Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

Phew! How can I describe this book…. I feel exhausted after reading it. The cover of the book hints that it’s the story of a man who rescues a magpie and then it becomes the link that leads him to understand his father better. A dual memoir, if you will. The story of two fathers and a magpie… But this is kind of misleading.

So, in order to talk about Charlie’s book, I have to use examples of what I mean, so I think it’s fair to say there may be some spoilers in here. If you already know him or Google him, almost all this stuff will come up, but if you wanted to go into this book “blind” so to speak, then perhaps this isn’t the review for you.

I didn’t know Charlie Gilmour when I started this book, but apparently he’s fairly well known for his behavior and for his bird friend, Benzene, who he shared on Instagram. So I think if you’re a fan of his, you’ll be giving this a 5 star rating. Presumably. I’m not sure what his fans really like about him.

What this book really is is the story of a mentally ill man who is obsessed with his biological father. It’s surprisingly unselfaware. Charlie generally ascribes feelings and behaviors to other people that’s not evidenced by their own behavior. The moments this is most apparent is when he’s talking about his biological father feeling guilty, when honestly, it seems more like his father is afraid that his son plans to kill or harm him. Which realistically seems very likely.

Here are some things about Charlie:

  • he glosses over the fact that he’s very privileged. In the first few chapters, he talks about being a rough kid who’s been to prison and lives in South London. But he’s actually the adopted son of a member of Pink Floyd. He’s never really been without help, financial or emotional. He seems to own his own home in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, and has had his education, legal fees and other expenses covered. I don’t have a problem with his privilege, but why is he trying to mislead us about it?
  • His biological father is Heathcote Williams, who was a lauded writer in the 60’s and whose friends were members of the upper classes, largely.
  • He is paranoid, has aggressive outbursts with little or no cause, is erratic and unreliable, sometimes hallucinates and has psychotic breaks of some kind. He has done a lot of drugs, which he blames for this, but his father also has the same behaviors, so it’s probably a hereditary mental illness.
  • He doesn’t get veterinary advice or advice from a wildlife expert about how to raise the magpie. He uses Reddit, mostly.
  • In the course of his life, he sees Heathcote a handful of times and only for a few hours. What he does do is send his father blood-filled syringes and letters written in blood, during certain periods of time he emails and messages his father obsessively, at his fathers death bed (and in front of other patients) tells his father in detail the cremation process, and at his funeral, takes a set of pruning shears along so that he can sever his fathers finger as a souvenir. He doesn’t seem to think that this is at all unusual.
  • He talks about his hair being thick with rotting meat and bird poop. And the rotting food around his home breeding enough flies that the magpie has plenty of insects to eat.
  • He did loads of drugs before a student demonstration in London against the raising of tuition fees (which doesn’t seem like something that would actually effect him) and he disrespected the Cenotaph (a war memorial) for which he was arrested.

All of these facts are according to Charlie and in this book, and while it makes me feels some compassion towards him, I feel also that as he blames all his actions on his biological father and takes no responsibility which makes him not very sympathetic.

You don’t learn much about Heathcote. Charlie didn’t really research him at all. He never spoke to any of his fathers siblings and asks no questions of Heathcote’s wife and daughters, because the fantasy that he has about his father is obsessive and he doesn’t really seem able to accept reality about his father. I feel like perhaps he doesn’t want an outside influence to disrupt his fantasy about his father. For him, Heathcote is either an idol or pure evil, but not a human being. The way Charlie sees Heathcote is just like the way a stalker sees their victim, from imagining a relationship that isn’t there to getting angry at the person and being aggressive with them for not responding as though they also are aware of the mythical relationship, to moving from seeing them as perfect to evil and back again. He blames Heathcote’s absence for all of his actions, for his taking drugs, and for all of the emotional and other problems he creates in his own life, even though he grew up surrounded by a loving family and had good educational opportunities and stability. Again, that reminds me a lot of stalking or abusive relationship behavior. I feel like he gets away with it because his actions are directed towards a father and not a person he has no biological connection to, but Heathcote really is a stranger to him. It’s odd, but this aspect makes for interesting reading.

Charlie sees people almost in 2D. He seems a little emotionally distant from them and most of the book is really him talking about himself. You don’t get a real picture of other people and places, he has little empathy for others and gives us their personality in flat anecdotes, but no real insight into them or how they move through he world. He seems to misunderstand or project what they’re feeling. Also, he seems unaffected by how the magpie’s sometimes destructive or aggressive bird behavior makes other people feel. He tends to project his wants and feelings onto the bird. It’s all about him all the time, and he seems to think we will find him and his feelings equally as fascinating as he does.

I can’t say I feel sorry for this guy, because he takes no responsibility and I also think that after reading this book, I feel like perhaps he should be given help with his mental health rather than a book deal. I mean, he does awful things, feels no remorse, learns almost nothing and then gets to publish a book? (I usually feel a lot of compassion for people with mental illness, and I hope that the author continues to pursue getting help) I feel like this book captures something selfish and dark about life. From that perspective, it’s quite interesting. I kept turning pages expecting to learn more about Heathcote but instead there was a monologue from a guy who is famous for doing something attention seeking and disrespectful and that we only hear about because he’s related to famous people. People like him pop up through history, and it’s funny to me how they find their place in the spotlight for doing things that draw attention. (Remember how some people thought Carl Tanzler was a romantic?) Just because someone does something that’s grotesque or not nice does not make them subversive or challenging to societal mores, and therefore worthy of more attention.

So, essentially, if you find psychology interesting, this is a bit of a page turner, though it’s not a light hearted read. Charlie is not all that likable, and his lack of self awareness can be difficult, as well as his descriptions of other people or his own actions. I kept wanting him to share basic facts about anyone around him, especially Heathcote, but we only get tiny bits. What we do get is the inside of the mind of a guy who blames one person for all of his problems and obsesses over making a relationship with them. I feel like his fans will feel like I just don’t “get” it, and that’s fine. I got a lot out of this book, just probably not what the author intended. What you get out of it is up to you.

Thank you Simon & Schuster Canada for the ARC of this book for review. All opinions are my own honest thoughts. Featherhood is out 1/5/21

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