The Unknowable Diana, 20 Years On: A Reading List

There are two events that can define a separation of generations: Where were you when Princess Diana got married? Where were you when she died?

I was a tiny toddler sitting on my young mom’s lap for the first, an awkward 17-year-old for the second. San Diego’s Starlight Musical Theatre was in the middle of a production of Singin’ in the Rain and my job was to get costumes onto cast members before they hurtled out onstage.

Somehow I learned she was dead during the performance, in the time before widespread cell phones or internet. News spread fast, through the usual backstage channels, in whispers and passed notes. The busy dressing rooms were oddly quiet. People danced off stage and started crying in the wings. Downstairs, near the costume shop, they used the pay phone to find out details from friends.

The world seemed stunned, half silent. But why? Why did we spend the next few days glued to the television and the radio? Why did we leave flowers and sing songs and feel personally affected by a woman few knew and even fewer ever understood? Who was this bashful princess, anyway? This reading list contains a few answers—but 20 years after her death, the enigmatic Diana is harder to grasp than ever.

1. “The Wedding of the Century,” by Marie Brenner (New York, August 1981)

For many, their first exposure to Lady Diana Spencer, the shy descendant of royal ladies-in-waiting and commoners, was her engagement to Charles, Prince of Wales. She was just 20 years old when it happened, which begged the question: What kind of girl snags a prince? Brenner’s breathless exposé of the most anticipated wedding of its time provides a lens for the questions that surrounded Diana when she married — and makes predictions that, it turns out, couldn’t have been farther from the truth:

Charles doesn’t seem to have thought about the ramifications of the archbishop of Canterbury’s advice about his future sex life: a good thing given by God that nevertheless, like all God’s gifts, needs to be directed aright. He doesn’t make statements telling the archbishop to mind his own beeswax. Nor does he protest the two miles of TV cables that will be in St. Paul’s. Charles is the first media prince. For him this is normal, and it’s kind of sweet how sheltered he is in the midst of the circus that surrounds him. He’s told his friends—and he means it—that he considers what will go on July 29 an absolutely private event.

His bride, who was called “Two Amp” when she was at school, in this matter is not so dumb. She comes from the real world, the world of media events and divorces, where sisters get anorectic and fathers almost go bankrupt—as hers did—and then suffer near-fatal strokes. Lady Diana escaped into fairy tales as a child—one likes to think that “Cinderella” was a special favorite—but on the matter of her wedding she harbors no two-amp illusions. She understands that this service is pure spectacle, her spectacle. She knows that well enough to have brought in the makeup woman who did A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to make sure that she will be the perfect TV bride.

For Diana Spencer, the ceremony on the morning of the twenty-ninth will represent the moment when she will finally get the ultimate security, a security never provided by the real world. Her future life will be defined by royal ribbon cuttings and court circulars in the Times, by summers at Balmoral and winters at Sandringham, by weekends at Windsor and weekdays at Highgrove. Her life will be without divorce or deviations from protocol, without ambivalence or being able to escape the obligation of having to attend an RAF show. After Wednesday noon, this twenty-year-old will never again be allowed out on the street alone.

2. Diana: In Search of Herself, by Sally Bedell Smith (August 1999)

Diana immediately set about becoming what Tony Blair later called “the people’s princess.” But though the cracks didn’t show for a while, fitting into her stifling new role was not easy.

She went through the traditional motions, producing heirs, being charitable. We all know now that the glamour was a royal façade. Tiaras, galas, and photo ops couldn’t transform a tepid marriage, one that was complicated by Charles’ longtime affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. And the public couldn’t stifle the sense that something was seriously wrong. Royals didn’t turn away from one another in public, but Charles and Diana did, And the public, so protective and conflicted about royalty felt entitled to know. In her 1999 biography, Smith revealed some of the beloved princess’ darker side.

Diana’s unstable temperament bore all the markings of one of the most elusive psychological disorders: the borderline personality. This condition is characterized by an unstable self-image; sharp mood swings; fear of rejection and abandonment; an inability to sustain relationships; persistent feelings of loneliness, boredom, and emptiness; depression; and impulsive behavior such as binge eating and self-mutilation. Taken together, these characteristics explain otherwise inexplicable behavior. Throughout her adult life, Diana experienced these symptoms severely and chronically. While she received periodic treatment for some of her problems—her eating disorder and her depression—neither Diana nor anyone close to her came to grips with the full extent of her illness.

4. The Diana Chronicles, by Tina Brown (June 2007)

Her darker side may have been well hidden, but Diana used her unprecedented visibility to bring attention to some of her era’s most pressing causes. She could change hearts and minds with a simple hug or handshake, as when she helped reduce stigma toward HIV/AIDS by daring to touch patients in public. During the last year of her life, she toured countries with landmines to raise awareness, created a landmark television special, and made a controversial land mine ban a pet project. Brown exposes the savvy that Diana brought to the cause.

Diana’s land-mine commitment was not, to use one of the Queen’s favorite pejoratives, a “stunt.” It drew forth everything that was best about her in the service of a cause that was heartrending, underpublicized, and controversial. Chased in Angola by the press the day after the Tory smoke bombs went off in London, Diana did not engage in argument. “It’s an unnecessary distraction…It’s sad…I’m a humanitarian, not a politician.”

And, indeed, few politicians would have had the courage to do what she did next. The Red Cross had decided that it was too dangerous to go to Cuito, believed to be Africa’s most heavily mined town, which was laced with booby traps. Seven children had just been killed playing soccer in an area that was supposed to have been cleared. But Diana would not hear of canceling. She pressed Whitlam, who was anxious about her safety. She lobbied the wife of the president of Angola. And the next day she was in Cuito and then in nearby Huambo, in a visor and body armor over a white cotton shirt and khaki pants, ready to be delicately guided through another allegedly cleared area—even though exposed and half-extracted mines were visible. The staff of the halo Trust, a British charity that clears mines, warned her to stay close to them. “I think by the end of the briefing she was beginning to wonder whether this was a good idea,” said Whitlam. “But she did it.”

4. “The Diana Mysteries,” by Tom Sancton (Vanity Fair, October 2004)

Her personal magnetism, media savvy, and the bravery in the face of the world’s most visible divorce endeared Diana to the world. And after her death, the circumstances of her fatal car crash became just as intriguing as the details of her life. It’s the stuff of a million conspiracy theories, and according to Scanton, there are deeper reasons to care about why, and exactly how, Diana died.

It was probably pericardial strangulation, rather than internal bleeding, that caused Diana’s sudden cardiac arrest in the tunnel.

“The damage to her heart had already happened and her death would have been inevitable at this point,” he says. “Even in the best of trauma centers, this rare condition would have been difficult to diagnose and treat—in most cases, it is only discovered at the time of autopsy. I think the result would have been the same in any trauma center in the U.S.—even if she had been brought to the emergency room 15 minutes after the accident.” If Mattox’s theory is correct, then the French were probably right to say Diana could not have been saved.

“But if Diana was doomed in any case,” I ask Mattox, “what difference does it really make to know that she died of cardiac strangulation?”

“Informing the world of the total truth puts this thing to closure,” he says. “The world is looking for closure. We never reached it on J.F.K., but maybe now we can on Diana.”

5. “Royal Bodies,” by Hilary Mantel (The London Review of Books, February 2013)

It’s chilling, our desire for graphic descriptions of Diana’s wounds, of the way she took her last breath. But then, so is the entire idea of Diana. Dissected and dramatized, her death has brought out uncomfortable truths about both the fallen princess and our obsession with fame.

Nobody captures that better than Mantel, whose examination of Diana and Kate as carefully monitored baby machines puts The Handmaid’s Tale to shame. She also captures the strange atmosphere of mourning the world put on after her death.

You could read a lot about the ways we mourned Diana, from Charles Nevin’s sensitive obituary to her brother Charles’ fierce eulogy to Peter Bradshaw’s telling essay on why her death was so ghoulishly exciting. But Mantel’s description of Diana might be the most disconcerting — and true.

For a time it was hoped, and it was feared, that Diana had changed the nation. Her funeral was a pagan outpouring, a lawless fiesta of grief. We are bad at mourning our dead. We don’t make time or space for grief. The world tugs us along, back into its harsh rhythm before we are ready for it, and for the pain of loss doctors can prescribe a pill. We are at war with our nature, and nature will win; all the bottled anguish, the grief dammed up, burst the barriers of politeness and formality and restraint, and broke down the divide between private and public, so that strangers wailed in the street, people who had never met Diana lamented her with maladjusted fervor, and we all remembered our secret pain and unleashed it in one huge carnival of mass mourning. But in the end, nothing changed. We were soon back to the prosaic: shirtsleeves, stacking chairs, little sticks. And yet none of us who lived through it will forget that dislocating time, when the skin came off the surface of the world, and our inner vision cleared, and we saw the archetypes clear and plain, and we saw the collective psyche at work, and the gods pulling our strings….

In looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself. This poses a challenge to historians and to those of us who work imaginatively with the past. Royal persons are both gods and beasts. They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.

from Longreads


Why Did a Young Woman Broadcast Her Death?

My uncle Howard killed himself in college. He was a grad student in Ann Arbor, engaged to be married, and, according to my family, well-liked. He suffered from depression worsened by tensions with his father. My grandmother knew this, yet she struggled to understand her son’s suicide for the rest of her long life. When Howard committed suicide in 1968, he did it in private inside a school chemistry lab, but he clearly wanted to be found, because he was sending a message. When 18-year-old Océane ended her life in May, 2016, she streamed the incident in real time, jumping in front of a suburban Paris subway train while strangers watched and commented.

At The GuardianRana Dasgupta tells Océane’s story and tries to understand why a young ailing woman could both criticize social media and use social media to communicate her message. Océane was wounded by trauma and haunted by the sense that no one cared, a fact that social media only amplified. Examining this central contradiction, Dasgupta teases outthe allure of escape in the depressed Parisian suburbs, the way disconnected youth seek connection, and the way celebrity, even internet celebrity, drains people of life.

For a generation so fully embedded in social media, celebrity was not remote or atypical. It was latent in everyone. Schoolgirls debated with each other how they would deal with its burdens – paparazzi, extreme wealth, film-star boyfriends – when they grew up. And this was not surprising. Social media, after all, supplied a publicity machinery with a reach and power previously available only to truly famous people, and now the condition of the celebrity was everyone’s condition. Suddenly everyone was broadcasting their life to the world, and measuring their worth on the basis of the libidinal pulses that came back – as only celebrities had before. Suddenly, the celebrity’s grief over privacy was everyone’s, and everyone was afflicted by her insecurity: do people realise there’s nothing behind it all except my own frail and disappointing humanity?

Océane was wired like everyone else. Like many other teenagers, she had often tried to make her image conform to that of the triumphal media funster: there were images of her on Twitter V-signing in a short skirt and sunglasses on a rooftop in Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign glowing in the distance (“You’re a real film star,” her friends commented, obligingly). This did not stop her being judgmental of everybody else’s online affectations, but that, of course, was the inherent paradox. Surveying the great online pageant of self-promotion and superficiality, social media users were led to believe they were the only ones in the world to have authentic feelings and opinions. “Fakes” was an English word imported by Océane’s French generation, which they used to describe, essentially, everyone other than themselves. On Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, there are only fakes. All the same, there was also no question of opting out. Océane was very much in – she had several Twitter accounts – and even as she railed against what happened on social media, it was on social media that she chose to do it. The only true significance came from mediatisation, and even discontent, if it was to have any meaning, had to be liked and shared.

The problem was that, for the most part, it did not matter how widely broadcast your discontent was: no one cared. The great majority of celebrities – in this new world where even nobodies were celebrities – were lacking in that basic attribute of the celebrity, which was fame. They were half-creatures – unfamous celebrities, anonymous superstars – and unlike their fully-formed counterparts, their thoughts and feelings were lost in the infinite cacophony. This was why there was a constant inflation of strategy and contrivance; for even those whose message was “Authenticity!” found themselves inventing stunts of their own in order for it to be heard.

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A Thousand Miles of Bad Roads with No Maps. And No Men, for Once.

As someone who grew up in the desert Southwest, I feel a kinship with anyone who goes for a long desert ramble for no other reason than to enjoy a nice long ramble. Whether by foot or by car, spending time in nature restores and grounds you, and finding your way around wild places requires parts of our minds and senses that we don’t always use back home in the city. This is especially true now that we’ve been spoiled by digital navigation that helps us find the coffee shop down the street.

At Marie Claire, Whitney Joiner narrates her seven demanding days driving through the desert back-country without GPS or cell service. Part of the U.S.’s first all-female endurance rally, where drivers navigate with only topographical maps, Joiner and her teammate went through some of America’s most challenging arid terrain as they competed against seventy other female drivers. This land of sand dunes and rocky ridgelines presented constant challenges, and drivers added their own. (As Joiner described hers: “I live in Brooklyn! I don’t even have a car!”) But the race was about strategy and endurance, designed by a woman racer with women’s strengths and uniqueness in mind. What Joiner found was the terrifying, exultant beauty of the desert.

Every night, when the scores for the day were posted, we’d land in the bottom four. But wethought we were champions.

All week, the experienced competitors were itching for the final day, when we’d be competing in sand dunes—notoriously difficult to navigate. We woke up that last morning in California’s Imperial Sand Dunes (where Return of the Jedi was partially filmed) to a blazing sun, a high in the 90s, and a range of shimmering white sand mountains towering over base camp.

I didn’t feel particularly ambitious about the dunes, but Jaclyn wanted to attempt some final point-collecting. We caravanned with a few competitors, helping each other find the safest routes, then ate lunch around a green checkpoint, sitting in the shade cast by our vehicles. It was our last green of the rally.

But when I stood up, I saw the top of a blue flag in the recess of a group of dunes to the south. I nudged Jaclyn: “Let’s try it.”

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A Lie of Creative Rehabilitation in ‘Vacationland’

At The New Inquiry, Chelsea Hogue has an expose on the Maine Department of Correction Industries (MDOC) woodshop and other prison-based businesses like it, which frame their exploitive inmate manufacturing programs as rehabilitative when in reality they’re more like state-sanctioned slavery — or, as Hogue puts it, “rebranding carceral slavery as ameliorative.”

MDOC profits from various wares made by inmates as part of their mandatory, low-wage labor, selling them at at The Maine State Prison Showroom, something of a feel-good souvenir shop.

Maine has sold its program to tourists as a form of arts-and-crafts nostalgia: Where cottage industries for handmade items have shrunk or evaporated, the story goes, these men work together to produce interesting objects. But the state’s labor program is no different from any other; its artisanal veneer may even make it more insidious. The majority of men are fulfilling monotonous duties. They aren’t learning marketable skills.

At the MDOC, the chosen method of rehabilitation is conveniently braided with punishment. Moreover, such punishment provides direct material benefit to the MDOC, those who are responsible for these men’s captivity in the first place. And yet we on the outside are told to think it is good to feel purpose—and that a task, however extractive, is one kind of purpose.

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Confronting Wealth and Class Privilege as a Black Professor at a White College

In an essay rich with lyricism and brutal honesty, Kiese Laymon tells the story of his early years teaching at an elite liberal arts college in New York. When a new friend is arrested on a parole violation, the author learns to see class differences and power dynamics in a new way.

Brown, the first person I met in Poughkeepsie, was a felon because he was black, scared, desperate, and guilty. I was black, scared, desperate, and guilty but I came from folks with a bit more money than Brown. Though I wasn’t the grandchild of grandparents who passed money or land down to my parents, I was a child of what folks called “the black middle class.” My mama was one paycheck away from asking Grandmama or me for money neither of us had the week before payday.

There was no wealth in my family of black middle class women. There were only paydays.

I knew that my student Cole, a dealer of everything from weed to cocaine, could be a college graduate, college professor, college trustee in spite of being scared, desperate, and guilty because he was a white child of wealthy parents. Cole could literally become president of all kinds of American things, or president of nothing. Either way, he’d be fine. He wouldn’t be free, but materially, Cole would never suffer.

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The Rising Seas Are Coming From Inside the House

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aaron Bady turns in another of his excellent “Game of Thrones” reviews. Watching the high fantasy finale as Houston disappears underwater, he wonders: Is Game of Thrones really a fable about climate change? If it is, it’s got one key flaw; the Night’s Kingis an external threat can actually be defeated, but we’ll be the engine of our own destruction at the hands of climate change.

If Arya or Jaime kills Cersei and Jon kills the Night’s King, then the monsters will be vanquished and the good Kings and Queens will be able to build a democracy in peace, forever. If we can just kill the bad guys then there will be no more winter, you see; we’re all just building a better world. It’s as dumb as it sounds, when you put it like that, which is why Game of Thrones doesn’t put it like that. Instead, we get a ragtag band of brothers who, together, will cancel the apocalypse. We get the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a monster that can be slain, and isn’t us; we get the high fantasy dream that we’re all queens and knights and related to each other, and that no one else exists. But it’s still raining in Houston.

Fair warning: there are spoilers. And don’t miss the accompanying review by Sarah Mesle, whose season-long dissatisfaction at the Arya/Sansa relationship is not mollified by Sunday night’s Shocking Twist and the viewer manipulation leading up to it.

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Working Class Jilts America’s Sweetheart Deal

Inequalities in employment are making America’s favorite business transaction, heterosexual marriage, less and less attractive.

At The Atlantic, Victor Tan Chen — an assistant professor of sociology and author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy — brings together the latest research on income inequality and education to break down the marriageable-man theory. While marriage rates had previously increased in working class regions in the 1970s and 80s as male earnings rose, Chen finds that this only holds today if women’s earnings also remain relatively flat or depressed. The case now, more often, is that as good jobs for working class men disappear, women are indeed less likely to marry them — unless the bride(-or-not)-to-be is laid off, too, in which case she’ll head to a more gainfully-employed man’s altar.

Here Chen’s examination of income inequality, gender-bending breadwinners, social safety nets, and more illustrates how unemployment disproportionately affects the business of romance in America:

Why are those with less education—the working class—entering into, and staying in, traditional family arrangements in smaller and smaller numbers? Some tend to stress that the cultural values of the less educated have changed, and there is some truth to that. But what’s at the core of those changes is a larger shift: The disappearance of good jobs for people with less education has made it harder for them to start, and sustain, relationships.

What’s more, the U.S.’s relatively meager safety net makes the cost of being unemployed even steeper than it is in other industrialized countries—which prompts many Americans to view the decision to stay married with a jobless partner in more transactional, economic terms. And this isn’t only because of the financial ramifications of losing a job, but, in a country that puts such a premium on individual achievement, the emotional and psychological consequences as well. Even when it comes to private matters of love and lifestyle, the broader social structure—the state of the economy, the availability of good jobs, and so on—matters a great deal.

In doing research for a book about workers’ experiences of being unemployed for long periods, I saw how people who once had good jobs became, over time, “unmarriageable.” I talked to many people without jobs, men in particular, who said that dating, much less marrying or moving in with someone, was no longer a viable option: Who would take a chance on them if they couldn’t provide anything?

And for those already in serious relationships, the loss of a job can be devastating in its own way. One man I met, a 51-year-old who used to work at a car plant in Detroit, had been unemployed on and off for three years. (As is standard in sociology, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) Over that period, his marriage fell apart. “I’ve got no money and now she’s got a job,” he told me. “All credibility is out the tubes when you can’t pay the bills.” The reason his wife started cheating on him and eventually left him, he said, was that “a man came up with money.”

His loss of “credibility” wasn’t just about earnings. He worried that, like his wife, his two young kids looked down on him. He’d always been working before; now they wondered why he was always home. In his own mind, being out of work for so long had made him less of a man. “It’s kinda tough when you can’t pay the bills, you know. So I have been going through a lot of depression lately,” he told me. Unemployment makes you unable to “be who you are, or who you once were,” he added, and that state of mind probably didn’t him make an appealing person to live with.

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