“Timber?” she asked.
“Timbre,” corrected Boyle immediately. “It means color.”
No, the clues lie elsewhere. The delayed eye contact. The visible anxiety until the stranger in her presence settles into at least superficial familiarity. The slightly offbeat laughter in the middle of conversation. The sudden and obvious emotional withdrawal if she feels uncomfortable with a particular subject (she does not like to criticize anyone, and you can almost see her anxiety levels rising). She is surrounded by people: a personal assistant who lives locally and a public relations agent from London who flies up specially for this interview. She also has a manager and someone who helps with housework.
“I am not strong on my own,” she admitted. “When I have the support of people around me, I am fine.”
Sometimes people misunderstand. Sometimes she gets frustrated.
“Some articles have said I have brain damage,” she acknowledged before adding, cryptically: “It’s been something else.”
A year ago she went to a Scottish specialist.
“I have always known that I have had an unfair label put upon me,” she explained.
The specialist discovered her IQ was above average. And the diagnosis?
“I have Asperger’s,” she said calmly.
Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, mainly affects people’s social interaction and communication skills. When she said the word, things fell into place. Finally, it is like looking at an apple and agreeing it really is an apple.
“It is,” she said, “a relief.”
Fame is a precarious thing. It brings affirmation and criticism, security and insecurity, triumph and disappointment, almost in equal measures, but what it has also brought Boyle is acceptance. Asperger’s — unnamed as it was — made her different, and her childhood was marred by feelings of being an outsider.
“That made me more determined to be where I want to be,” she said, but admitted that the isolation, the attempts to prove herself to people who did not always understand, left a legacy of inner anger and frustration.
“You don’t fight without some resentment,” she said.
Success — and her diagnosis — changed things.
“Asperger’s doesn’t define me. It’s a condition that I have to live with and work through, but I feel more relaxed about myself. People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do,” she said.
Boyle’s hometown of Blackburn is a small industrial backwater between Glasgow and Edinburgh with a history of coal mining. Boyle is from a large Catholic family of nine children, and the most important relationship of her life has been with her mother, Bridget. She was a quiet, gentle woman, regarded locally as “a lady” and always referred to formally as “Mrs Boyle” rather than Bridget. She was Susan’s fiercest protector and, like her daughter, had a creative spark. At the age of 70, Bridget began painting, copying Mediterranean scenes from postcards. The results now adorn the walls of the room where we sit.
Bridget died just before her daughter became famous. The two events are connected in Susan’s mind.
“I made a promise to my mum that I would do something with my life,” she said.