Walking with Ghosts
Reading a lot of memoirs, one can’t help but compare the ways different writers tackle their own pasts. Some are sweet, some are harrowing tales of abuse, some are the meanderings of a tortured soul that might be better off unread.
And sometimes the best memoirs are from people we’d never even heard of, like Frank McCourt who wrote the astonishing Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s background as a teacher and storyteller informs his memoir just as Chronicles, Volume 1 by Bob Dylan informs his.
The two couldn’t be more different—Dylan is Dylan and has been famous since he hopped off his fake hobo train—a born storyteller but mystical, hiding in plain sight. Dylan is full of play and his memoir reflects that; it’s a stream of consciousness that jumps all over the place. Very little in it is straight forward storytelling.
And now here’s Gabriel Byrne in Walking with Ghosts who combines McCourt and Dylan. Byrne is Irish like McCourt and has that Irish poetry infused into his soul. Like McCourt, he tells stories. But Byrne is also a lot like the Dylan of Chronicles. His stories roam, they’re not chronological and you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get or when.
Byrne of course has been a famous actor since he was in his 20s but don’t expect to pick up this memoir to read about bold-faced names. There are a couple—Richard Burton and Sir Lawrence Olivier but mostly we learn about Byrne himself and that famous Irish upbringing.
Recently, the actor Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter, said in an interview: “Irish people, the Irish life, it’s unmatched.” Byrne certainly would agree. Being Irish, for him, is everything.
Watching a film as a boy, he recalls “the excitement of seeing Dublin on the screen, and we gave it a round of applause for being Dublin.”
Like McCourt, Byrne’s early life was rough. He trained to become a priest before he was a teenager and, inevitably, was sexually abused by a priest before being returned home for not obeying the rules.
In his memoir, he is haunted everywhere by the ghosts of his past, chiefly his mother and father and the younger Byrnes. And he misses them dearly. “My father taught me the simple things,” he writes, “the bundling of clouds, or the seconds between thunder and lightning to tell how far it is away. How to smell snow in the wind and know by the night sky if frost will come.”
Byrne was mooning his way through life as a young man when one day his friend gave him the advice that changed his life: “You spend all your time in the picture house and the theater, why don’t you join an amateur drama group.” After that, it all clicked.
At the height of his fame, when The Usual Suspects made a splash at the film festivals and Byrne was declared a star, he fell into bed. “To a God I no longer believed in, I prayed: Have pity on my lostness. Don’t let my days bleed into each other like this. I am unraveling inside. Can you not see the terror that consumes me?”
Not surprisingly, Byrne took to drink and spent years having blackouts, not knowing what he’d done the night before. In one episode, he awakens in a famous Hollywood hotel trying to pry loose his memories when a naked girl appears from beneath the sheets. He has no idea who she is or where they met until he spies a bee’s costume on the floor. Oh right, he remembers, it was Halloween, and he admired her costume. Whatever else happened, happened to someone else. He gives her his overcoat and sends her on her way.
This book is unbearably honest, and Byrne is a great writer. Some of the writing reads like a private journal as he struggles with the very idea of acting and who he really is.
“We all act all the time,” he writes. “Life makes us necessary deceivers. Except maybe when we are alone. As I am now in the windowless dressing room of a Broadway theater. 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 demons, prejudices, the petty envies, the unfulfilled desires? I want to live an authentic life. To take off the mask requires courage. I admit fragility, my vulnerability and weakness. Why are we do afraid to let others see us as we truly are?”
Clearly, Byrne has dropped the mask.