It was not what he said, but the way he said it that interested me.
Despite his interviewer being his wife’s sister-in-law, and therefore known to him, tennis player Andy Murray could not speak directly to her about the things he felt most deeply.
The splash headlines in newspapers this week focused on the Dunblane massacre, his parents’ divorce, his anxiety attacks, and the mental escape that tennis had provided. But the poignant words were not delivered face to face; they were left in a voicemail message, a disconnected kind of articulation that required no eye contact, personal interaction or explanation.
There are a number of stereotypical explanations for this one-sided communication. The dour Scot. The traumatised child. The repressed male. Perhaps each of those explanations holds a kernel of truth. But as a writer, I understood Murray. Isn’t that what writers do too? Speak to an audience without looking them in the eye; reveal their innermost selves in a way that would feel too risky in person; seek to be understood without having to be subjected to interrogation.
The importance of talking in psychological therapies has long been accepted. It’s a way of ordering thoughts and processing emotion, of facing fears and dealing with trauma. The American psychologist Carl Rogers was the father of “person-centred” psychotherapy in which the therapist attempts to understand the client by seeing the world through their frame of reference. Of course, the therapist may subsequently try to change that frame of reference, but in that moment of explanation, the person gains strength from the fact that they are understood. Their existential loneliness is temporarily soothed.
But what happens when you can’t, like Murray, fully speak your truth?
You write it. So fascinated did I become by the catharsis of writing, that I started working with a psychologist and, last year, returned to university to look at the connection between writing and mental health. It was not, as is so often the case with academic work, that research led to knowledge. It was the opposite: personal experience told me what was happening, and that led to a desire to understand more about WHY it was happening.
I have written four novels, and sometimes my office felt like a womb that held me securely. I knew what was happening in this fictional world. I understood why people behaved as they did because I saw inside their heads. I sat at my desk and played God with their lives: decided who lived and who died; who rose and who fell; who suffered and who conquered. It was not the terrifying roulette wheel of real life where I put all my chips on red and waited breathlessly in case black triumphed. In here, I was in control.
I did not write autobiographically but I used all the experience I had of life, and the lives of those I interviewed, to make my narratives as authentic as I could. Freud described writers as being like children at play and I get his analogy. At times, I was hiding behind the third person – he and she – to explore feelings that I shared with my characters. At others, I was adopting the first person to “try out” lives I had never lived. But the fascinating by-product of this play was certainly educational: without setting out to, and without realising it until it had happened, I was exploring, processing, and reconciling certain emotional truths.
Experiments have shown that writing for 20 minutes a day, for four consecutive days, has a beneficial effect on mental health for certain people. Participants visited their doctors less. Interestingly, men tend to benefit even more than women (perhaps because, like Murray, social taboos around expressing male emotions means men often talk less openly) but only when the feelings are directly addressed in the writing.
Years ago, when Andy Murray was young and pushing for the top spot in world tennis, I interviewed him in a hotel off the Champs Elysees in Paris. He was playing the French Open and while I liked him a lot, it interested me that he was so aggressive on court but emotionally cautious off it. Back then, he said that he was only seven when Dunblane happened and he couldn’t really remember events. Clearly, if that was true then, it isn’t now. He has processed those emotions a little more since then.
Murray’s voicemail, used in a new film about his life that premiered this week, described his anxiety attacks and the way the tennis court became a place of escape. A place where his personality could be truly expressed. For me, that place was my office, lit by a lamp, the black of night outside my window, the words tumbling like an emotional waterfall in an attempt to make sense of existence.
Not all of us can talk comfortably. But writing is another option, if not for an audience at least for ourselves. If you are struggling with bereavement, divorce, or the kind of anxiety that Murray expressed, try it – and feel the emotional walls come tumbling down.
Catherine Deveney is an award-winning investigative journalist, novelist and television presenter