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PRINCESS DIANA, THE ’CONSTITUENCY OF THE REJECTED’

AND PSYCHOTHERAPEUTIC STUDIES

by Robert M. Young

I don’t always sleep through the night, and one way I can get back to sleep is to listen to BBC Radio 5 through an earphone. This is how I happened to hear the first announcement of the car accident in Paris, which at first said that Dodi el Fayed was dead but Princess Diana was alive but seriously injured. One of the people taking part in the radio panel which was interrupted for this announcement said that Princess Di was ‘a waste of space’, a statement which shocked the others, who mildly reprimanded him. (Think what would have happened to someone saying that a week later.) As the truth became clear in successive bulletins I was sad about the gratuitous loss of life and sad for her children and all the relatives of those involved. I also remember reflecting, when we were told that she had died, that I could not think of a more total critique of capitalism. It then appeared that she died as a result of a motorcycle swerving into the path of the Mercedes, showing the lengths to which the paparazzi went to get pictures to sell for prices which reached into the millions. There was also the ironically utterly mistaken belief that the great wealth of the scion of a merchant prince could cocoon her, as it had Jacqueline Kennedy when she was taken in by Aristotle Onassis after her husband’s assassination.

I was, like so many others, increasingly surprised, baffled and intrigued by the growing preoccupation with Diana over the next days. I had never been a fan and never read any of the books about her, although I had watched and reflected upon her ‘Panorama’ interview, just as I had Prince Charles’ revelations in his TV discussion with Jonathan Dimbleby. I had felt sympathetic to both of them and was teased for being ’taken in’ by Princess Di. But those television specials now seem to have occurred in another and less portentous time.

I was, as the days passed, increasingly moved by the extraordinary atmosphere surrounding Diana’s death and remain so. I want to talk this morning about what we do at the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies in the light of this tragedy, the public response to it, its broader context and the light these events may shed on the place of our work in society and culture. Whatever else you may say about Princess Diana’s death, it has certainly touched many, many people. I am thinking of the broadcast to 180 countries, the largest television audience in history, the millions who came out to see the cortege on the streets in Central London and the hearse on the roads of the suburbs and the motor way to Northamptonshire, the sales of Elton John’s tribute. I am also thinking of the queues of people standing patiently for up to a dozen hours to write down their condolences and the bouquets with their own messages. It is no use calling this ‘mass hysteria’. I went to Kensington Palace and can think of nothing less hysterical that the demeanour of the people I saw there. People of all classes, colours, ethnic groups. There was no mass; these were the gestures of individuals, couples, families, classrooms of children. I saw a message from a group of Samaritans tied with a bouquet to a tree in the park near Kensington Palace. If we think of the passing of Rudolph Valentino, Evita Peron, Churchill, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Elvis or Mother Teresa the scale of the public demonstration of grief over Diana’s death stands out as a unique event. People said in a way which reminded me of those drawn to the mound in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ’I just felt that I wanted to come here’. ’I’ve never wanted to come to anything before.’ ‘I needed to be here.’ ‘I had to come.’ ‘I’m left with this dull ache. What is it?’

I am not pundit enough to attempt a definitive analysis, and I suspect that something approaching that will only come with time. I can say some things, though. My partner has a manic depressive patient whom she is seeing in psychotherapy. He is a black civil servant, who has recently been made redundant because of the effect of his illness on his work. He said that Princess Diana is ’like a cogwheel’: everyone could find some surface of her to mesh with. That was certainly true of my patients, none of whom has failed to mention her and several of whom went to one or more of the palaces. One, an accountant orphaned at eighteen months, cried all day. Another, a priest also orphaned as a toddler, found himself preoccupied with her death for many days. An Argentinean whose life is stuck at first cynically compared it with the public reaction to the death of Evita Peron but eventually volunteered that she deeply envied the Princess’ ability to be effectual in her activities, especially fund-raising. A business head-hunter who believes himself unlovable could not bear that Diana would not know how very much loved she is. An Orthodox Jew went to Kensington Palace to try to discover what it might feel like to belong to something. A copy-editor dwelt on the bodyguard’s failure to point out that he was responsible for the safety of the passengers and to correct the driver and make him slow down. Everyone felt a connection of some kind or other.

What struck me most forcibly was the flowers. They are manifestations of nature’s fecundity; they are evanescent and beautiful. (A related touching and tender image, one conveying light and vulnerability, is that of living one’s life ‘like a candle in the wind’.) I am always affected by the British habit of placing flowers at the scene of an accident or other bereavement. This is not done in America, where I grew up. I felt that a common theme in the floral offerings and the notes, many of which I read, was that people saw her as an icon, a symbol of compassion, of charity, in the biblical sense conveyed by one reading of I Corinthians 13, which concludes, ’Faith, hope and charity; these three. But the greatest of these is charity’, by which is meant altruistic love.

I interpret all those gestures as centrally about wanting to live in a society which cares more for its members, in particular, its damaged, marginal, unfortunate members. Hers has been called ‘the constituency of the rejected’. The reaction to her death has been said to convey a call for more emotional availability and expression. Putting my point more politically, I think this outpouring of feeling is the moral and emotional equivalent of the recent election — a repudiation of the regime of meanness which extended from 1979 until May of this year, Thatcherism — a longing for a fairer and more generous society. I even saw a headline: ‘Thatcher Proved Wrong: There Is Such a Thing as Society’. I have no idea if all this good will will just dissipate into the ether or find expression in more politically relevant ways. I am glad that there is so much being donated to charities, but I would be sad if charity was the only recipient and there were not also changes in priorities and distribution of resources. I saw a man in a documentary who simply said, ‘There’s not enough love around.’ It brought a painful memory of something said at the time of John Lennon’s death, a decade after the end of the hopeful 60s, also a time of flower power: ‘What happened to all that love?’

It can, of course, be argued that someone born as Lady Diana Spencer, later a Princess and for a time a future Queen, whose father left her brother an estate of fifty million pounds and who herself left an estate of forty million, 16.2 million of which was jewels, makes a poor candidate for bearer of the role of world symbol of Samaritanism, but if we look closer, why should not a poor little rich girl suffer and symbolise compassion? The combination of damaged young woman and princess is a powerful one. A close friend, Lady Bowker, told the Sunday Times (7 Sept. 1997, p. 12), ’She said that she was always unwanted: unwanted as a baby because her parents wanted a baby boy [to replace the one who had died soon before her conception], and unwanted in her marriage because Charles loved someone else. She was pining for love and affection because she was starved of them for so long’. She came from a broken family. Her mother decamped and her parents divorced when she was young. Earl Spencer evoked this poignantly when he referred to their mutual solidarity on train rides between households. She was shy and unconfident, had profoundly low self-esteem and got no academic qualifications. She developed an eating disorder, as did her sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, a former girlfriend of Prince Charles whose weight fell to six stone, and her sister-in-law, who had eating, drinking and mental problems.

Earl Spencer, in an earlier and less admirable encounter with the press said that one was supposed to stick to marriage though thick and thin and added that his wife, a former model who was at the time suffering from anorexia, was both thick and thin. Even so, people rise to occasions, and his tribute was the catalyst for the will of the people literally to sweep enthusiastic, populist applause into Westminster Abbey — her spirit, the need to protect her sons from the split-off emotionality of their father’s family. I don’t suppose anyone can sing utterly openly, but we certainly could improve on the opportunities to try to do so available to most and, paradoxically, especially the privileged.

The mother of Charles and Diana Spencer is not strong, has not been able to offer much support and is currently banned from driving from a drink-drive conviction. Her father was affable but also had a drink problem and was severely disabled by a stroke. One of her sisters is married to the Queen’s private secretary, who is known to be unsympathetic to Diana, thereby creating an awkward problem of loyalties for someone who might have been a close supporter.

I recall reading in the newspapers about Diana’s difficulties long before the Morton revelations. She was depicted as inexplicably wacky — a mad and impossible wife. Her eating habits, throwing herself down stars, depression, self-harming, overdoses were described as the behaviour of a tedious, unreasonable woman. I have heard from people close to her that Prince Charles was uncomprehending in the extreme in the face of her problems and that his family’s solution was simply to send her to Coventry. I mean this quite literally. People visiting the Royal Family were simply told not to speak to her, and it has recently been said that since the divorce the Queen forbade Diana’s name to be uttered in her presence, thus accounting for its not being mentioned at the church service attended by the Queen but also by Diana’s sons the morning after her death. The depth of the Queen’s antipathy was clear from the lack of generosity in the statement wrung from her on the Friday after the accident. She did not, perhaps could not, utter the words — compassion, charity, love — which quintessentially characterised the mother of her grandsons, her sometime daughter-in-law. Instead, we were told that she admired Diana’s ’energy’ and were later told that the Queen did not want her to lie in a royal palace but in a commercial mortuary. (This has since been officially denied.)

However, increasingly and in the wake of the ‘Panorama’ interview, with its revelations about Charles’ ongoing affair with Camilla, a greater public understanding of eating disorders and her skilfully depicting herself as a victim who would not go quietly and who was standing up to ’the family firm’ and ‘the Establishment’, the tide turned, and she came to be seen as a doughty fighter, who had come from utter low self-esteem to the admirable identity of being a survivor and even a candidate for independent status as ‘Queen of Hearts’. What may have seemed a piece of self-aggrandising arrogance in the interview became a reality: Mr Blair had discussed a roving ambassadorship with her shortly before she died.

It is the stuff of fairy tales, as is her whirlwind romance with Dodi, who also had a dysfunctional family, with the mother gone when he was young, sent away to school, spoiled, no proper vocation, playboy. The story of an ugly duckling who goes through all sorts of hell, touches bottom and is then transformed into a swan who is on crossing the threshold into true love is a compelling fantasy, easy to identify with. Dodi’s admirers said that he, too, had found his true love.

If we look more broadly in these families, we find Charles’ father a cold, disciplinarian and life-long philanderer. Indeed, in her banned book, The Royals, Kitty Kelly details serial infidelity by all generations of the Royal Family. None of the marriages of Elizabeth and Philip’s children have endured; nor has that of Princess Margaret (who drinks as well) or the Earl of Spencer (who was also serially unfaithful). Prince Charles’ favourite uncle, Lord Mountbatten, a great solace to him in lieu of fatherly love from Philip, was a bisexual philanderer and paedophile, blown up by the IRA.

There are many other ironies. I have heard it said that Diana did less charity work than any other member of the royal family and a lot less than Anne, the Princess Royal. Together they are patrons and patronesses of 3200 charities. Indeed, many of them took over her patronage after Diana walked away from over ninety of them. On the other hand, when she gave her name to a charity, it certainly prospered. It cannot be said, however, that she was not sincere in her charitable work. I saw many examples of people whom she really touched, literally in the case of sufferers from AIDS and leprosy or figuratively as in the case of a couple who were rung up by her every year on the anniversary of their child’s death when she’d chat for a long time. Even if a secretary reminded her of the dates, this is good, compassionate work. I also think that she was properly committed to the half dozen charities to which she continued to give her energies. As Nelson Mandela stressed, her impact on the issues of AIDS and land mines was impressive and significant. Her walk through a mine field was genuinely courageous, even though she had walked through many social and emotional ones already.

Referring to her bulimic pathology should not be seen as diminishing her commitment, sincerity and achievements. People with eating disorders have often been go-betweens for their parents, who themselves often have problems with sexual boundaries and identities and with allowing the child to separate and grow up. They are often overwhelmed by feelings they cannot name. This is a manifestation of alexithymia, ’the inability to recognise and describe feelings, difficulty in discriminating between emotional states and bodily sensations and inability to fantasise’ (Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry, p. 346). Un-worked through loss is another common feature of bulimics. They may seem okay and are often well-turned out and present a ‘together’ image. But they are caught up in a relentless cycle of bingeing and vomiting. Diana said that her heavy schedule of midnight secret hospital visits were a penance or substitute and a part of this cycle. She also said that the busy days emptied her out and were followed by new binges. I say again that I am not here attempting to pathologise her generosity any more than I would that of anyone in the helping professions. I would, however, say that the intensity of her activities reflects intense unconscious feelings.

In case you are wondering why I am spelling out all these baleful matters in a talk on the work of the Sheffield Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, I will now tell you. These events and relationships tell us that the kinds of mental distress, the kinds of disabilities, the kinds of issues which we reflect upon here are in no sense marginal to society and culture: they are central. If we focus on the most prominent families in the land, we find neurosis, eating disorders, substance abuse and dysfunctional families. Moreover, we find projections — for that is what the meaning of finding a point to connect to the cogwheel of Princes Diana’s image — and fantasies of extreme degrees, both good and bad. For every bit of idealisation of the princess, we have had something at the other end of the paranoid-schizoid split, whether it be the paparazzis, the driver (drink and drugs), Dodi (with his other fiancee), Mr Al Fayed (social climbing, bribing MPs, un-vetted employees), Prince Charles (Camilla Parker Bowles), Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (‘the Establishment’), the tabloid press. Earl Spencer struck a keynote of extreme splitting when he said in his first remarks on Diana’s death that the press ‘have blood on their hands’ And drove the point home when he said in the funeral oration, that ‘genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum’.

The seven week love affair between the princess and the scion of the merchant prince was arrested by death before it could go sour; it was more like James Dean than Elvis. We were given the touching symbols — the cuff-links which were her father’s last gift to her, now entrusted to Dodi, a silver tray placed under her pillow with a poem from Dodi engraved on it, the 130.000 ring bought that day from the jeweller’s ‘Tell Me Yes’ collection.

My general drift is to argue that we should not see mental, social, familial and neurotic phenomena as essentially ‘other’ and that what we address here comes in one form or another (usually severally) to all of us and/or those near and dear to us. This is certainly true of disability in the obvious sense that we are all only temporarily ‘abled’. Our eyes, ears, joints, bones and minds will, to varying degrees, be less use to us as we age. I should wear a hearing aid, in addition to my spectacles, and I have intermittent severe problems with my back and permanent but so far bearable ones with my knees, and I am obese, which threatens my circulatory system and causes all sorts of inconveniences, beginning with the problem of tying shoelaces. As defined by the authorities, the disabled constitute ten per cent of the population, about six and a half million people in Britain — eventually, as I say, embracing us all. We will all come up against limited provision of facilities for treatment and care. We will prove burdensome to ourselves, those close to us and to the facilities and services provided by the state and locality and (if we can and do afford it) private services, as well as our families..

If you read policy works about medical, psychiatric, social and psychological provision, you will find discussions about the allocation of limited resources. If you read works about psychiatric disorders, in particular, you will find them concerned not just with provision but also with profound questions about what it means to be a person, a citizen, a member and how we deal with ourselves and others when all of the attributes commonly assumed to make up such participation are either lacking, diminished or, as in the case of the chronically mentally ill, maddeningly intermittent. The physically disabled have comparable, partially overlapping problems of access and need for special equipment and facilities, some technical and architectural and some social and psychological. A person with control over only an eyelid can write a book if the right facilities are available. Another with severe motor neurone disease can be a professor of physics, but his wife may lose him to his nurse.

I want to juxtapose questions of mental health policy and those of disability with our reaction to Diana’s death. Good feelings are not enough. I am reminded of an important change in missionary work. There was a time when missionaries went out to save souls and took with them only their faith and good will. Nowadays they need qualifications and skills and technologies and a lot of sophistication about the rights of those with whom they set out to work. Good will is essential, but it is not enough. It is like that with mental health issues, as well. It is important to address the personhood of the mentally ill in order to have the philosophical understanding necessary to frame policy. Mentally ill people are not ’de-mented’; they are disturbed and probably intermittently so. Some faculties are intact; others scrambled; others come and go in varying degrees. How should we, can we, cater for their ups and downs, always maximising their opportunities for self-determination? Current mental health provision is a long way from solving these problems. Some similar and some different issues arise for the disabled, for whom many problems can be solved by creating access and facilities. But there are also social and philosophical questions of how we relate to the many different sorts of disabled people and how they regard themselves. A person who has had a severe and crippling accident, a person who was born without some parts of his or her body and a person who is or becomes learning disabled — these pose distinct but overlapping problems which need clear thought and carefully formulated policies as well as compassion. These are some of the reasons we teach about Psychiatry, Philosophy and Society and Disability Studies.

I also want to mention here cultural studies, an aspect of our work in Psychoanalytic Studies. This is a less policy-oriented but wide and deep exploration of meanings. We use psychoanalysis as an interpretive tool to reflect upon cultural processes and phenomena — films, books, plays, fashions, gender identity and relations, racism, group phenomena. I have written about Catch-22, ’Chinatown’, ‘Alien3’ and ‘Brer Rabbit’. I am also engaged in working out in theory and practice the kinds of group and institutional arrangements which might help the newly-democratising countries in Eastern Europe to get beyond the legacy of Soviet hegemony. Geraldine Shipton works on mirroring, body image and eating disorders; Nick Crossley on concepts of subjectivity and intersubjectivity and on the history of the mental health movement; Sean Homer on theories of discourse in cultural studies, particularly post-marxist and postmodernist ones, including especially the work of Frederic Jameson; Deborah Marks on social and psychoanalytic aspects of disability. One of my doctoral students is working on sacrifice and the death instinct, another on psychoanalysis and the internet, another on modularity in psychology and brain studies. The first of our students to complete a doctorate drew on the ideas of Luce Irigary to illuminate two films, ‘Orlando’ and ‘The Piano’. Culture is the space where we husband, test and debate the values of being human It is a profoundly moral activity. (While I am listing research at the centre which is relevant to your studies I ought also to mention Tim Kendall’s work on the ethical aspects of psychotherapy and Digby Tantam’s on Asperger’s Syndrome.)

Returning to the topic of human distress, I say again that we tend to think of mental disease and disability as ‘other. I think they aren’t. I think this because of my own work on the ubiquity of primitive processes and psychotic anxieties, as well as damaged internal objects. I am also influenced by the role of mental disturbance in my own life — clinical depression, a suicidally depressed mother, a manic-depressive wife. I was on crutches for a considerable period and had to fight my way back to mobility. Others close to me in the past have had serious sexual difficulties, while at least one other suffered from a degree of low self-esteem which led perpetually to going to inordinate lengths to evoke idealisation from those around. A low opinion of oneself and attempts to fill the void can lead to an endless striving to assuage an insatiable narcissism.

When I was a child I thought our family was unique in having a mentally ill person. Actually, the problem presented itself in a much less theorised form: the embarrassment was that my mother did not turn up to the PTA meetings; I had no more sophisticated analysis than that. I have since reflected on those around me when I was a boy and found our family far from unique. Close friends families included an alcoholic father, one who died of a heart condition in his forties, one with multiple sclerosis, several divorced, one orphaned. A contemporary of mine shot and killed his father. Another had sexual intercourse with his sister. A number of my contemporaries were felled by polio. Most of us were fairly regularly beaten up by bullies and spanked and strapped by parents and by school authorities. Some of us were sexually abused by older children. There was even a bona fide crazy young woman up the block.

I now offer some statistics to back up my thesis of the ubiquity of mental distress and disability.

One in four families are affected by mental illness.

One in ten people suffer some form of mental illness in their lifetime.

That means that more than six million British people seek help for mental health problems at some time in their lives.

Fifteen per cent or one in six undergraduates seeks psychological treatment while students.

Mental illness is three times more common than cancer and five times more common than learning disability.

It is 3000 times more common than AIDS.

One in a hundred people suffer the symptoms of schizophrenia.

At any time 250000 people are suffering schizophrenia in the UK

One in five members of the working population suffers mental illness each year.

One in seven schizophrenics commit suicide

Two million Americans are manic-depressive

The lifetime risk for Major Depressive Disorder is 10% to 25% for women and from 5% to 12% for men. At any point in time, 5% to 9% of women and 2% to 3% of men suffer from this disorder. Prevalence is unrelated to ethnicity, education, income, or marital status.

Turning to sexual dysfunctions, one third of women will have one at some time or other, and eighteen per cent of men will have an erectile dysfunction by the age of sixty.

Dementia rises from two to twenty per cent from age 65 to 85.

The one-year prospective prevalence is three per cent.

There are six million people in Europe with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Ten per cent of psychiatric admissions are for alcohol abuse

Ten to twenty per cent of alcohol abusers get cirrhosis.

There is a fourteen to twenty per cent lifetime risk of becoming alcoholic.

The one-year prevalence of drug abuse in the US is 3.6%; the lifetime prevalence is 11.9%; men are twice as likely as women to abuse drugs.

Over 4,000 people take their own lives each year in Britain.

More than two million prescriptions are issued in Britain every year for tranquillisers and anti-depressants.

Over 200,000 people are admitted to psychiatric hospitals annually in Britain.

More than 100,000 ECT (electro- convulsive therapy) treatments are administered every year in Britain.

Over fifty deaths a year may be caused by over-prescribing psychiatric medicines in this country.

If we return to the problem I pointed out in the Spencer family, in which there are three women with eating disorders among a small cohort of sisters and a sister-in-law, we should not be surprised. One in five women will have a clinical eating disorder in her lifetime, and four out of five will have a sub-clinical one.

I am sure you find these statistics hard to take in all at once. Let me try to make them a bit less abstract. In popular culture we have images of remarkable people with amazing powers, but until recently we did not look also at the down side. In very recent times this has begun to change. I am thinking of the last Democratic convention in the US and of the Atlanta Olympics. Huge cultural icons were shown to be vulnerable. Superman (Christopher Reeve) is paraplegic, but addressed the nation, and Mohammed Ali, the world’s greatest boxer and once an Olympic champion, has advanced Parkinsonism but was chosen to light the Olympic Flame, a gesture which led to the whole world seeing the intention tremor which is pathognomonic of that disorder. Just to round out this exposition of the frail side of fantasy figures, Superman’s woman, Lois Lane, by whom I mean the actress Margot Kidder, suffers from manic-depressive psychosis.

What is new is that the afflictions of the icons of popular culture are no longer hidden away. Something similar can be said of the Para-Olympics, which are increasingly well-publicised. The giving of publicity to these disabled people is, I suggest, hugely important and on the increase. Princess Diana’s self-revelations made an important contribution to that process of outing. Indeed, you can find web sites on the internet listing people with bipolar and unipolar disorders (i.e., manic-depressive psychosis and severe depression), and they include Carrie Fisher (Princess Leila from ‘Star Wars’), Ilie Nastase (the tennis star and politician), Boris Yeltsin, Ted Turner (who owns CNN) and the Beach Boy Brian Wilson. The list of psychotically depressed people includes Queen Elizabeth, Marlon Brando, Barbara Bush (the US President’s wife), the singer Leonard Cohen, the actors James Garner, Anthony Hopkins (who is also alcoholic), Rod Steiger, Dolly Parton, and Roseanne Barr; Yves Saint-Laurent, Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow. If we also look at deceased people in this century, the list of manic-depressives includes Louis Althusser (who also murdered his wife), Graham Greene, Vivien Leigh and Virginia Woolf, while those clinically depressed included Winston Churchill, Judy Garland, Ernest Hemmingway and his daughter Margaux, Audrey Hepburn, Primo Levi, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon, Laurence Olivier, Sylvia Plath, Spencer Tracey, Ronnie Scott and, of course, Princess Diana. You will recall that a number of those people committed suicide. The list of remarkable people with Parkinsonism includes many celebrities, e.g., Salvadore Dali, Adolf Hitler, Sir Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Mao Tse Tung, Billy Graham, Janet Reno (US Attorney General). Jane Russell, Harold Wilson and Ronald Reagan have had senile dementia. The physically disabled include Franklin Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy, Senator Dole and the actors Lionel Barymore and Herbert Marshall. John Thaw (Morse, TV’s Oxford detective) has foot drop from a stroke, Nelson Mandela wears two powerful hearing aids, and a goodly number of black blues singers have been blind, e.g., Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Sonny Terry, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. So is Britain’s current Minister of Education, David Blunkett.

Those celebrity names are important reminders of the reach of severe mental illness and disability beyond the ordinary people we all know are stricken and make up the vast majority of the statistics and who rarely have celebrity or money to cushion their losses of function. I also want to stress the extent of less severe human suffering. I believe that vicissitudes — often ones which fall short of disability, serious neurosis or psychosis but serious troubles, nonetheless — are the common lot of humanity. I am old enough to have been inspired by Paul Simon, who said

 

I don’t know a soul that’s not been battered.

I don’t have a friend who feels at ease.

I don’t have a dream that’s not been shattered

Or driven to it’s knees.

— ’American Tune’

A patient of mine said the other day, ‘These days with the definition of neurotic as it is, you might as well say "normal"’. I think this is also part of the meaning of the response to Princess Diana’s death.

I now want to offer some further reflections on the meaning of her death and to end by making some analytic and political observations. If we are to label the people for whom she had compassion, as her brother did in his funeral tribute, as her ‘constituency of the rejected’, we will have to acknowledge that in doing so we are crating a split between one part of ourselves and another. She was as effective as she was because she identified with those people. What she identified with was her own feelings of being unwanted, untouchable, depressed, self-harming, eating disordered, sexually spurned. One of the great insights of recent psychoanalytic theory was pioneered by the American analyst, Harold Searles, who pointed out that our patients projections are accurate and find a home in us. We are able to help, because they evoke in us a countertransferential recognition of some version of that of which they accuse us. More recently, Irma Brenman Pick has made a similar point in her essay on ‘Working Through in the Countertransference’ (Internat. J. Psycho-anal. 66: 157-66). Patients project with unerring skill into our most vulnerable and least admirable parts, including our cruel and unsympathetic ones. Our skills as therapists or workers with the disabled depend on our ability to resonate with what our patients project into us, contain it and think under fire so that we can make useful interpretations. Put crudely, we work with our own damaged internal objects and part-objects. Any idea of a sharp we-they split is self-deceptive and leads to bad work.

We project into Diana our tender and damaged parts, our disappointments and longings and our compassionate and hopeful feelings. We are then touched by the fairy princess in the beautiful gowns and grant her the title which she aspired to — that of ‘Queen of Hearts’. She is maternal; she is selfless; she is saintly (some of the messages at the palaces were prayers to her). At the same time, aided by telephone scanners, we listen in to her infidelities, while the papparazis peek for us into her holiday lairs. She leaves her boys for many weeks and has had affairs with a cad of a soldier, James Hewitt a married rugby captain, Will Carling, Dodi, a playboy already engaged. She is all the archetypes we unconsciously assign to women: mother, madonna, whore.

Back and forth the projections go as they always have for tribunes of the people, gurus, dictators, saints, stars and other charismatic figures. And, like many such people, she had her own fantasy world of people who had magic and could be relied upon — her gurus, spiritualists, and exotic healers, with whom, in her desperation, she spent a lot of time. She believed in astrology and numerology, tarot cards and clairvoyants, palmists and zone therapists. She is said by Kitty Kelly to have spent $4,300 a year on colonic irrigation and $65,000 a year on 'astrologers, psychics, and holistic counsellors'.

In an insightful memoir, Clive James, observes

 

For the rest of the time, which was most of it, she had a remarkable capacity to do the exact opposite of what she was notorious for: far from being obsessed with her own injuries, she would forget herself in the injuries of others. It was the secret of her appeal to the sick and the wounded. When she walked into a hospital ward, everyone in it recognized her as one of them, because she treated them as if they could have been her. They were her. She was just their souls, free for a day. on a beautiful body that walked so straight and breathed so easily. The sick, she would often say, were more real to her then the well: their guard was down, they were themselves (New Yorker 15 Sept. 1997, p. 54).

But, of course, it is not all fantasy or unconscious phantasy. She was a Lady and became a Princess. She had real power. She acquired special powers above that, but do not ignore the real power afforded by her position. The same can be said of Prince Charles and the Prince’s Trust and Princess Ann and Save the Children. She was also really and truly laid low by real psychosomatic illnesses, took real overdoses and really self-harmed. And she was really killed by a combination of the arrogance of the Al Fayeds, a troubled, drugged and drunk driver and the belief that their money and power made them invulnerable so they could outrun the papparazis. It is also really true that her sons are orphaned and that we are all bereaved to a degree which no one could have predicted. As I’ve already mentioned, she also walked through that mine field, the related treaty has really been moved forward more speedily and some weeks after her death campaigners in this sphere received the Nobel Peace Prize.

I have also already mentioned one of the most real things in this story — her development from a podgy, unqualified sacrificial lamb through endless symptoms and syndromes to the absolute bottom of the pit of despair. Then, somehow (do not ignore the role of psychotherapy in this) she crawled back and became a formidable woman, far from perfect but also far from a mere victim. Putting this point politically, she empowered herself. The relationship with Dodi makes it clear that she still had lots of fairy tale fantasies, and they killed her. Once again, her work on mines showed she also had a tough side which took her straight into real power politics.

I think that if we are to have any hope of harnessing the energy liberated by her death we should emulate her in this. When people project parts of themselves into heroic figures, they also disempower themselves — they projected parts are no longer available to their effectual selves but mortgaged, as it were, to the Other into whom the projection has been made. The projected parts become exaggerated, whether they be bad ones (as in bigotry) or good ones (as with Diana). In order to use the power of the flowers and the candle and the compassion, we must take back the projections. Don’t misunderstand me: I have nothing against adulation of Diana, providing it leads to self-empowerment. If we can be inspired by her and take back our projections, we can invest our good internal objects of affection, not just with the benevolence of a Lady Bountiful but with the fortitude of determined men and women who have what I once heard called ‘realistic fantasies’ of a better world.

We were all members of the ‘constituency of the rejected’ under Thatcher. There were those materially deprived and there were those doing the depriving who had lost touch with their own New Testament virtues of faith, hope and charity, the greatest of which was a debased currency for those decades. It would be a such a pity if we moved from pure meanness to pure fairy tale fantasy.

In closing, I want to go back to the flowers. There were millions of them. We hear that number so often on the news that it is hard to make it as large as it is: ten times ten times ten times ten times ten times ten decisions on the part of people to take themselves to a place to pay tribute to a person who stood for compassion. And they and the donations still come. And we are still not altogether clear about what it means. I am clear, however, that what we do here at the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies is in the spirit of what it means and what could ensue if we treat ourselves right. It is a spirit connecting human frailty and vulnerability to a process of striving for dignity and integrity by means of insight, containment, solidarity, support and self-determination. And I hope we can do more and better.

This is the text of the Keynote Address to students at the conclusion of the Orientation Week of the new Distance Learning programmes in ’Psychoanalytic Studies’, ’Disability Studies’ and ’Psychiatry, Philosophy and Society’ at the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield, 19 September 1997 and since revised.

 

I wish to acknowledge help with various aspects of the talk from Em Farrell, Geraldine Shipton and Nick Crossley

 

The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

Afterthought.

I put the talk on the internet and got this response on an email forum about psychoanalysis:

Neil Vickers said, in part:

> In mourning Diana, people were not constrained by some of the most

>painful aspects of grief that, from a psychoanalytical point of view, are

>seen as vital to working-through. The relationship with Diana had no past

>and no future; it was thus subject to less reality-testing than normal

>mourning. They did not have to be troubled by their own behaviour towards

>her to any great extent; they did not have to feel angry at her for dying

>(as bereaved people often do); they did not have to really know about

>aspects of her they did not or would not like since these only intruded

>into their lives in unreal ways (e.g., through tabloid newspapers). I

>wonder whether people were simply giving expression to how

>hard it is to give up idealisations per se, not Diana ... it is the sort

>of thing that can only be done in a group. This is why I think the

>comparisons with the public affection for Eva Peron were not so wide of

>the mark. It was, for many (though NOT for all, e.g., the recently

>bereaved, or those who actually knew her) grief without responsibility, in

>Bionian terms minus k in action, bolstered by lots of mythic thinking.

>That is why I think it was only in a very 'babyish' way a demand for a

>fairer society.

> I agree with Professor Young that if her 'coming out' as bulimic

>etc. encouraged people to measure themselves against a more realistic

>standard, her memory would be useful. This may yet prove the case. But

>during that week in London, there was something quite disproportionate at

>work. I thought it more than a little insane.

> For the nonce, I would not be surprised if there is an anti-Diana

>backlash here in the UK, every bit as hypocritical (given to splitting) as

>the sanctification of her that has taken place in recent weeks.

> Thanks again to Professor Young.

>

> Neil Vickers

My reply:

I agree with the drift of Neil’s comment. Indeed, I think what he conveys is characteristic of such groupie/fan/charismatic relationships. Moreover, idealisation and superficiality characterised many of Diana’s relationships. I happen to be close to some erstwhile friends who were at the funeral. One was close to her in former years, and both were more recently. Then they were, like many others, dropped. They were surprised to be invited and thought many who were invited also felt that their friendships with her were in the past.

They said that she did not manage to conduct friendships over time. They were intense, great fun, then dropped. It led me to think that her hospital visits and phonecalls were a substitute for ongoing (depressive position) relationships: intense, idealised, no long-term messy ups and downs.

I don’t think this makes her work less a good thing. Nor do I think that the longings which were expressed in the response to her death were any the less legitimate, even if they were ‘babyish’. I use this term, I suspect, in a more sympathetic way than you do. We have legitimate dependency needs when ill, old, poor, etc. which were snarled at in the Thatcher/Reagan era by people who were, in their own way, pretty ‘babyish’ in their greed, meanness and corruption.

I so hope that we can harvest the good will, convert it into structures and activities for a more compassionate society and avoid (as far as we can) just moving to the other side of the split.

I was very struck when I read that the poor were prevented from getting close to Mother Teresa’s body...

Best, Bob Young


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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