Published: 02/06/2014
eISBN: 9780956097521
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David's Box
The Journals and Letters of a Young Man Diagnosed as Schizophrenic, 1960-1971
by Richard S. Hallam and Michael P. Bender

This book is based on a unique and important set of documents. It contains detailed excerpts from the diaries, letters and records of a young man who, in his mid teens, was diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’. This man, whom we shall call David, recorded details of his life on a near daily basis from 1964 until his death some seven years later.

Most personal accounts of mental illness are written long after the breakdown but David’s diaries contain fresh observations written within hours or days of the events he describes. The set of documents includes the letters David receives, and copies of the letters he writes to others. There are also his school reports.

David is sometimes outraged by his treatment, especially by the effects of psychiatric drugs on his mental faculties, and also by the stigma he encounters in the periods between admissions. He has his own reasons for keeping his diaries but they are clearly not meant for publication. Consequently, the narrative of his life, which is certainly there to be found, has to be revealed through an editing process.

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Book Review
Authors: Richard Hallam and Michael Bender
Title: David’s Box
Publisher: Polpresa Press
Date: 2011
ISBN: 978 0 9560975 1 4
Price: £15.99
Pages: 264

The book is part diary, part psychological analysis and part historical criticism, forming a unique memoir-textbook of madness in the 1960’s and 70’s. Richard Hallam and Michael Bender were given the material that forms large parts of this book by David’s brother, long after David’s death. What they have created with this large volume of letters, diary entries and notes, through sensitive interweaving of viewpoints and factual linkage, is a highly moving recreation of David’s late adolescence and early adulthood prior to his death through to his suicide in 1971. The book also contains some speculative work as an appendix exploring how things have, and have not, changed in terms of mental health care, formulations of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, medication and attitudes in the intervening 30-40 years.
Indeed what struck me upon reading the book was the sheer number of instances where I could recognise the wards my students describe now, the nursing and medical staff, the hit-and-miss trials of different medications, the problems facing individuals post-illness who try to rebuild their lives and gain employment only to be faced with a barrage of medical, social and economic barriers to this. Conversely, David’s story stands as unique, emphasising the need to listen carefully to each person’s own narrative, their own words, how they formulate and comprehend their own challenges, thoughts and triumphs. As Hallam and Bender write:
‘We do not know the effect of David’s death on his family and acquaintances’ – David’s story stops with his death in this instance – ‘But we, the readers of his journals, were clearly in his mind. Somehow, he expected us to respond to his predicament ad to his unanswered questions. Forty years on, his diaries and letters, especially his account of his last few months, still have the mower to shock and dismay. As his editors, poring over the diaries many times, we feel that he wants us to look him in the eye and say what we think’ (p. 207). This is a sense surely shared by those who read this book and experience, however vicariously, David’s world.
This fascinating book is of great contemporary clinical relevance, and should be compulsory reading for student nurses and practising clinicians alike.

Charley Baker, Lecturer in Mental Health, University of Nottingham

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