Article Case studies

Princess Diana: Shattering the Fairytale Image

She wanted to be the ‘Queen of people’s hearts’ even though she knew she would never be the future King of England’s queen. Swept off her feet by Prince Charles, she had a fairy tale wedding in 1981 watched by an admiring world. Over the course of 11 years the façade slowly crumbled until the couple divorced in 1992. The truth which emerged was stranger than fiction.

During the course of her marriage, she attempted suicide five times, and her childhood bulimia nervosa flared up. In her role as patron of one of her charities, She described bulimia as “a shameful friend. By focusing their energies on controlling their bodies, they have found a refuge from having to face the more painful issues at the centre of their lives.” You may wonder how it could be that someone with so much going for her could have resorted to such self-harming and been so depressed. We must be weary of looking at the external components of a life for clues of suicidality. It’s what’s going in inside that proves decisive. Diana longed to be accepted into Charles heart and life much more than into the royal family. She was the product of parents who had themselves divorced leaving her feeling abandoned by her mother who left the family home when Diana was only six. Deep down, she would have longed for a happy marriage herself which would have safeguarded her emotionally from the pain of yet another divorce – only this time instigated by herself due to a loveless marriage. She would not have wanted her children to suffer the turmoil and sense of rejection she herself would have felt as a child of divorce.

But despite her beauty, wit and charm, her love for her husband was unrequited. Worse still, his affections were divided. As she confessed to the journalist Martin Bashir in the famous panorama interview, there were “three of us” in this marriage. Her husband seemed to prefer the company of Camilla Parker Bowles, and so Diana found herself isolated in the chambers of Buckingham Palace as a young bride. The initial spark of romantic euphoria quicky waned, and the couple quickly realised they had little in common. Diana may well have wondered what was wrong with her, she may have thought herself unlovable or defective. Author and psychiatrist, Dr Dennis Friedman, said she never really felt loved enough and so it would have been difficult to love herself. It was the growing adulation of the crowds which thronged to meet and see her on official engagements which helped to shore up her self-confidence, and compensate for her sense of failure and unworthiness.

It is always dangerous to base your self-esteem on one other person’s assessment of you. This bestows too much power in their hands to either build you up or break you down. Diana found herself trapped in an illusion on a grandiose scale. To the adoring public, it was felt for many years that she lived a charmed existence and that all was well behind the walls of Buckingham palace where she and Charles resided. She carried the stress of maintaining this façade because it was expected of her to ‘keep calm and carry on – the motto of the British stiff upper lip which is perfectly embodied in the British royal family. She was therefore having to live simultaneously in two realities – the first a crushing disillusionment with her ideal of marital bliss, the second to preserve her husband’s image, and not bring scandal upon her famous an ever so respectable in-laws.

When the media first got wind of Lady Di’s engagement to Prince charles, she was quickly labelled as ‘shy Di’. Over the course of fifteen years, she became known for her easy-going and compassionate way of engaging with the public during her public engagements.

She became the most photographed woman in the world, thereby securing a place in the hearts of millions worldwide. Unbeknownst to her and all those who outlived her, she only had a relatively short life to leave such a long-lasting impression. Had this life been cut short by suicide, her legacy would have been tarnished by an even more tragic ending. Those whose lives she influenced for the better, would not have benefitted from her lovely, re-assuring presence, her positive affirmation and her activism on behalf of the suffering and needy.

Fairytales run the risk of leaving us captive to unrealistic expectations. Rather than longing for a romantic and idealised picture of life, we must seek to embrace and make the most of the live we have moment to moment. For Diana those moments ran out on that fateful day in a Paris tunnel on 31 August 1997. Although her suicide bids may only have been cries for help, the premature suddenness and tragedy of her eventual death, reminds us that the time we have left is precious and that there is no need to long for death when death often comes knocking sooner than we imagine.