Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed October 1997
Copyright ©1997 by Lewis Lipsitt

Destiny Derailed: Diana

Lewis P. Lipsitt is emeritus professor of psychology, medical science, and human development at Brown. He currently is studying the development of adults now in their mid-30s whom he previously studied intensively from birth to age 7.

"Where do we have to go to find the harp with which Diana touched the people's chords so deeply? The tragedy we mourned was our own: What touched us most deeply was the derailment of a developing person."

Say you didn't say it, George Will.

As the life and death of Di passed in review, culminating in one memorable, glorious final day of tribute, the question asked by many distraught mourners was "Why her?"

While a desperate emotional search for answers arose among Diana's worldwide admirers, a parallel but more cerebral inquiry was occurring among TV commentators, newspaper and magazine writers, and social historians. These folks wondered in a rather intellectual way about the enormity of the raw public cry over her loss. What, they asked, has set off this massive adoration of one who was known personally by so few of the millions of mourners?

A few, commentator George F. Will included, expressed their resentment (Newsweek, Sept. 15, 1997). Will called it a week of "sheer fakery." His words were not simply those of one whose curiosity had been piqued, but of a man whose personal understanding or expectations of humanity had been betrayed: "cultural froth," "a bull market in bathos," "self-deception and autointoxication," "mass parasitism," "catharsis of emotional exhibitionism," and "people ... clutching at the flying coattails of history."

George Will was asking the same "Why her?" question but with an entirely different slant, and even a lot of bitterness. He was baffled by the outpouring of grief over the death of one whom he regarded as a very insignificant figure in contemporary society, not one to be destined for historical reknown.

Where do we have to go to find the harp with which Diana touched the people's chords so deeply?

The tragedy we mourned was our own: What touched us most deeply was the derailment of a developing person. Diana had captured our attention with both her fairytale life and her candid revelations about her private anguish. It was not so much her reports of the down side of royal life, although to be sure there is enough voyeurism focused on that, as it was her confession of personal problems, her love for and protection of her children, and her avid pursuit of pleasure under unique conditions of both privilege and oppression. Her attention to the poor and to people with AIDS, and her capacity for getting physically close to those less fortunate, including leprosy victims, did not go unnoticed by the millions of people of the world who feel less than fulfilled, or abandoned.

Diana had experienced and disclosed infidelity, depression, divorce, single motherhood, suicidal intent and attempts, crying for privacy, pleas for help, and a desperate search for relief. These are all virtually universal spheres of understanding. The public revelation of secret conversations, however insipid, called forth the memories of betrayal that most of us have suffered at one time or another.

Just about every adjective that news writers could use, from nurturant to self-destructive to lonely, have been drawn on to describe the "Princess Di personality." Everyone has seemed to have an idea of what Diana was up to, and why, because in all of this she was one with the rest of us. She was, as one TV commentator said, the face that launched a thousand fantasies. But the Face was more than a face.

Di was a vulnerable person, like most of us, but resilient, like most of us wish to be. She confessed her fragility on numerous occasions, and in a very public way. She was a person developing; she gave the impression that she wasn't yet where she was going to be. That, too, is what most humans like to think about themselves - that we are resilient and will overcome. Princess Diana was, in an important sense, Everyone. The unfulfilled life is Everyone's worst nightmare. Diana lived her short life with conflict and sadness, and sometimes with shame and lots of articulated regret.

Most thinking people try to "make sense" of their own life events, and the personal histories of others, in terms of what went before, and the contexts in which the life has been lived. Understanding the causes of our behavior is a legitimate pursuit and can be fascinating. This is not precise science, even in the hands of experts: unforeseen conditions intervene, and often prevail. In our attempts to understand the catastrophic fate of an individual, we are often left wondering why.

Di was always, so to speak, "in process" - a person developing, a life in production. She was unique, yet stereotypically like most of the rest of us - from time to time confused, irascible, rebellious, hedonistic, attached, loving, spiteful, and wishing to live, even to live it up, despite impediments. We were looking in her for further developments. For all of us, our worst fear is development interrupted.

Di's developmental destiny was sadly derailed, and this is what has created in the Princess's People so much subdued anger, and has made them unabashedly anxious.

In the final analysis, George Will did have some of it right, even as he himself could not muster any taste for participating in "the grieving sweepstakes." While characterizing the American public, and perhaps the world, as "inebriated with a spectacle both empty and degrading," he finally made the miserly concession that Princess Diana's promise may have been met after all in that, as he put it, she was "eager to use for social betterment the celebrity that came from her marriage."

Give her a bigger break, George.