True stories like Holden’s (not his real name) are the ones that make our hearts sink. He’s in a state of terrible distress, discharged without proper assessment and tormented by psychotic beliefs, another unwell person who has acted in the only way he believed was possible. In Holden’s case, he killed his father.
In this harrowing book, New Zealand academic and writer Aimee Inomata tells the story through the unfolding narrative of her own relationship with Holden – first as a neighbour and friend, now as his partner. She invites us to join her in coming to terms with his horrific crime, his long and painful journey through the forensic psychiatric system, and his rebuilt life in the community. Holden was found not guilty of his father’s murder by reason of insanity and sentenced to seven years in a mental institution.
It's not an easy read, and it doesn't shy away from difficult questions – Inomata details drug effects, the repercussions of clinical and legal decisions, and Holden's struggle to take control of his own recovery. Holden's is a story of simmering trauma, systemic neglect, substance abuse, despair, noncompliance, ever more blurred boundaries. Is a person in forensic mental health care in fact imprisoned, or simply there to get well? The answer is fraught with conflict, and its management is a perilous dance between legal precedent, public opinion, clinical judgment and risk assessment, and human intuition.
In a realm that has always been mysterious, it's a relief to hear a voice of experience. Is it really possible for mentally unwell offenders to recover? Is the experience of psychosis inherently dangerous? Is there life after the most terrible loss? How should we treat those of our community whose lived experiences encompass such devastating violence?
The Special Patient will be a thought-provoking read for clinicians, and an ultimately challenging and hopeful one for people living with the effects of mental distress and substance dependence. For the general public willing to understand more about a frightening and mysterious corner of human experience, this dense and well-researched book will be worth careful reading.
Reviewed by Elisabeth Kumar, Professional Teaching Fellow, Medical Humanities, University of Auckland