Guest Post: Growing Up With A Psychiatrist Father by Sue Wallman

I write young adult thrillers, and I’ve always been interested in why people do things. In my latest book, Your Turn to Die, something is happening because of behaviours I remember discussing round the dinner table when I was a teenager. I have to be cryptic or I’ll ruin the plot, but this particular phenomenon has fascinated and appalled me ever since. We had lots of interesting discussions about human behaviour at home, which wasn’t that odd when you consider my dad was a psychiatrist.

One of my first memories is of Dad measuring my head with a tape-measure in his study, along with my siblings. We found it hilarious when we crossed our legs and he hit them gently with a little medical hammer to test our reflexes. When I was little, I thought Dad’s job was something to do with cars. I asked what he did and someone said he was a psy – car – trist.

I started to tune in a bit more, and I understood that he was a doctor (in fact he’d once been a GP) and he had patients who were mentally not physically ill. When someone mentioned a “mental hospital” he would get cross; that was derogatory. They were psychiatric hospitals. He wrote to the BBC to tell them to stop doing it. In a non-mobile phone age, as soon as we could write, we were expected to answer the phone and take accurate phone messages for Dad so he could assess a situation when he returned home.

My writerly powers of observation were honed early on. Whenever we were in a public place, Dad would be people watching. On holiday as a family we would attempt to work out the people around us, inventing detailed backstories.

Out and about locally, people would often say hello to Dad and we learned not to say, “Who’s that?” because of patient confidentiality. I did sometimes think he knew people I might have been quite scared of if I’d been on my own. When he left the house before we’d finished Christmas lunch, after a phone call, we understood that someone was having a crisis. We were sometimes unavoidably aware that it was within a family we knew. Of course our own extended family wasn’t immune to mental health issues. No-one’s is.

As I’ve written before, around the release of See How They Lie, my family lived in a psychiatric hospital in York for a few months before Mum and Dad found a house. I was six and it felt entirely normal, though my siblings and I didn’t much enjoy the formal Sunday lunches with the matron.
Dad was always careful with personal space as we were growing up. He didn’t intrude on our lives but we always knew he was on our side. He was such a quiet, academic person it seemed odd that most days he would listen to stories of distress. It was hard to imagine him visiting prisons and talking to people who’d done unspeakable things but I could visualise him in court, although I never saw him give evidence.

Everyone imagines that he sits at the dinner table dishing out advice but he never gives it unless we specifically ask for it. Even then, he might take a long time answering and say something like, “The most important thing is to be you” without expanding on it. When I’ve been confused about people’s motivations or hurt by someone and pushed for his opinion, he might say he considers their behaviour tunnel-visioned or something like that, but my siblings and I have always been expected to come up with our own way of doing things and our own opinions. If we want sympathy and gossip, we go to Mum!

Your Turn to Die by Sue Wallman is published on 3rd May 2018 by Scholastic UK

1 comment

  1. That is absolutely fascinating.
    Cora |