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James O’Brien: ‘In therapy I felt my armour flaking away’

Outspoken radio show host James O'Brien explains how childhood trauma took its toll in his Letter To My Younger Self
Outspoken radio show host James O'Brien. Image credit: Ula Soltys

James O’Brien saw his LBC phone-in show rocket in popularity as the Brexit debate (remember that?) raged.

Clips of his takedowns have been shared millions of times online and his social media following has risen to the hundreds of thousands.

Here, in his Letter To My Younger Self, he sets out the journey he has been on, from beaten public schoolboy to tabloid journalist to family man unbothered by fame.

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When I was 16 I was really into debating and public speaking and acting, which, in a private school dedicated largely to rugby, wasn’t exactly a passport to epic popularity. But everything changed for me the summer I was 16. I’d been in an all-boys school since the age of seven but I got into the National Youth Theatre in 1988, and spent a summer going to the northern branch of the NYT in Manchester. Not only was I with different sexes on a daily basis for the first time in my life but I was also with people from all sorts of backgrounds; I didn’t come from a posh background but I got sent to posh schools. It just changed the way I looked at everything really, that summer, and set the tone for a lot of what followed in the next two years at school, which culminated in me getting expelled.

I realised when I was working on my latest book that I’ve spent my whole life in a sort of fight-or-flight mode. I got beaten quite badly by teachers at prep school, between the ages of about 10 and 13. Casual violence from teachers to pupils was commonplace. So at big school I’d always shoot first and ask questions later. I thought attack was the best form of defence, sometimes physically but with me usually verbally. But looking back now, after lots of therapy, I think I’ve spent most of my life trying to win a game I didn’t realise was optional. I tried to convince myself that getting brutalised by teachers didn’t hurt me at all. I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing that they were hurting me. And I must have internalised that rationale on a pretty epic scale because I ended up arguing sincerely that things like corporal punishment were good for children, which obviously makes me a fucking idiot.

My dad was a giant of a man, regardless of what it said on his business card

I was very, very blessed with the wonderful relationship I had with my parents. But I think part of the reason why I couldn’t admit the damage my school life had done for so long was because for my parents, the sort of schools they sent me to was an astonishing achievement. My dad was a Catholic who left school at 15 and he sent me to the most famous Catholic public school in the country. When he was a newspaper journalist he saw much less talented people slide past him on the career path because of the old school-tie culture and the way you’re taught to walk the walk and talk the talk at these schools. So I knew that being sent to these schools was actually a massive act of love and sacrifice from mum and dad and I am still so grateful to them for everything they did for me.

I remember the day I got expelled from school after being caught taking marijuana. We had to drive to Yorkshire in the holidays so they could deliver the guillotine in person. This was me really crapping on my dad’s dreams, getting chucked out of this school he’d slaved and scrimped to send me to. But all I remember about that day was how he was 100 per cent behind me. He must have been heartbroken and furious and all of these things, and very betrayed by those monks as well. But all I remember about that day is feeling utterly supported and loved by my dad. I was conscious of disappointing him that day but when my career started shifting upwards… I remember when I did Question Time my dad was as pleased as punch. Sadly he hasn’t been around to see it go a bit bonkers in the last five years. But I was raised a Catholic and I still at times cling to my faith, so in a way he has been there.

1982: At 10 and enduring hard times at prep school Photo: Courtesy of James O'Brien
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1982: At 10 and enduring hard times at prep school Photo: Courtesy of James O'Brien

I went to therapy very sceptically. The stiff upper lip mentality, the idea that talking about your feelings is questionable and effeminate – these things were drilled into me very effectively. But it had come to the point in this family crisis that if someone had told me a coffee enema would help me be a better husband and dad then I’d have tried that. One of the people I love most in the world got really, really ill and I approached it like I’d approached everything else in life: with my source artillery of quick wit and verbal dexterity. I was almost trying to argue the family better. And when you’re dealing with potentially life-changing trauma that approach is of bugger all use to anybody.

I went to therapy thinking, this won’t work for me. I’m tough. I’m this bruiser off the radio. But in the first session I just felt all this armour beginning to flake away. She just said, you will talk to your younger self about how he feels, and you will tell him that he’s safe. I thought she was nuts. The idea of me having a conversation with a cushion, about being brutalised as a boy, that was so far away from who I thought I was. But I talked to this 10-year-old boy about being beaten by a 6ft 3in man and suddenly I said, well of course it did me harm.

2019: Speaking at the Stop The Brexit Landslide rally in London ahead of the general election Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Shutterstock I went to therapy thinking, this won’t work for me. I’m tough. I’m this bruiser off the radio. But in the first session I just felt all this armour beginning to flake away. She just said, you will talk to your younger self about how he feels, and you will tell him that he’s safe. I thought she was nuts. The idea of me having a conversation with a cushion, about being brutalised as a boy, that was so far away from who I thought I was. But I talked to this 10-year-old boy about being beaten by a 6ft 3in man and suddenly I said, well of course it did me harm.
'Stop The Brexit Landslide' Rally, London, UK - 06 Dec 2019
2019: Speaking at the Stop The Brexit Landslide rally in London ahead of the general election Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Shutterstock

Probably the thing that would most surprise the younger me is my lack of ambition now. As a teenager I was very ambitious. I wanted to be famous, I wanted to be successful. Now I’m 49 I couldn’t give a shit about any of that. In fact, arguably, when I stopped caring about it and stopped wanting it, that success kind of landed in my lap. So I think younger me would be very surprised to hear me say things like, if push comes to shove, I’d be happy living in a tent with my wife and children. I enjoy the other trappings but they don’t keep me up at night. Even when dad was alive I could do the real two o’clock in the morning ‘what happens if we lose this?’, ‘what happens if that goes wrong?’. The cold sweats and the long dark teatime of the soul. But I don’t have any of that any more. And I think the young me would think that’s amazing because it amazes me. I thought that was who I was, as opposed to just learned behaviour.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my dad. I’d really want him to understand that his professional status was a tiny part of who he was to me. When we lost him I realised that, seeing his own professional style wane a bit in the later years of his life – he was made redundant by a newspaper when he wasn’t really ready to step back – he saw his sense of self far too entwined with his professional status. I wish I could have helped him realise that was meaningless to me and my sister and my children. He was a giant of a man, regardless of what it said on his business card.

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Fronting his hugely popular and often-controversial LBC radio show Photo: LBC

If I could go back and re-live any time in my life it would be when I met my wife. I told my mum I was going to marry her when we’d been going out for just weeks. But we were both seeing other people when we first met and it took a while for the dust to settle. There were a few months when things weren’t as clear to me, and  we broke up briefly. And I remember when I suddenly felt inside that I was going to go all-in with this girl and try my best to win her back. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were walking by the South Bank of the River Thames and she was wearing a turquoise dress. And I suddenly thought, she’s actually going to be up for this. I’m not going to be rejected. I’m going to put my heart out on my sleeve and I don’t think she’s going reject me. Something about that shade of turquoise has stayed with me ever since. I just remember the sunlight behind her and the colour of the dress and the heat of the day and the absolute certainty inside me that I love the bones of this woman. I remember every bit of it and I don’t think my heart has ever been fuller than it was at that moment.

How Not To Be Wrong by James O’Brien is out in paperback on May 13 (Ebury, £9.99)