Verdict: John Mitchell’s debut memoir, The Boy Who Lived with Ghosts, dazzles. It’s original, clever, and amid all the horror, funny.
John Mitchell grew up in 1960s England in a run-down and filthy home devastated by poverty, with an alcoholic father who abandoned the family, a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a twin sister, and an older paranoid-schizophrenic sister who physically abused him all of his young life.
Told over a ten year period, the book opens in Portsmouth, a waterfront city across from the Isle of Wight, where five- year-old John is living with his family in a house he believes is haunted. There are ghosts in the attic, in the walls, and in the darkness of the night. After his father disappears, and his older sister grows progressively more ill and attempts suicide over and over, little Johnny, at age seven, takes on the improbable mantle of “man of the house.” His naïve attempts to help his mother overcome her depression by taking on odd jobs to make extra money are heroic and sometimes frightening.
Mitchell’s overview of then rundown Portsmouth, England in the 1960s shocks as he deftly bypasses all the clichéd elements of the 60s via gruesome images of destitution, a cast of unbelievably crazy misfits and the smells, local language, and music of a bleak and impoverished part of England. It’s a wakeup call that not everyone experienced the “summers of love.”
Since mental illness was not as widely diagnosed as it is today, the heartbreak of one family’s story is all the more poignant as Mitchell pinpoints exactly what makes us all uncomfortable about the topic: hospitals, medications that don’t work, and the dreaded ECTs that were popular at the time. That John survived daily physical abuse and the indifference of his family is a miracle. The most amazing aspect of the book is his ability to re-capture his own voice at ages 5, 7, 8 and 13.
John Mitchell’s debut memoir, The Boy Who Lived with Ghosts, dazzles. It’s original, clever, and amid all the horror, funny.
Reviewed by Ramona Rogers for IndieReader