For a girl whose parents were constantly disappointed in her and didn’t think she would amount to much, Ruby Wax hasn’t done too badly.
She’s acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, been a stalwart on the BBC and Channel 4 for decades with shows such as Ruby Wax Meets…, was a script editor of the massively successful Absolutely Fabulous, is a stand-up comedian, an author of numerous books, obtained a Masters in Mindfulness based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy from Oxford University and has been awarded an OBE. She is a woman who is nothing if not constantly evolving.
And how we have evolved is the main theme of her latest book – and new touring show – How To Be Human. If we humans are the result of survival of the fittest, the ones with the best brains, why aren’t we happier? How have we got to the point where we all seem to have a constant need for ‘better’ – the latest iphone, tablet, watch, wife? As a species we’re doing fine, but as individuals? Not so good. Many of us aren’t happy – and are struggling – as Wax has admirably admitted herself – with mental illness.
Co-written with Buddhist monk, Gelong Thubten (who explains how our minds work), and neuroscientist, Ash Ranpura (who explains how our brains work) Wax calls the book ‘the answer to life’s big questions’ – how can we move forward as compassionate, kind human beings rather than just ‘being able to nuke each other into oblivion and rape the earth for oil’?
The show covers the book’s main topics: thoughts, emotions, the body, relationships, sex and addiction and how they influence our everyday lives – and those of our children.
Wax‘s own childhood has been a common thread through a lot of her work, most memorably in her critically acclaimed memoir, How Do You Want Me? – a raw and unflinching look at how her parents, who escaped from the Nazis in Austria in 1938, lived an almost bizarre life for a young girl. The furniture in their flat was still covered by plastic to protect it, her mother obsessively cleaned and screamed non-sensical sentences, while her volatile father would leave her in fear. They refused to talk about the Holocaust or the family members they had lost.
It was only when she took part in the programme, Who Do You Think You Are? that she found out much of her family history. Her father had been thrown in jail for being Jewish and was tortured. He was only released rather than being sent to Dachu as he promised to leave the country. Her mother, who managed to escape separately, was asked by family members to help get the right papers for them to leave Austria, too. By the time she obtained them, the document requirements had changed. They were sent to a concentration camp where they died.
Wax also found out that two relatives of her mother had been sent to a mental asylum, which she believes could explain her mother’s erratic behaviour – and her own struggle with depression. As she said: ‘Rather than doing therapy, I should have done genealogy’.
Wax’s OBE is for her services to mental health. She has been an open and vocal advocate of bringing mental instability out into the open and shows such as How To Be Human are helping many to understand how we humans work, how we so easily bring ourselves down and how mindfulness is a great tool as a coping strategy.
How To Be Human is at The Exchange, 27 September
Find out what else is on locally here.