Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle recently spoke with Oprah Winfrey about their struggles, in the first interview they’ve given since quitting as working members of the royal family last year. What we learned from clips released in advance of the interview’s airing on March 7: It’s not easy being a prince.
For all of his many privileges, it’s easy to feel bad for Harry, who grew up in the spotlight, and for Meghan, who many would say both pursued that attention and fought it. Since he was small, Harry’s life was one of being followed, trailed. He was young when his mother, Princess Diana, was pursued to her death by paparazzi, but old enough to remember.
Childhood trauma is common, according to statistics cited by the Department of Veterans Affairs: About 60% of men and 50% of women have experienced some trauma in their lives. That trauma affects them as adults, showing up in an inability to regulate their emotions, sleep well, or have proper immune function. Post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) can happen weeks or many years after a traumatic event. Many people don’t get help because they think it’s normal to feel frightened or unsettled. But becoming a parent, like Harry, can trigger effects of PTSD, as parenting makes a person aware of dynamics that were present when they were a child.
In Harry’s case, too, his childhood experience with his mother being a target of the media to such an extreme that led to her death was monumental. He was 12 when she died. Even though many viewers of season four of “The Crown” could remember the paparazzi frenzy that preceded Diana’s death, it was still shocking to watch it replayed as it had to have been for Harry. It’s likely that season five will show her death.
So now, when as an adult, Harry tells Winfrey that he “can’t imagine what it must have been like” for his mother and that his “biggest concern was history repeating itself,” it’s not hard to see why he and Markle stepped away from the royal family, even as that action has shocked many both in the UK and around the world.
Harry’s not ungrateful for not performing his “duty.” He’s human and chose to recognize the pain that performing those duties caused. As he told late-night show host James Corden in an unusual interview that aired last week: “We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health. I was like, this is toxic. So I did what any husband and what any father would do.”
We can’t change our past, but we can change how we relate to it. Based on what we know of the royal family – where appearances are more important than comfort, where all children go through etiquette training, where rules are many and made to be followed – that sort of save-yourself mentality is not common. It’s certainly not admired. But that’s what makes Harry’s decision to step away even braver and more admirable.
In their interview with Winfrey, Markle wore Diana’s bracelet so that she “could be with them,” as well as a dress decorated with a lotus flower, which is symbolic of revival and a will to live, particularly resonant for survivors of trauma and believers in faith. A lotus seed can stay alive for thousands of years without water.
At one point, Winfrey inquired of Markle: “Were you silent or were you silenced?” We don’t yet know her answer. But it’s clear that in doing the interview at all, Harry and his wife are breaking away from a long-standing and all too familiar pattern of staying quiet for the sake of appearances. For years, the royal family was pursued to satisfy a public’s unending hunger for details and insight into their lives. Now, Harry and Meghan are giving us that. Hopefully, we will be brave enough to hear them.