How music saved his life

When James Rhodes was 7 years old, music saved his life.Thirty-five years later, sitting at a piano -- the ins...

Posted: Feb. 17, 2018 7:59 AM
Updated: Feb. 17, 2018 7:59 AM

When James Rhodes was 7 years old, music saved his life.

Thirty-five years later, sitting at a piano -- the instrument at which he makes his living -- Rhodes smiles at the notion.

"It sounds very melodramatic, doesn't it? To say music saved my life."

But it did, rescuing him from a horrific reality.

Rhodes is now a world-renowned, best-selling British concert pianist. But he says that from 6 years old, he was repeatedly sexually abused by a gym teacher at his private school.

Now in his 40s, he recounts the ordeal with a mixture of resignation and bafflement that it went on so long.

"Looking back now, it's so crystal clear that there was grooming involved," he tells CNN's Christiane Amanpour in London.

"I find (it) quite difficult to get my head around, because there were times when I was found by other teachers with, you know, blood coming down my legs and hysterical and just sobbing. And yet nothing happened. Like, nothing happened."

It "was allowed to continue and continue and continue, to the point where, ... it literally broke my back."

The constant abuse eventually shattered the base of Rhodes' spine, he says. That led to multiple operations, a spiral of drugs, self-harm and severe depression.The teacher was arrested, but died in 2011, before he could be brought to trial.

In the midst of all that darkness and abuse, something broke through: music.

"I was 7. I heard a piece of music by Bach and literally everything changed. It was like, for the first time in my life, two things happened: Firstly, I had a way of expressing things that I couldn't find the words to express -- because that's what music does, it goes underneath words," he says. "And secondly, I realized that if something that beautiful exists in the world, it can't be a hundred-percent awful."

Since that moment, when Bach's Chaconne in D Minor shone through to him like sunlight through clouds, Rhodes clung to music like a life raft.

"I was dead. There was nothing. It was just -- I was -- I mean, now we know all the terms, like, I was dissociated, PTSD, and dissociative identity disorder, all of that."

"I would disappear for hours, lose track of time, lose days. I didn't know what was happening, everything was just shades of gray," Rhodes says.

"And then you hear music. And it wasn't just pieces like that. It was other pieces of Bach and Beethoven and Chopin, and it just, it ignited this kind of passion."

As the years went by, Rhodes carved out a highly successful career as a classical pianist, selling out concert halls around the world.

With his wiry frame, a mop of messy graying hair and casual outfit of jeans and a T-shirt, his performances are unusual in the classical world, and he has found a loyal following.

Yet almost as captivating as his music is his writing; he has authored three books and describes his latest, "Fire On All Sides: Insanity, insomnia and the incredible inconvenience of life," as an anti-self-help book. Before that, he detailed his abusive childhood and subsequent struggles in harrowing detail in his memoir, "Instrumental."

Soon after publication, Rhodes started hearing from people who had survived similar experiences, grateful to hear his story told with such honesty. Since then, the world has seen a flood of stories of abuse through the #MeToo movement.

"There will always be shame. In fact, the Me Too movement is even more powerful because, despite the shame, people are talking. It is not easy to talk about this. I feel permanent shame talking about it."

"Even though rationally I know it wasn't my fault, I still in my mind colluded in it. I was his partner in it. I protected him, I was flirty, I was a very beautiful child, I mean, whatever, pick your reason."

"And that's why we feel ashamed. And so, the Me Too movement is in my eyes even more powerful."

Rhodes still struggles with his own demons and has good days and bad. When asked how he is now, he's honest.

"I haven't slept for four nights," he says. "Flashbacks, too much noise. It's just been a bad week. The week before that was fine. It changes."

"Some days, I just want to eviscerate myself, other days are OK. I've got concerts at the moment, and that keeps me focused, I have a lovely girlfriend, I have an apartment in Madrid with a little Steinway, I have an apartment in London. I have a really extraordinary life."

"But of course, as we all know, it makes absolutely no difference what it's like on the outside. When it's four o'clock in the morning, we're all the same. When the wolves are at the door and the voices are just -- they don't stop."

For him, this honesty is key.

"Actually, what's wrong with feeling sad? What's wrong with feeling a bit messy and having pretty awful Instagram selfies. I mean, we have this idea that everyone else's life is perfect, and God forbid we feel a bit fragile or a bit down."

Music may not solve everything, but it is something of a saving grace and something we all share, Rhodes says. "I think that's something that is almost part of the human condition, that life without music would be inconceivable."

Amid life's struggles, he acknowledges, "there's a lot of joy out there."

"Sometimes we need to know and be slowly, gently nudged into the right direction where that joy is. It's about noticing those little things and focusing on that, I guess."

But he has no illusions. Before he returns to the piano keys, to get lost in a piece by Gluck, he expresses a hope for a little more honesty in the world.

"I just wish all of us were slightly more transparent about how challenging we find life, because then we don't feel so alone."

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