Review: The Skeleton Cupboard by Tanya Byron

Professor Tanya Byron is the Chancellor of my university, so this gives a few different layers to this review. Firstly, there’s a pretty big chance I would never have ended up reading this book, had I not found out about it at graduation (& thank God I did!), and secondly, due to the nature of the book, it was especially hard to imagine someone I knew (sort of) or had at least briefly met, in these situations.

The Skeleton Cupboard, follows Tanya as she undertakes six, six-month placements in her chosen field of clinical psychology. This is a real no-holds barred book, as illustrated from the opening chapter and the subsequent, & famously heart wrenching, second chapter. The variety of stories within each of the six placements, from anorexia, abuse, dementia and AIDS, are tied together with the narrative of Byron’s own journey –  warts an’ all. The thing I found refreshing about this book, was the honesty in which the authors own faults and mistakes are examined. As a young graduate embarking on her first lot of professional placements, things are bound to go awry at times, and Byron doesn’t hold back from these moments, they are, after all, part and parcel of learning. The book doesn’t focus on ‘hero’ moments, but has an incredible, and at times wonderfully uncomfortable, honesty to it.  Spoiler alert: not everyone is ‘saved’.

It’s rare to have stories such as these told not from the point of view of the ‘patient’, but from the angle of the person ‘treating’ them, and it gives the book an entirely different depth to it. I have never read a book where I have had to physically put it down and compose myself several times. (It’s chapter two that killed me, you’ll see what I mean!) You really feel for the characters as if they were real, however, of course, due to the nature of the stories and Byron’s job, they are not real stories. This was hard for me to get my head around. Of course they are based on fact, on things that have, or could actually happen, but the characters feel so real it’s hard not to feel overly emotionally involved with them. I think, the hardest thing about this for me, was the realisation that these things have happened to people, and the ending may not have been as ‘happy’ as some of the resolutions in the book.

I could have read another 10 stories in this vein, and so it was actually a little disappointing to reach the end so soon! However, if you have any interest at all in people, psychology or mental health, you should give this book a go, I promise you won’t regret it!

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