PSYCHOLOGIST and author Pamela Stephenson solves other people’s problems. But after a crisis of confidence she finally realised it was time to book an appointment with herself
Pamela Stephenson is a difficult interview, though not for the reasons you’d imagine. She’s not snarky and she doesn’t try to psychoanalyse me. Nor is she difficult because she’s exhausted, though her fatigue is palpable when she appears at the door engulfed in a white towelling robe, a doll-like figure in heavy false eyelashes, with masses of fair hair and a wide, expressive mouth. Would I mind terribly if she doesn’t change? She’s been climbing in and out of frocks all day for a photo shoot that’s just ended. That explains the glamorous detritus – boxes of shoes, racks of gowns – I followed down the corridor to her suite at the Savoy.
No, Pamela Stephenson is a difficult interview because she’s stolen all my questions. Damn near every one of them crops up in her memoir, The Varnished Untruth. Two days after finishing Stephenson’s compelling and emotion-churning memoir I saw what she’d done there. What a clever woman. There are hints in the introduction, where she flaunts her familiarity with the genre, promising to drop names because she knows we want her to. Then she wonders, “How shall I portray myself? Wife, mother, psychologist, writer, comedian, actor, dancer, diver, gypsy, dreamer, rich girl, poor girl, beggar girl, thief...”
She reveals that she’ll approach memoir-writing as she would a one-on-one encounter, starting with an attention grabbing entrance to pique our interest. Sure enough, line one, Chapter One reads: “Just before last Christmas, I broke a tit.” Then she’ll slowly pull the focus away from herself, so we’ll realise that she’s actually shy, quiet, and extremely private. All the while she’ll be watching for signs of untrustworthiness, ready to snap down the shutter if she feels under threat.
Summing up, she writes: “The one thing I know about myself for sure is that I am ridiculous… I think I am also passionate and brave, although this apparent fearlessness usually hides deep-seated, abject terror.” She’s also a “compulsive caretaker” and an adrenalin junkie, and speculates that regular jolts of stress hormones serve to keep her propensity toward depression in check.
Complicated and maybe a little crazy? All that and more. Never before in my note taking have I written a sentence to compare with: “Worked very hard, toured the world with her kids and her snake and two dwarves, doing comedy shows, but became disenchanted with making movies and telling jokes.”
The Varnished Untruth is structured as a dialogue between analyst and analysand. Though self-diagnosis is frowned upon in clinical situations, the format works here because she’s a licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD in human sexuality. But it also means that all questions along the lines of: “Do you think you did this because of that?” are gazumped by a text that regularly asks, “Do you think you did this because of that?”
Stephenson booked this “appointment with herself” after undergoing extensive physical renovation: she’s a plastic surgery enthusiast, and her fear of ageing is one of the her memoir’s themes. While recuperating in Brazil she saw women of all shapes and sizes at ease with themselves, frolicking in teeny bikinis. Why, she wondered, would an educated, insightful woman suffer so for her vanity?
“At least I was smart enough to know I was in trouble [and] that the answer to that vital question lay somewhere in the mire of my elusive, murky past. And it clearly lay far beyond any discoveries that had been made during the 30-odd years of therapy I’d undergone with a dozen well- respected mental health professionals. Therapy is like peeling an onion – layer by layer by layer, until you get down to the raw centre. For some reason I’d never really got to the core. Yes, there was no other choice left: time to book an appointment with myself.”
Hence the warts-and-all tour of her psyche. Make that selected warts. For all its candour about many things, notably her family of origin, Stephenson manages, with a distracting swirl of her skirts, to swerve past certain intimate topics. For example, describing her sexual history she writes: “I have definitely put it out a bit.” But lurid stories there are not, and casual readers might come away thinking she’s had just a handful of lovers, two of whom she married.
Stephenson was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in December of 1949, the eldest of three girls. From the age of four she lived in the Sydney suburbs, and she has an Australian passport. Her parents were academics – her father a zoologist, her mother a biologist. They were cold, remote and often cruel, telling her outright that she was an experiment. She writes: “Did they deliberately deprive me of love and comfort to see how I’d turn out? Sometimes it felt that way.”
They had huge expectations of their first born, who began reading at three, and tested high on IQ exams. Aged seven, she was bounced into a higher grade, where she was bullied and a social outcast, nevertheless driven to excel academically because “my father made it clear that second place was unacceptable”.
That lack of nurturing left its mark. “I had this thing about touch. I really crave hugs and touch, but when I get into that position, I feel slightly anxious, like it makes me sad, because it reminds me of what I missed. It happens to a lot of people who haven’t been held as children.”
She tells me that after the book went to press she learned that her mother – who struggled with depression and lack of self-esteem – was identified as a tuberculosis carrier while growing up in Fiji. “She was put in an isolation ward. Then she did become ill with something else, and was very sick.”
Well that’s a bit of context. Imagine being told you’re Typhoid Mary? Surely it would leave you terrified of getting close to anyone? “Exactly! You’re thinking, ‘I’m toxic.’ It’s possible. That was a generation… and with their backgrounds… I can make all kinds of excuses. They didn’t have a clue [what they were doing.]”
Yet nature’s patterns are funny. Like her parents, Stephenson had three biological daughters – in addition to raising husband Billy Connolly’s son and daughter from his first marriage – and even caught herself dressing them identically, despite raging against the loss of individuality when her mother used to do it.
With a laugh of acknowledgement, she says, “It’s an unconscious thing. We parent by rote. We really have to get up very early in the morning to do it differently. I was always second guessing myself about that, and trying to learn from good parents. I just didn’t know what to do. I was very, very protective, very. But I never thought I’d bond with my kids. I was genuinely terrified – because I didn’t feel the bond with my mother, so I thought, that’s it, I won’t be able to. I’d managed to bond fairly well with Billy’s children, but I was worried about babies, when they can’t talk and you can’t explain stuff. Of course a lot of it is biological, and it really came very naturally.”
To her perhaps, though her parents clearly lacked that biological wiring. Twice, when she desperately needed their support, she received the opposite of solace. As a teenager confused by puberty and its physical changes, she received little in the way of empathy or explanation from her mother, who struggled with her own body image. “Maturing seemed to be a sinful process,” writes Stephenson.
She was definitely interested in boys, and one of her early dates took her to a party, keeping her out past her curfew. He’d been drinking, and as he drove her home he collided with another car. Two people died and Stephenson was badly injured, but her mother’s response was, “If only you’d left the party on time, you wouldn’t be suffering like this and all those people would still be alive.”
By 16, fuelled by hormones and curiosity, she was regularly sneaking out at night. Losing her virginity to a 35-year-old junkie left her with glandular fever and gonorrhoea. When she was seriously ill her father visited her sickbed to say, “You were supposed to keep yourself clean until marriage. You are no longer my daughter.” Then he kicked her out of the house. Is it any wonder that she’s hypersensitive to rejection?
When she met Billy Connolly they were both married, Stephenson, to Nicholas Ball, who starred as television’s Hazell. She was a jobbing actress and comedienne not long out of Australia, who’d landed a plum job as the only woman on Not the Nine O’Clock News. Connolly was already famous, though she hadn’t a clue about that. Both were practitioners of take-no-prisoners comedy. As she explains it: “I had no idea who anyone was so I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t understand British society or politics, and I didn’t know or care if I was offending anyone.”
They connected immediately – a clear case of damage calling out to damage. In Connolly she recognised a fellow survivor, though it wasn’t until years later, when she wrote his biography, that Stephenson understood just how profoundly he had been hurt.
They’ve been married since 1989, and it’s an intriguing union, one that’s survived Connolly’s addiction issues – he gave up drink and drugs when Stephenson threatened to leave – and many personal upheavals on both sides. During their more than 30 years together Connolly’s career has seen him star in an American sitcom, triumph on the big screen, make television documentaries and continue to tour as a stand up. Meanwhile Stephenson turned her back on showbusiness and earned her qualifications in psychology. She spent time on Samoa studying transgender people, and turned her analyst’s eye on her husband’s psyche to write the award-winning Billy and its follow up, Bravemouth. She also spent two years sailing the high seas, and most recently, enjoyed success as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. All this while raising five children, with all their personal challenges.
You hear so often about couples with much less on their plates who grow apart. What’s their secret for embracing constant change?
“Couples have trouble staying together because we go through so many developmental stages and unfortunately they don’t happen at the same time. But if you understand that and can have a reasonably high level of tolerance – marriage requires tolerance. We also don’t spend that much time together, or more to the point, we spend a certain amount of time apart. If Billy’s working on a movie then I get a break, and if I’m doing something somewhere he gets a break. I think that does help for us. For other people, that would kill it. Some people wouldn’t be able to sustain separation. It depends on who you are. But we’ve got a lot of kids, we’ve got grandkids now, and we are privileged in that we can spend time apart.”
Throughout the book Stephenson emphasises that they are outsiders. But that assertion sits alongside stories about spending time with the Royal Family – she gatecrashed Prince Andrew’s stag do, and their children played together – and other A-Listers. Surely they have half of Hollywood on speed dial?
Laughing, she denies it. “There are several degrees of separation. You know this, too, because as a journalist you have a lot of access. We always felt like outsiders. Billy and I don’t spend a lot of time with friends. Everyone is so busy. Five years ago the Wall Street Journal did this thing about how nobody’s got time for friends any more. It’s so true. And Billy has become more isolated as he has gotten older. I have to really force him into social activities sometimes. I understand, it’s hard for him.”
Because people want him to sing for his supper? “There is that expectation. Let’s invite Billy Connolly, oh, by the way would you mind saying something after dinner? I try to get Billy to see that it’s a compliment, but he’s anxious, too, and he doesn’t really like playing anywhere where he doesn’t know the crowd, where it’s not his audience. He’ll say, ‘It won’t necessarily work and that’ll really detract from the way I feel about what I do’.”
Another question puzzling me is her insistence that she’s unlikeable. The book’s final line reads, “Did I ever say I was nice?” Why keep daring us not to like her?
“It’s like you push the envelope and dare people not to like you as an insurance against rejection. [Strictly] was such a surprise. I’d never experienced that before. When I did Not the Nine O’Clock News my comedy was very edgy, so lots of people disliked me for that. I had a lot of criticism. I wasn’t used to being publicly liked. I was more used to being the smart, funny, maybe slightly scary, abrasive girl – and not particularly liked by women.”
Were they afraid of an attractive woman who could steal their man? “I don’t know. I didn’t think of myself as being particularly attractive. I just didn’t ever feel liked. Strictly was a very new feeling. Somebody said if they see me dance, they’ll know who I am, so you’re very exposed, and that was odd, but it was also very nice. With the audience in the room on the night, and the messages I was getting, it was a very warm feeling. I really liked it, and I never thought I’d have that in my life, a massive amount of support from people. Because I think of myself as not being very likeable.”
On such short acquaintance I’d say Stephenson’s not unlikeable, just unknowable. Now, more of her story is out there, and it makes for fascinating, occasionally harrowing reading. But like so many who are damaged in their youth, she’s erected an elaborate persona to protect her vulnerabilities. As we talked I watched her shutters opening and closing, and saw how she’d peep out, taking my measure. It can’t always be easy living in her skin – but I’d wager it’s never, ever, boring.
• The Varnished Untruth is out now from Simon & Schuster, priced £18.99, hardcover.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
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