I promised to review this book so let’s start by asking “Who is The Skeleton Cupboard for?” Hyperbole aside it is a must read for every aspiring psychologist, meriting a place on our undergraduate reading lists and if clinical psychology is your calling its contents will have you salivating:
“I first became fascinated by the frontal lobes of the human brain when I saw my grandmother’s sprayed across the skirting board…”
No spoiler alert needed with this artful hook Professor Tanya Byron uses to reel us in with little regard for propriety. This is not a book for the faint of heart- chapter one had me wincing. It is blatantly honest and raw, baring its innards with a merciless compassion- “Here is the harsh reality. Let me rock you softly while you drown in it”.
The Skeleton Cupboard compiles the true patient related stories of Byron’s clinical training, from 1989 to 1992, to create fictional anecdotes with real world underpinnings. I came across it when running a cursory search on Amazon for books of the ‘how-to’ variety on getting on to a clinical training program. While this novel serves as a later result of that endeavor it was nevertheless one of my better online purchases.
Six chapters relay Byron’s experiences across various clinical settings in London such as GP surgeries, drug dependency units and psychiatric departments. You become swept with tales of grief, loss, family struggle, abuse and mortality, all masked beneath the arbitrary classifications of anorexia, anxiety, depression, dementia and substance misuse. Byron is not here to give you a lecture on mental health disorders- that’s what the DSM is for. Instead, she focuses on the person beneath the patient, on empathy, narratives and breaking your heart, speaking of herself in jargon-free relatable terms that allow us to believe no one is born a practitioner but a practitioner can be made of anyone.
When I first finished the book in early 2015 and fangirled over Byron’s career trajectory, she reached the panel of my heroes. At this time I had only ingested the surface value of her multi-leveled confession. Two years on, after my third reread, I see it in a new light. Byron has openly relayed all the frustrations, insecurities and mistakes she had, admitting to naiveté, arrogance and vulnerability. Behind the inspirational woman today was a young trainee who occasionally had crying jags, requested to leave a placement or outright verbally sparred with her supervisor. I have no doubts that she must have been brilliant but it’s comforting to see the cool collected clinical psychologist persona, perpetuated by the world and shoved down our throats, officially dispelled. Byron exposes her metamorphosis for the learning curve it was, reassuring to all who feel the occasional ‘imposter syndrome’.
More importantly, Byron also drops the curtain off her supervisor, who we tend to forget have troubling lives of their own. They’re conducting a balancing act of responsibilities where one overly anxious trainee is not their highest priority. The right to be viewed as a person with the capacity to err, that we insist they accept of us, we are reluctant to allot them and whether this was Byron’s intention or not I learnt a lot about this academic dynamic; sometimes they’ll breath down your neck, sometimes they’ll vanish on you. The only predictable part is their unpredictability. And it’s okay if they’re late, but not you. Never you.
There is much to recommend The Skeleton Cupboard– it is a quick and easy read, neither patronising nor boring; a realistic depiction of clinical training that manages our expectations while giving us a glance of the professional future many of us desire. It is not a memoir but it is the truth and a gem in mental health literature. It will teach you about mental health difficulties- symptoms and therapies– and the clinical and academic hurdles of training. But beyond this it will teach you about how humans interact and how you may fit into that equation for better or worse. Hopefully, better.