Ruby Wax (Kellogg, 2010) explains how the University exceeded her expectations — but the rest of the city fell short.
By John Garth
Where had you studied as an undergraduate and what did you study?
I majored in psychology at Berkeley but I had a very short academic experience. I came to England to study drama hoping to combine it with psychology. Well, this was ridiculous! I got snared by narcissism, and the money was much more interesting than if you were a therapist. But I said someday I’d come back to psychology. Thirty years later I was losing my interest in television. I studied therapy at Regent’s College in London, but I wasn’t a very good therapist. So I thought, let’s study the brain: that’s the real McCoy. I don’t like ethereal flaky things; I like to look at the meat.
Why did you apply to Oxford?
I suffered from depression, though I haven’t for seven years now. It’s about regulating whatever toxic chemical rushes through. For that, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCP) had the best results and Professor Mark Williams, the founder, was teaching here. That gave me a mission. He was very surprised when I got in, but I give great interview.
What were your impressions of Oxford?
It was a kick. When you get into that inner sanctum and you don’t have to do the tap-dancing and you’re kind of accepted – there’s nothing higher than that.
Were you a hard-working student?
Yes. I was obsessed. For a Master’s you only come three days every few weeks, but those are so heavy that when you go away your brain hurts. I had to have a career too, but it wasn’t as hard for me as it was for people who were doctors, because they’re working all the time. I’m sporadic; I had it easier than anybody else.
Was there a social life with your fellow students?
Not in the beginning. I was very foreign to them. There were people from Canada and Norway and Croatia, so they hadn’t really heard of me – they just thought I was a flake. But by the end we’d developed a sense of humour and then it was hilarious. Pretty quickly people get who I really am.
Did you take part in any other extra-curricular activities?
I wasn’t tempted. We did end up going to ‘Hogwarts’ down the road, but here in Summertown, Starbucks is the cultural centre. I have my Union card but I haven’t gone into the Union once. I could have joined the boating team. It was all there. Too bad I wasn’t an undergraduate, but I wasn’t smart enough then; I only got smart later in life.
What were your tutors like?
Listening to Mark Williams was my favourite part. It’s from the horse’s mouth. There’s no fat in any of his sentences. Everything he said, I wrote down, and I’d squeeze him and he’d say, “I’ve done enough now.” I had to research what I needed to research.
You had to submit a practical to go along with your thesis.
Everyone else had to do clinical hours leading mindfulness practice, but I was never going to be a clinician. My practical was a show at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. The show became a book, and the book is now becoming a show which I’m going to tour. It’s all because of Oxford. My only gift is that I can make it funny. I can’t do the minutiae of neuroscience, but I’m a good translator between the brilliant and the moron.
You had to write a thesis too. What was that like?
Terrible, really awful. I can’t write academic. I’m dyslexic. But I got the idea, and that’s all that counts. The book was fresh but I used the research I did and spun it another way.
Is it going to change your life?
It already did. I’m doing a show, and I wrote a book, and I have street cred because I did a Master’s at Oxford so nobody can say this is a little whim of a celebrity.
Does Oxford have a role to play in your field?
MBCT is the zeitgeist now. There’s not a lot of money for therapy or medication, but mindfulness is an eight-week course and then you’re on your own.
How do you think of Oxford now?
Oxford is a fantasy to any American. I can’t ever top this, even if I won an Oscar. It’s the ultimate.