, he had never read as much as Jan, Alex, or me, but he liked to read occasionally, and when he did so, it was never trash. For instance, if he read a detective story, it would be Raymond Chandler, not Agatha Christie, and this may explain why he had always written fluently. Jan was not sure if he would like a novel, but he had liked poetry in the past, so she found for him an anthology called 101 Happy Poems by Wendy Cope.
Henry was pleased to see Jan but did not want to speak much. His reception of the presents Jan brought threw into relief his likes and dislikes in the wake of his breakdown. He hungrily ate the nuts he had asked for but was completely uninterested in the spring flowers and the toiletries. His illness would come to be associated with mess, not just untidiness but an attraction to detritus, to smelly alleyways and heaps of garbage. Jan’s touching gift of spring flowers was added to a small heap of refuse, consisting mostly of old orange peel and crisps packets, which Henry had already placed on the floor of his neat room. He did not want anybody to touch the pile, to which he added Jan’s carefully gathered flowers, so they soon withered. The book interested him more, and he looked pleased to have gotten it, though he did not actually read any poems. Henry said very little to Jan during that first visit, which went on for about three hours. But he did have one unexpected request which surprised her. It was for her to sing to him a protest hymn by James Russell Lowell, the nineteenth-century New England poet, critic, and anti-slavery advocate, called “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Henry had heard it many times in the past because, although Jan was not religious herself, her father was an Anglican clergyman, and hymn singing was very much part of her background. Thanks to her excellent memory, she recalled the words of these hymns, and when Henry and Alex were too young for storybooks, she would sing the hymns as lullabies. On one long, boring drive back from Ireland a year earlier, Henry had asked Jan to sing the hymn again. Now in the hospital, he asked her to sing the hymn “that you sang when we were coming back from Ireland.” Jan sang it to him, and he asked her to sing it again and again until she had done so five times. Two of its verses go:
Once to every man and nation,
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side.
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight.
And the choice goes by for ever
’Twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble
While we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit.
And ’tis prosperous to be just.
Then it is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.
Why did Henry, who never showed any sign of being religious, find the hymn so appealing at this dire moment in his life? Probably because it reminded him of a happy childhood. But perhaps he wanted to hear it so many times because it speaks of a “new Messiah,” and he felt he had been given a special message, though he did not really know what this was. Above all, Lowell’s fine hymn has as its theme the choice of good over evil and of standing up against the forces of darkness. Its words chime in with Henry’s feeling that the voices he heard and the visions he had seen—but was only beginning to speak about to other people—were not delusions or hallucinations but real and revelatory. Far from going mad or being mentally ill, he was entering a brave, new, and magical world.
© 2011 Patrick Cockburn