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All Ears

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Debra Winger, Byrne, and Amy Ryan in the new season of In Treatment.  

And yet Byrne doesn’t go to therapy himself—and never has. I ask him why this is, given that he’s been open about his own struggles, including depression and years of binge drinking. He grew up poor in Ireland, the son of a cooper and a nurse. Earlier this year, he spoke about having been molested, when, as a vulnerable boy, he was sent to a seminary to train for the priesthood. (He has mixed feelings about having spoken out about this experience, but says he did so to help reduce the shame and silence for others. “Those scars are still there, but at least I recognize them now. And know where the pain is coming from, whereas for a long time I didn’t.”)

“I don’t really know the answer to that,” he says after a long pause. “I tend to talk to friends. You can learn so much from what your friends say—and don’t say. I think women are better at cultural support, at getting together and rabbiting on about anything and everything. It’s more difficult for men to reveal their vulnerability.” He is no longer a believing Catholic and considers himself an atheist. “I could be wrong in that I haven’t gone to therapy. As I said, I really do admire the profession—I just don’t know how I would go about finding one.”

I tell him I admire the way the series dramatizes one of the odder aspects of analysis: the way therapy itself is a form of performance.

“Yes, I’m much more interested in the psychotherapist as actor than in the actor as psychotherapist,” says Byrne eagerly. “People will say to you sometimes, ‘Acting! How do you do that? It’s a really difficult job.’ But the reality is, we act all the time. True individual moments of intimacy throughout the day, when are they? So when a man is in a chair and he has to listen to somebody else’s story—I often wonder how much of that story we take on.”

Byrne describes a funeral he attended in Florida. He found himself speaking to the woman whose job it was to show loved ones the funeral plots. The cheapness of the system outraged him, its callous pretense, the $5 required for an extra folding chair for an elderly guest. “My God! Do you know that you have to pay $45 to have your loved one’s hair combed? Unbelievable. It was one of the most—this is the thing …”

He pauses, then collects himself and comes to the subject we were skirting earlier. “This is the thing I have a problem with. Can you pay for true empathy? True intimacy, true empathy, true compassion. I have a problem saying, ‘Can I pay for that?’ Should I pay for that? Shouldn’t I be finding those things in my life with people I know? Maybe that’s why I haven’t gone to therapy.”

The funeral worker drove Byrne through the Florida plots in a golf cart. “She was telling me about the value of underground real estate,” he says, with faint disgust. “Which is what graveyards actually are. And she—acted. You know, what’s meant to be the most real moment in life.” Byrne asked the woman if she brought the work home. She said simply, “No. When it comes to five o’clock I go home.”

Byrne longs for something more primal, more genuine, something he remembers well from his own childhood: the raucous, weeping, singing traditional Irish wake, where the presence of the dead body is not sanitized. “Because by looking at the body, you’re looking at your own life. You’re looking at the absence. And the ritual was there for a purpose. And what it was saying was: ‘You have life. So live life.’ ”


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