LONDON — London-- "The Madness of George III," a new play at the Royal National Theater, a monarch suffering mental illness is maltreated by his doctors but manages to recover. "The publicity jTC the king's case drew," writes the social historian Roy Porter in the program, ". . . promoted greater public concern for the humane treatment of the mentally ill in the 19th century."
How does today's world react to the revelations by Andrew Morton, printed in apparently well-sourced detail in the Sunday Times, that Princess Diana, wife of Prince Charles, heir to the throne of Britain, suffers from bulimia -- an eating disorder characterized by secret binge eating and self-induced vomiting -- and repeatedly tried to kill herself?
One way is to deride the messenger. A commission of journalists condemned "prurient reporting" and called the accounts "odious." The archbishop of Canterbury deplored the intrusion into the royal couple's privacy as beyond the boundaries acceptable to a decent society.
But because the sources were friends of the princess, the possibility exists that she wanted her travails made public, perhaps to change her husband's behavior or to prepare the grounds for divorce. ("Throw the Bum Out" was an American newspaper's helpful contribution.)
Another way to react is judgmental: to place the blame for her mental state on her husband, whose alleged insensitivity and infidelity presumably drove the young, pregnant bride to a state of distraction. "Diana driven to five suicide bids by 'uncaring' Charles," goes the Sunday Times headline; "Marriage collapse led to illness."
But that's amateur psychiatry at its worst. Although bulimia, a mental illness first formally described in 1979, can be triggered or aggravated by stress, it is simplistic and inaccurate to blame its development on any professor, husband, parent or lover. (Over 90 percent of its victims are white females in the middle or upper classes; college-age women are most at risk.)
A third reaction -- surely in the minds of competing newsmen -- is to go after "his side of the story." Friends of Prince Charles are surely eager to point out how impossible or spoiled Princess Di has been, how noble and long-suffering he is.
That's not going to fly; she's the more sympathetic character in this real-life royal drama, and has been dutifully producing royal heirs. Any counter-blaming from background would backfire.
Can Buckingham Palace, already rocked by divorces, do anything to affect the public reaction other than freeze into silence and hope it will all blow over?
Presuming the report about Diana's bulimia and self-destructive acts to be true, one Anglophile has a constructive suggestion. First, some basics about the illness:
Psychiatrists say that bulimia (like the related eating disorder anorexia) is often rooted in a lack of self-esteem in childhood; patients are often conscientious young people setting impossibly high standards for themselves. This is complicated by a culture that equates skinniness with desirability: it was the Duchess of Windsor who supposedly said, "You can't be too rich or too thin."
When a bulimic feels the ache of emptiness and loses control over eating, she tries to regain the approval she thinks slenderness brings by purges or sticking fingers down the throat. The illness is often associated with feelings of depression and of rage turned inward, leading to the self-destructive "cries for help" attributed to Princess Diana.
Because bulimia is so prevalent in Britain and the United States, and because it can be fatal, it needs to be destigmatized and better understood. Some famous person -- one unafraid to say she has experienced it -- is needed to identify with other victims and offer them hope for recovery while raising funds for research.
That's what modern princesses are for, not to be clotheshorses or garden-partygoers. Diana Spencer has not suffered anything like the madness of King George III, but she has already shown gutsy solidarity to friends with AIDS. She should now rise above embarrassment and use her royal position and personal experience to help victims of bulimia everywhere.
William Safire writes a column for the New York Times.