Susie keeps quiet Mum's the word: It's presumed that Princess Diana is pouring all her woes into the sympathetic ears of her therapist, Susie Orbach. The press camps at her door, hoping to find out what the princess is telling her.

April 01, 1996|By Nina Darnton | Nina Darnton,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON -- On the corner of a tree-lined street in North London's Belsize Park is the spacious red-brick Victorian home of Susie Orbach.

It's a family neighborhood; bicycles stand propped up in the entryway next to two pairs of bright blue children's Wellingtons. Two flights up, off a small waiting area, is the consulting room, a large, white, cheery space that seems bathed in soft light, even on a drizzly March day in London.

A bunch of yellow daffodils stands on a table, not far from a coffeepot. Two black leather chairs sit across from each other; a couch lines the opposite wall.

Much of Britain is obsessed these days with what goes on inside this room. Princess Diana visits twice a week to see Ms. Orbach, her psychotherapist.

To the British press that means only one thing: the therapist is privy to whatever secrets Princess Diana has left after her November television interview, in which she told of her struggles to overcome anorexia and bulimia, disclosed an adulterous relationship and announced her belief that her husband, Prince Charles, might not be fit to become king.

British tabloids have made a daily sport of trying to pry these secrets from Ms. Orbach -- who is ethically and professionally required to keep them. Reporters from all over the world have hounded her, leaving more than 100 messages on a single weekend, clamoring for interviews, all seeking the same information: What is the princess really like?

"It is all incredibly unhelpful and incredibly unwelcome," Ms. Orbach, 49, said, seated comfortably in a leather chair near the window, her usual place in therapy sessions. "It's an invasion not only for me but for the other patients, and it makes things more difficult and more complex."

'Gotcha'

She agreed to this interview, her first since the press onslaught, with the ground rule that she would not discuss the princess or her problems. On this day a dozen photographers crowd the street in front of Ms. Orbach's house. They jump on the hood of her car for a better photo, appear at all hours, hoping they'll get lucky and catch the princess (or the therapist) as one or the other enters or leaves.

From their viewpoint, their finest hour came the day after Christmas, when the beleaguered princess, surrounded and hounded by the press as she left Ms. Orbach's office, burst into tears on the street. The photo of her collapse was printed on Page 1 of most of the tabloids. They have not been so lucky since.

Diana has been more elusive, but the frenzy has not abated, especially with news in February of the imminent royal divorce.

Photographers have offered -- unsuccessfully -- to pay Ms. Orbach's neighbors for the opportunity to use a telephoto lens from upstairs windows to peer into the famous consulting room. When Ms. Orbach refused to give any press interviews, citing professional confidentiality, several papers offered to reserialize her books as a way of extensively quoting her. She refused.

That's when the press decided "no more Mr. Nice Guy" and started investigating Ms. Orbach, filling their pages with unsubstantiated gossip. The conservative tabloids announced in "gotcha" tones that her father had been a Labor Party member of Parliament, who, they said with scorn, "liked to think of himself as a champion of the poor."

They ripped apart her relationships, her family (she lives with Joseph Schwartz, an American psychology professor and psycho- therapist, and their two children) and her childhood, finding disgruntled friends or relatives ready to divulge some past slight. The attack reached its nadir with an interview with an elderly aunt by marriage Ms. Orbach hadn't seen in years.

The article suggested that Ms. Orbach, under the guise of listening to the princess' problems, is really advising her and manipulating her to serve a left-wing agenda.

Radio talk shows and irate columnists echo the idea bandied about by the "chattering classes" at dinner parties: that the insightful self-analysis provided by the princess in her television interview was really the result of a briefing by her therapist, whose language she appropriated.

The accusation goes to the heart of a widely held British misunderstanding about the nature of psychotherapy, which took hold in this country later than in the United States and is viewed with fascination and suspicion. This leads to a double, contradictory belief -- that the therapist is either a charlatan or else someone capable of almost hypnotic power over a vulnerable patient.

"Either you're a friendly hairdresser or a devious manipulator," said Ms. Orbach, who is a trained psychiatric social worker with a general private practice that includes men, women and couples.

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