Life Stories #96: James Rhodes

Life Stories: James Rhodes

In the early months of 2017, I met the British concert pianist James Rhodes, who had come to the United States to discuss Instrumental, “a memoir of madness, medication, and music” as the subtitle puts it. Rhodes has a fascinating personal story: He’d played the piano some in his adolescence, then gave it up for a career in financial publishing. When he was twenty-eight, he decided that if he couldn’t be a musician, he’d be an agent for musicians, and reached out to one of the best agents around, who agreed to take him on as an apprentice.

But then they met, and the agent, having asked Rhodes about his interest in music then inviting him to play his own piano, realized that Rhodes was meant to be a musician. And so he went into training—but, in upending his entire life like this, Rhodes was forced to confront his memories of being repeatedly raped by one of his teachers as a child:

“Look, the childhood stuff was always there. I’d never dealt with it, and the one thing I realize now is… you just can’t run away from this stuff. You can’t go through that amount of trauma as a kid and just pretend everything’s fine and push it down and get what seems to be a normal job, have a normal relationship, and pretend everything’s okay.

It just—it doesn’t work. It comes out sideways, and… Because I never did any of the work around it and looked at it in detail, I ended up in real trouble, real quick… Several suicide attempts, nine months in various locked wards, and it was… it was really tough. It almost killed me.

But I got out the other side. And it took some time, but, again, thank God for music, because when I did get out, I had a piano. And the piano doesn’t talk back, and the piano doesn’t have bad side effects, and it doesn’t mess with your head too much, and it kind of kept me on an evenish keel.”

Instrumental is a powerful memoir of surviving sexual trauma and coping with mental illness, but it’s also a work of fierce advocacy for the power of music—Rhodes hates the term “classical music”—to make a difference in our lives. And so our frank and uncensored conversation takes on everything from what’s wrong with today’s classical music scene to the consequences of living in a society that makes an admitted serial sexual assaulter its political leader to the legal battle that threatened to keep this book from ever getting published.

Listen to Life Stories #96: James Rhodes (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (If you’re already an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)

photo: Dave Brown

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18 November 2017 | life stories |

Life Stories #95: Lauren Collins

Life Stories: Lauren Collins

Back in 2016, I had a fantastic conversation with Lauren Collins, a staff writer with The New Yorker who had just published When in French: Love in a Second Language, which is simultaneously a personal story about how Collins fell in love with a French man without really knowing the language—he spoke perfect English, sure, but there was still a significant aspect of his life, his personality, his identity that was closed off to her until she could become fluent—and a broader account of how language helps shape the way we see the world, and how we work to maintain control over that power. (In particular, I’m thinking about how the French government has an académie whose job it is to maintain the purity of the language, coming up with alternatives to pesky English words that threaten to slide into usage.)

How, I wondered, had Collins decided to combine her personal narrative with the reportage and research? “I had never really dabbled in memoir,” she explained…

“I mean, I’m a huge reader of memoir; I’ve always loved it. I’m a huge admirer and student of the genre, but I had just had drilled into my skull at The New Yorker you don’t write I. And if you do, you’d better really earn every single one of those.

So it wasn’t my natural inclination to write something personal. That said, here I am in my personal life, just becoming totally obsessed by and immersed in French—and I’m eating and drinking and breathing and reading and sleeping and… not yet dreaming, but I’m totally into French, and I think as a writer, any time, you know, no matter how much you might think the spheres are going to remain separate…

I mean, I thought, you know, this has nothing to do with my work, this is something I’m doing for love… But once something grabs hold of your mind like that, I think as a writer it just inevitably spills over into what you’re doing professionally. And so the more I thought about it, incrementally, it became clear to me this story was so much richer if I explained why I cared about all this stuff, which was the very, very personal story.”

Sorry this episode has languished in the editing queue for so long! It’s been a bit of a crazy year, but I’m catching up now, and you should keep an eye out for more episodes as I work through that backlog and conduct some new conversations…

Listen to Life Stories #95: Lauren Collins (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (If you’re already an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)

photo: Philip Andelman

17 November 2017 | life stories |

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