Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir Gabriel Byrne 2021
Susan and I have watched little television during our 52 years of marriage but one series stands out, In Treatment. Through 106 episodes over three seasons on HBO, we became deeply engaged with Paul Weston, the therapist played by Gabriel Byrne with his Irish brogue and his penchant for cardigan sweaters. So, when Byrne was featured in a conversation with another favorite, Colum McCann on a virtual Harvard Book Store event, I signed up. The interview was so good that I bought and read the book and am happy I did so.
Byrne is the product of a Dublin, Catholic, working class (his father made barrels for Guinness before being made redundant at the age of 48), upbringing and became an actor after failing at multiple pursuits including the priesthood, plumbing, and dish-washing. The memoir is idiosyncratic since Byrne doesn’t follow the traditional memoir’s structure of chronology, location, or any theme for that matter, but randomly jumps back and forth in time from childhood to recent years. He makes no attempt to be comprehensive, leaving out such stories as his two marriages, his three children, and some of his sibs. We do hear in detail about his parents and a sister who died at 32 with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the ghosts with whom he walks today. We also hear in detail about his sexual abuse at the hands of a priest at the seminary where he studied for the priesthood from age 11 to 15 and about his struggles with alcoholism. Happily, he’s been sober for 23 years. We learn about his early acting experiences and contact with Olivier and Richard Burton, and about his struggle with imposter syndrome despite his Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
Living now in rural Maine with a second wife 25 years his junior and a three year old daughter, Byrne is clearly taking the opportunity to look back, assess, evaluate, and explore his life. “Why did I choose this life? The life of an actor. Destiny was it? Maybe the signs had been there all along. I had been surrounded in real life by actors in the theater of the street….I struggle with authenticity. Being truthful. Both to myself first and to other people. Is it possible to be completely honest with myself? To admit my fears, my demons, prejudices, the petty envies, the unfulfilled desires? I want to live an authentic life. To take off the mask requires courage. I admit my fragility, my vulnerability, my weakness.”
McCann in his front cover blurb calls the book “A Masterpiece”. Hard to disagree with that assessment. It’s worth reading even if you’ve never spent an hour of therapy with Paul Weston.