The identity woes of Princess Diana

September 19, 1999|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

"Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess," by Sally Bedell Smith. Times Books. 368 pages. $24.

Diana Spencer, later Diana, Princess of Wales, appears to have lived more for other people than for herself, to a degree unusual even for celebrities.

When she became the bride of Prince Charles in 1981, the heady combination of Cinderella wish-fulfillment and Anglophilia got thousands of Americans out of bed at 5 a.m. to watch nuptials ever after described tediously in the press as a "fairy-tale wedding."

She subsequently gratified the public appetite for misery among the great with revelations of a troubled marriage, an eating disorder, affairs and other fodder for gossips. At the time of her death in the automobile accident in 1997, she was, all at the same time, a plucky single mother, a glamorous dresser and a humanitarian.

Sally Bedell Smith, the author of biographies of Pamela Harriman and William S. Paley, has sifted through the evidence to arrive at a portrait that is at once balanced and deeply unsettling. Seeking an explanation of the "disconcerting juxtapositions of glamour and pathos" in Diana's life, she concludes that Diana fits the pattern of what the psychiatric profession has designated as borderline personality. Such people appear charming and lively in public, but their confusion about their own identities leaves them "self-destructive, easily depressed, panicky, and volatile."

There is evidence, for example, that the bulimia from which Diana first suffered in adolescence continued to the end of her life. She was given to fits of temper and bouts of depression. She sought treatment with psychologists and, disappointed in therapy, resorted to psychics and astrologers. She was an inveterate liar, and her accounts of herself are peppered with inconsistencies and contradictions.

Her love affairs ended badly when men proved unable to provide the constant approval and reassurance she craved. Her final romance, Dodi Fayed, was, Smith argues, her match: "Both were emotionally immature and intellectually superficial. They hated being alone and compensated by constantly talking on the telephone. [They] tended to repeat rather than learn from their mistakes, and they took refuge in dishonesty when they were feeling threatened or insecure."

"They were," Smith quotes one of Fayed's friends, "in many way ill-fated and the perfect awful couple."

But Smith is no mere assassin of heroines, and the qualities that generated admiration and a worldwide torrent of grief at Diana's death get full value. Diana was physically beautiful, which counts for a great deal. Though not notably intelligent, she was canny. She was a devoted and affectionate mother. She displayed "unusual rapport with strangers," particularly in contrast to the starchy royal family. "Through a combination of natural warmth and curiosity about people, the gentle use of touch and her laser-like intensity, Diana could make instant connections."

And in the end, Diana was hardly the sole author of her destruction. "Everyone contributed to her downfall," one observer comments. Her parents, whose divorce scarred her childhood. The royal family, too remote to understand her and too limited in experience to be of help. The lover who betrayed her to the press. The newspaper hacks and authors, "by turns condescending, prurient, and fawning." And by the public, by us, throwing on her the burden of our needs and fantasies.

The life of Diana, Princess of Wales is not heroic, though Diana had courage. It is not tragic, though her life was cut short. It is just deeply sad.

John McIntyre, chief of The Sun's copy desk, is an adjunct instructor in journalism at Loyola College and a former graduate student in English. He looks at the House of Windsor and wonders whether dumping the Stuarts was a smart move.

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