Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Skeleton Cupboard by Tanya Byron

Every life has a story.

Inspired by Professor Tanya Byron’s years of training as a  clinical psychologist, The Skeleton Cupboard offers extraordinary stories of ordinary people struggling to cope with the challenges of life.

Through them we attempt to understand the line between sanity and insanity - and come to realize that it does not exist. The most fragile, vulnerable people can still offer strength and wisdom. Those hardened by cruel circumstance can show real kindness and compassion towards those who treat them. And those of us who outwardly appear untroubled can mask an inner life of turmoil.
With startling poignancy and powerful, affecting storytelling, this book is a testimony to anyone who has strived to make the journey from chaos to clarity.

A gruesome family death set Tanya Byron on the path to becoming a child psychologist, a journey she describes in her new book.

How did you get here? Why now? What is your story and how would you like it to continue? For 25 years, psychologist Prof Tanya Byron has been asking these questions of her patients to help them ‘make that journey from chaos to clarity’.

Last year, while writing The Skeleton Cupboard, a memoir of her early years training as a clinical psychologist from 1989 to 1992, she asked herself: ‘I first became fascinated by the frontal lobes of the human brain when I saw my grandmother’s sprayed across the skirting board of the front room of her dark and cluttered house. I was 15,’ she writes in the introduction to her book.


An eight-months pregnant heroin addict ex-tenant of her grandmother was eventually convicted of battering the elderly German Jewish refugee around the head with an iron poker. But at first Byron’s father, John Sichel, was a suspect.

‘Oh, it was terrible,’ she recalls. ‘The press were hanging around because he was a well-known television director. At 15, you are meant to be: “Yay, I’m going to change the world” and instead there I was looking at this mass of blood.’
Though she did not acknowledge it until later, today she ‘is clear that my grandmother’s death was the catalyst to my becoming really fascinated in human behaviour and wanting to know why it is that we do what we do’.

When she qualified, Byron went to work in a drugs dependency unit where she set up a group for pregnant drug-users.
‘It wasn’t until my friend said “duh” that I thought: “Yes, maybe subconsciously I’ve done this to stop these women killing other women’s grandmothers,”’ she says. I’m not a major fan of Sigmund Freud but…

‘Even now, I’m known for being a specialist in child and particularly adolescent mental health. Often, it’s around 15 that that “help me” moment comes.’
To the public, the striking 47-year-old is best known as the TV expert on shows such as The House Of Tiny Tearaways and Little Angels. She has broadcast for Newsnight, written a government review on internet child safety, co-written comedy with Jennifer Saunders and is a regular columnist for The Times and Good Housekeeping.

Byron juggles all these commitments with 25 hours of clinical practice a week and being the mother to two teenagers, Lily and Jack. As we talk in her bright, north London kitchen-diner, she is applying make-up for her next meeting. Now there is also this book, offering an occasionally unflattering portrait of her younger self as well as fascinating composite case studies of some of the vulnerable patients she encountered at a stage when she ‘was often just one chapter ahead of them’.

There's Imogen, a perfectionist, with severe anorexia gluing her parents’ marriage together.  There's Molly, struck dumb by the trauma of seeing her younger sister drown. But perhaps most poignant is the story of Harold, a Holocaust survivor aware he is developing dementia, a disease that has already reincarcerated his wife’s mind in the concentration camp.

But despite the reality of it all confesses Byron - ‘It’s all fictionalised. Nobody who has ever been a patient of mine will think: “Oh, that’s me”. I still do clinical work and client confidentiality is absolutely core to what I do.’

Books such as psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life and the work of the neurologist Oliver Sacks have proved popular with readers. ‘Often though they follow the pure analytical process where the analyst remains unseen,’ says Byron. ‘But I felt that if I was going to be talking about other people’s narratives, I should really talk about my own. When I thought about how I felt about mental health, it felt pertinent to say how inept and anxious I had been at times.

‘I didn’t want to do that thing of saying some of us are sane and some of us are mad, because I don’t really believe that. I wanted to show that all of us are struggling and muddling through. Find a narrative and you can often help people.’

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