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Diana: In Search of Herself


By Elaine Cassel

Respected biographer Sally Bedell Smith has written an exhaustive account of the highly conflicted and dysfunctional life of Princess Diana. Diana: In Search of Herself--Portrait of a Troubled Princess (Signet, 2000), puts Diana's life in perspective by separating her essential traits from the mythic personality created by the media and then showing how these traits guided her behavior and her relationships. Smith personally interviewed over 150 people. Researchers culled through thousands of pages of public and private documents. The result is an objective account of the life of a young woman tormented by mental illness but also possessed with the beauty and charm that led many to love, even worship, her.

Central to the book is the proposition that Diana suffered from borderline personality disorder, bulimia, and bouts of serious depression. Aside from whatever biological bases there may have been for these disorders, Diana's childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood provided sufficient situations and stressors to account for psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive roots of these disorders.

According to Diana, the defining moment of her childhood was her mother leaving her marriage and home to live with another man when Diana was six years old. Diana and her sisters were embroiled in a custody battle between their parents that lasted for years. As each parent married, divorced, and remarried other partners, the sisters, by then teenagers, faced new struggles for their devotion and loyalty as their parents jockeyed for first place in their daughters' affections.

Less than stellar intellectual ability and emotional instability combined to defeat Diana's academic success. She never passed the exams necessary to allow her to go to college. In American terms, you could say that she failed her high school final exams (called "O" levels). She floundered in finishing school and worked caring for children. Diane was 16 when she first met Prince Charles, who was dating her older sister. When Diana had just passed her nineteenth birthday, she and Prince Charles's paths crossed at a weekend party in the country. As fortune (or, in retrospect, misfortune) would have it, Charles, who had no interest in marriage, was being pushed by his mother, Queen Elizabeth, and her advisors to find and marry the "right" woman. It soon became apparent that Diana fit the bill--pretty, charming, well mannered, and well bred, from royal stock herself.

Before the royal wedding, those around Diana first witnessed the obvious signs of bulimia, depression, and borderline personality disorder, behaviors that continued throughout her life. Borderline personality disorder was manifest by bouts of rage alternating with prolonged periods of weeping and physical exhaustion, lying and manipulative behavior, intense emotional relationships with friends and journalists, fear of abandonment, suspicion and paranoia, and several instances of self-mutilation (cutting herself with sharp objects), sometimes in the presence of others. She suffered chronic and severe bulimia (bingeing and purging) that led to constant weight gain and loss,

She made several brief efforts to obtain psychiatric help, though her husband and the royal family discouraged it for a long time. When she did get help, experts note it was inadequate talk therapy, made even less effective by Diana's denial of both bulimia and borderline behavior. By all accounts, Diana would have needed hospitalization to even begin to deal with the severity of her problems.

Smith's account suggests that the failure of the fairytale marriage (which began with a honeymoon that was miserable for both Charles and Diana) was due as much to Diana's mental problems and her own promiscuous behavior with a string of lovers, as to Prince Charles's continued dalliance with his life-long lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Reliable sources relate the resumption of that affair coincided with Charles's realization that Diana was seriously ill, in deep denial about the severity of her problems, and not likely to improve.

Sad as it may be, a reader may finish the book feeling relieved that Diana found peace in an all-too-early death. For at the moment of her death, she was about to embark on what many called a self-destructive relationship as she continued to search for someone to give her what she could not give herself--a sense of self and purpose in life and unconditional love.


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