May 21, 2015
British Supreme Court rules that pianist James Rhodes can publish his memoir
by Mark Krotov
Last year, we reported on a British legal case so weird that it was hard to summarize it in a pithy headline. The post’s headline was “British legal case so weird that pithy headline is impossible.”
Earlier this week, said British legal case was finally resolved, making it a great deal more transparent … if not necessarily less weird.
The premise of the controversy was highly unusual: does a person have the right to publish a memoir detailing the sexual abuse he suffered as a child if his ex-wife believes that those details may traumatize their son? Ordinarily, the answer to such a question is a non-inflammatory “yes.” But as we wrote, the plaintiff—who went by BHM in court filings—relied on an unusual legal strategy to bolster her argument:
What is known, however, is that BHM’s legal strategy depends on a case from 1897 called Wilkinson v Downton, in which the defendant (Mr. Downton) played a practical joke on the plaintiff (Mrs. Wilkinson), telling her that her husband had been badly injured in an accident, and that she needed to bring two pillows to retrieve him from the ditch where he was lying with two broken legs. Mrs. Wilkinson claimed to have suffered a terrible shock due to the practical joke, which led to all kinds of trauma, and the jury agreed. The jury probably also noted that this was a very unfunny practical joke.
The case had attracted significant controversy even though all parties were anonymous (even the ex-wife’s country of residence wasn’t revealed—it was referred to in court documents as Ruritania), largely because of the precedent such a case could create. If anyone’s memoir could be pulled because of possible discomfort or anxiety suffered by an unrelated party, freedom of speech could be stifled.
But after months of uncertainty, the British Supreme Court finally issued its verdict:
The only proper conclusion is that there is every justification for the publication. A person who has suffered in the way that the appellant has suffered, and has struggled to cope with the consequences of his suffering in the way that he has struggled, has the right to tell the world about it. And there is a corresponding public interest in others being able to listen to his life story in all its searing detail.”
And of course, the names of the participants can now also be revealed. The defendant in question was James Rhodes, the acclaimed classical pianist. And the memoir, titled Instrumental, will be published by Canongate next week as an e-book (on Monday the 25th) and a hardcover (on Thursday the 28th)—after a very long delay. (Unusually, Rhodes’s ex-wife’s name has been sealed by court order—and even scrubbed from Rhodes’s Wikipedia page—though it has been published in the past.)
Rhodes had some powerful supporters. According to the Guardian:
The pianist was at court for the ruling, accompanied by his second wife, Hattie, and schoolfriend Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor. His fight for the right to tell his story has been backed by writers including David Hare, Michael Frayn, William Boyd and Tom Stoppard.
And Rhodes’s friend Stephen Fry was thrilled:
I’m still stupidly teary about all this. If you knew what @JRhodesPianist has been through just for telling the truth http://t.co/8eJ3b4LVnA
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) May 20, 2015
On his website, Rhodes wrote:
Clearly this is a victory for freedom of speech. More importantly it is a powerful message to survivors of sexual abuse. There is already too much stigma and shame surrounding mental health and sexual abuse, and although I am horrified that it has taken 14 months of overwhelming stress and expense, I am relieved that our justice system has finally seen sense and not only allowed me to tell my story but affirmed in the strongest possible way that speaking up about one’s own life is a basic human right. I hope the book will help fellow survivors of rape find the courage to speak up. And I hope it will inspire those in pain to find solace in music and togetherness.
Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.