Tanya Byron on her early years as a psychologist

Tanya Byron. Picture: Contributed
Tanya Byron. Picture: Contributed
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THERE’S NO sitting down to begin an interview with Professor Tanya Byron. In her kitchen, full of cookery books and family photos, dog bowls and fruit bowls and pictures and ornaments, Byron bustles about and we’re off.

She’s making us coffee – it’s a new machine, one with those multicoloured little pods. It was a gift she tells me, she’s still quite excited about using it. Do I want something to eat? No thanks. Right then. Sure? Absolutely.

Byron is glamorous – high heels, make up, Vivienne Westwood jewellery glittering. She strikes me as a woman perfectly at ease doing five things at once. Her phone rings three times as we speak and text messages ping their arrival. The doorbell rings too, “who’s that?” she says looking at me, confused. It transpires that it’s a neighbour to tell Byron that her dogs (two westies, very cute) have made their way into her garden and deposited something unwelcome on the grass which she’d like Byron to collect. She trips out the back door, treats in hand and shoos the dogs into the kitchen. They settle on their sofa and promptly fall asleep. All the while Byron chats, seemingly undisturbed by the interruptions. She’s fine company, quick to laugh, sharp as a tack. If she is in a rush, which I am sure that she is, she doesn’t show it. Another coffee? An introduction to the cleaner. And then her husband, actor Bruce Byron – perhaps best known for The Bill – who equals her for affability.

I could happily chat in the Byron’s kitchen all day

I could happily chat in the Byrons’ kitchen all day. Best known as the expert on shows such as The House of Tiny Tearaways, Little Angels and Am I Normal?, Byron is a clinical psychologist with a career of more than 25 years who also has an easy, televisual manner and an accessible style of delivery. But telly is only a tiny part of what Byron does. She has written books about child rearing, helmed a government review on internet child safety, broadcast for Newsnight, written a comedy (The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle) with Jennifer Saunders and is a columnist for the Times and Good Housekeeping. She also still works in clinical practice for 25 hours a week as well as having two teenage children, Lily, 18, and Jack, 16. It’s a busy life.

Byron’s new book, The Skeleton Cupboard: The Making of a Clinical Psychologist, is her memoir of her early years training. Written as a collection of chapters, each devoted to a particular patient, it covers the period from 1989 to 1992, a torrid time when Byron was often just “one chapter” ahead of the patients she was seeing, “as anxious as the people sent to me with anxiety disorder” and grappling with the enormous responsibility that comes with being a person whose job brings them together with people at often the most difficult time in their lives with the remit to help. I lost count of the times as I read that I thought, I can’t believe she’s doing this – she’s only 22.

‘The job is a privilege, but you don’t realise that at first.’

“You are young,” she says. “You’re still literally just ahead of the people you’re seeing, also you don’t have that much life experience so when I was doing the sex therapy I was doing it with people who were much older than me.” She laughs, explaining there were times when working with clients that she’d blush. “When I was writing it sometimes I did wonder how they actually let us do it. But fundamentally you do the job well and you learn and you’re supported by the college – I was at UCL – and the people who train you. The job is a privilege, but you don’t realise that at first, you just feel overwhelmed by the responsibility.”

Dementia, eating disorders, HIV and Aids, sexual abuse – the topics Byron covers are as varied as they are complex. The patients she describes, though, are not real people, they are composites, ciphers for certain symptoms and experiences that she has encountered during her years of work. As we speak, she sometimes refers to them as “characters”. The issues are real though, the struggles, the difficulties both theirs and hers, learning how to be with people and understand them in order to help them. The bereaved, the bullied, the bereft – Byron’s contact is with people who are in distress. But the purpose of the book is not to further isolate that community, to mark them out as different to the rest of us. Quite the opposite. The last thing she wanted the book to be was a “voyeuristic trip”.

‘Or go to freak shows.’

“We used to visit asylums on a Sunday. Or go to freak shows. And now we watch Jeremy Kyle. Has anything really changed? We live in a survival of the fittest world – slash and burn what doesn’t work, leave people behind. There are consequences. If we only have that view then we’re an incredibly neglectful society and those who are vulnerable will show us how neglectful we are.”

There is no doubt that sitting with someone, listening to them, endeavouring to understand their distress is a strangely fascinating profession. It’s clear too that Byron is passionate about her work. What differentiates her book from some others written by therapists and psychiatrists, such as Steven Grosz or Oliver Sacks, is that it isn’t just about the patients, it also charts Byron’s personal journey into the career that she loves. And it couldn’t start in a more shocking way.

“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.” This, written in the introduction, is Byron’s explanation for what initiated her fascination with human behaviour: the shockingly violent murder of her grandmother. It ripped a hole in Byron’s family and sparked a lifelong quest to understand what drives people to behave the way that they do.

‘It was horrific, it was like a bomb going off’

“It was horrific,” she says. “It was like a bomb going off. I can talk about it now without emotion, it happened in 1983, so many years ago.” Byron was 15, nearly 16, “a s**t time for it to happen – puberty, hedonism, plenty going on”. At the time she should have been gazing at life with rose-tinted glasses, wanting to change the world, she was, she says, pitched into something incomprehensibly dreadful. “It was awful,” she says. “I don’t really know what to say about it. It was awful. It brought the random brutality of life right into your face.”

Eventually, an ex-tenant of Byron’s grandmother was convicted of battering the elderly woman to death with an iron poker. A heroin addict and eight months pregnant at the time, the motive was unclear, but most likely robbery. Before she was apprehended, though, Byron’s father John Sichel, who had a difficult relationship with his mother, was a suspect. A well known TV director, the media interest that inevitably followed meant that Byron and her sister, who is 15 months younger than her, had to live away from home for a while.

“I remember when mum told us,” she says. “She collected us from school and me and my sister were bickering in the back of the car as you do when you’re teenage girls. I do remember clocking at the time that mum was unusually quiet. And then we got home and she made us a cup of tea and some toast and told us that she had something to tell us. I just remember thinking how weird, my grandmother’s been beaten to death. How weird.”

Byron’s father, who died nine years ago, never spoke about what had happened. It was, she says, just too difficult for him. “She was a rubbish mother, she was a kind of fun grandmother, a bit quirky, a bit weird but a rubbish mother. I remember that and feeling very protective of my father. But I think having those feelings towards her and then the way she died, so helpless and on her own, I think that absolutely tore him apart.

“We were a very open family, we talked about things. But that was the one thing. He could never go there. Never. And you had to respect that. It was his mother, his grief. But I think it did have quite a massive impact on him moving forward in his life. My father had periods of depression and I think that was probably quite a significant thing for him.”

The experience taught Byron how to “cope in chaos” and it gave her a fascination with human behaviour, but it was also, of course, deeply disturbing. Not least coping with the sentence that was eventually handed down to the woman convicted of the murder. “She was given three years for manslaughter with diminished responsibility, she was out in 18 months. I could not get my head around that. I wrote to the Home Secretary and got some trite, nothing letter back.” She shakes her head almost imperceptibly.

Of course, you don’t have to be a clinical psychologist to see the pattern of what was being played out when, newly qualified, Byron chose to work in a drug dependency unit where she set up a group for pregnant drug users.

She tells me about having good friends and gallows humour

The same, too, might be said of choosing a profession in which the task is to listen, really listen to those who are most vulnerable. It may have been a cataclysmic event that triggered her interest in this profession, but the question as to what sustains her interests me. At first, when I ask, she looks a little bemused. Maybe it seems so obvious that she doesn’t really have an answer. She tells me about having good friends and gallows humour (when her friend Jennifer Saunders read early drafts of the book she advised her to take out some of the jokes, she says laughing). Later, when I ask again, the answer is a bit more revealing.

“I’m passionate about it,” she says. “I just got two emails today, one from a young woman who was developing school phobia telling me she got the coach into school yesterday and today and she’s feeling fine, and another from a woman who’s basically been housebound for ten years because she was very ill and now she’s really lacking in social confidence, telling me that she’s just got a volunteering job in a charity shop.” She smiles. “It’s cool.”

Byron is clear that if she had to choose just one of the jobs that she does and stop the rest, it’d be the clinical work that would stay. “My father was Jewish and many of his side of the family died in the concentration camps. I remember his mother, my grandmother, the one who was murdered, had this phrase which I thought was really good, it was “life is about turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones”. It’s a bit cheesy but I think it’s a good one.

“I’m fascinated by people and their stories. I’m fascinated by how people manage. People come and see me and they’ve been struggling with chronic levels of anxiety for years sometimes. And it’s like wow you’re a really strong person – the fact that it’s only now that you’re saying I think I’m breaking, the fact that you’ve managed to do all this stuff for all this time, that’s pretty extraordinary.”

‘She watches her son take his last breath’

Byron has been thinking about writing this book for more than a decade. It wasn’t difficult to choose the stories to include, she says. She wrote the first one three years ago. The only story during which she cried was one in which she describes the death of a young man dying of an Aids-related illness. His mum is there with him, but not his dad, who hasn’t accepted his son’s sexuality. She watches her son take his last breath. She takes a moment and then she leaves, alone in a taxi. “I did that a few times,” Byron says, “being in a room with a parent on their own saying goodbye to their child.” She wrote that chapter when she was on holiday last summer and when she finished it she read it to her daughter. “She was like, ‘oh god, I’m on holiday and you’ve made me so sad’.” She smiles. “I do remember standing there and thinking I can get my head around why people have big mental health problems, but sometimes that level of inability to connect with another human being, particularly if it’s your child,” she shakes her head, “blimey.” Byron’s children are, she says, “cool”. It’s clear that she enjoys them, not just as her children but as people in their own right. “I like my kids,” she says. “They drive me nuts sometimes but I like them. They seem to have emerged relatively unscathed from me and their father bumbling through it.”

Maybe what’s most appealing about Byron is her genuineness and openness. I can imagine why, if you were in distress, you’d want her on your side. But there’s no doubting the complexity of that – when you’re working with people who are revealing aspects of their lives which are disturbing to them, that can disturb you too. When her children were very young she stopped working in child protection. “I used to come home and go and look at them in their little cots or beds and then just hold and hold them. My husband was like, what’s going on here? So I stepped away for a while.” But Byron is clear that she’s not there to make judgements about people. Yes, with regard to some issues it’s straightforward – child protection frameworks are clear, for example – but Byron’s job is to provide a space where people can truly open up and they won’t do so if they don’t think they’re being met by someone with an open mind.

‘It’s their narratives which drive the behaviours’

“I’m not really surprised any more because I’ve been doing this for a long time. People have stories and it’s their narratives which drive the behaviours and once you understand what’s driven it you can understand that person. So even if I wouldn’t like it to happen to me or someone in my life who I love, it doesn’t mean when I’m sitting there with that individual that I’m judging them. As soon as that happens or I get compassion fatigue, then that’s when you leave this job.”

The Skeleton Cupboard: The Making of a Clinical Psychologist is published by Pan MacMillan, £18.99.