The moment I saw the title -- and until I read the sub-title, I automatically assumed this was a crime novel. Perhaps a more appropriate title might have been Skeletons in Cupboards as trainee clinical psychologist Tanya Byron unearths hidden truths behind patients she treats in a variety of placements. Byron started with a skeleton in her own family history: at the age of fifteen, she writes, she saw the frontal lobes of her ‘grandmother’s splayed across the skirting board of her dark and cluttered house,’ a robbery gone wrong by a woman drug addict. Subsequently – and perhaps consequently, Byron moved into her chosen career of searching into other people’s minds.
Byron writes compellingly about the patients she treats over three years of on-the-job training and of her own conflicted and often difficult relationship with no-nonsense Dr Chris Moorhead, her often abrupt and rude supervisor with whom she eventually develops a mutual admiration. Only in her early twenties, Byron undergoes a series of placements in different mental health settings, frequently working with much older patients. She counsels troubled children, families in crisis, a couple with sexual dysfunction, men and women in the early stages of dementia, addicts, and people with terminal illnesses.
One of Byron’s earliest cases finds her sitting alone opposite a man who first presents with anxiety and panic attacks but who in their initial session pulls a knife on her. It is her first experience of a sociopath and she is nowhere near the office panic-button. Fortunately, she manages to escape her predicament which leads her to quickly learn that ‘assumption is the mother of all screw-ups.’
The reader learns that some of Byron’s patients – like the anorexic but brilliant teenager Mollie and the flamboyant, dying Tom, affect her profoundly and she needs to debrief and de-stress. As well as Moorhead, Byron is lucky to have a coterie of friends who help ground her. This is as much as we learn of the personal life of the budding psychologist. Her focus is on learning, attending to her university work and attempting to help people sort out their problems.
This is a very readable book which shows much insight and compassion, easy for the layperson to access. One feels as though the patients – and Byron herself – are real people with real problems. Thus it came as a shock to me that, in reading the (very engaging) epilogue to learn that all of the cases cited were fictional, testament to the fact of Byron’s skilful writing ability to create troubled people who seem all too human.
Now a practitioner of twenty five years experience, Byron says it has always struck her that the spotlight tends to be on the people being treated, ‘never also on those of us doing the treating.’ In hindsight, she admits that as a young would-be clinical psychologist she was sometimes arrogant, inept and naive, that she often had no more clarity of thought than the people she was meant to be treating. She pays tribute to patients for providing her with an opportunity to become a skilled practitioner, and perhaps, she says, a better person.
There are numerous acknowledgements to others in the mental health profession at the end of the book but also an extensive list of resources. Unfortunately, because Byron is based in the UK (where she is a broadcaster for BBC television and Radio 4), these resources are for UK readers. You can read more about Tanya Byron at www.professortanyabyron.com
I’m sure most readers will thoroughly enjoy reading this book, as I did.
Reviewed by Di Bates
Title: The Skeleton Cupboard
Author: Tanya Byron
Publisher:Pan Macmillan Australia RRP $29.99
Publication Date: June 2014