When Prince Harry released a statement Tuesday announcing that he and his wife, Meghan, were suing the Mail on Sunday over the publication of a private letter the Duchess of Sussex had sent to her estranged father, the British press was divided. While some journalistic quarters have accused the prince of being “sanctimonious” and “playing the victim card,” others have defended the right of the Sussexes to protect their privacy.
But whatever you think of the lawsuit, it’s clear that public opinion has never really been on Meghan’s side. Indeed, ever since Harry and Meghan announced their engagement in November 2017, the American actress-turned-duchess has faced a constant barrage of criticism in the British press and from much of the British public. There have been stories about feuds with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, reports of diva-like behavior in the run-up to her wedding, accusations of hypocrisy and profligacy. But it is the estrangement from her father, Thomas Markle, which has attracted much press attention, and which has been the cause of substantial criticism toward her.
Culturally in the United Kingdom, the “family is family” refrain still has incredible potency. No matter how toxic the relationship, or how damaged the parent, plenty of people still believe that you should stick by your relatives whatever the cost to your personal well-being. In a 2015 survey out of the University of Cambridge, 68 percent of U.K. respondents said there was social stigma around family estrangement, and that they had felt judged for contradicting societal expectations after cutting off contact with a family member.
Meghan’s acrimonious relationship with her dad — as well as with other members of her wider family — is a public rift many British people find distasteful, as the commentary in many newspaper articles attests, not to mention social media. It is an affront to so-called traditional family values, and neglects the Biblical commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother;” indeed, in today’s Daily Mail, Piers Morgan accuses Meghan and Harry of being “heartless” in the way they’ve “banished” Thomas Markle from their lives. Whatever the private context for the rift between Meghan and her father — and none of us know what that context is — it is invariably Meghan who bears the brunt of the blame.
This specific criticism hits a very personal nerve with me. When I became estranged from my father 25 years ago, I was the recipient of similar judgmental attitudes. You only have one father, people used to tell me, as though perhaps I might have forgotten. It was, in fact, a truth of which I was painfully aware: I only had one father, and mine — an aggressive alcoholic — hadn’t lived up to the task.
As anyone who has ever become estranged from a family member knows — and there are, statistically, plenty of us out there — the decision is never taken lightly. To become estranged from a family member is like a slow, gradual death. It rarely happens overnight. It’s very rarely the result of a single incident. More often, it’s a buildup over time — often years — of toxic behavior, until self-preservation demands you distance yourself from it.
For years, I thought I was unusual in having such a significant estrangement in my life. But when I started writing and researching a novel about family estrangement — in which a mother is desperate to reunite her two adult daughters after three decades of a seemingly inexplicable rift — I learned I wasn’t alone.Research from a U.K. charity suggested that 19 percent of British adults are in families containing one or more estrangements. Across the pond, one U.S. study found that 40 percent of participants had experienced family estrangement, while another discovered that 10 percent of American mothers are currently estranged from at least one adult child. And when my novel, “If Only I Could Tell You,” published in the U.K. earlier this year, I received hundreds of messages from readers telling me they’d always felt ashamed and isolated by their own broken families.
For most of us, these painful estrangements at least have the benefit of taking place in private. Not so for Meghan. For the past two years, she’s had her family conflicts displayed across the front pages of newspapers, discussed on TV shows and debated in magazines, all by people who don’t actually know anything about her situation. For anyone who’s encountered dysfunctional family dynamics, to have remained silent as Meghan has — to have resisted the temptation to tell her side of the story while others are selling theirs — displays incredible self-restraint and remarkable dignity.
There are, of course, other insidious forces at play regarding the criticism Meghan has faced. There’s an undertone of racism to some of the reporting, fueled by right-wing pockets of U.K. society that resent a mixed-raced woman marrying into the royal family. Xenophobia has played a part too: the British do not, after all, have a great track record when it comes to welcoming Americans into our royalty.
And there’s undoubtedly a strong element of misogyny as well: The fact that Meghan has strong opinions — and is not afraid to express them — is unpalatable for some sections of the British establishment. You only have to look at the treatment of many female members of Parliament — ranging from gross condescension to threats of violence — to know that in some areas of British life, strong, opinionated women are still deemed unacceptable. But it is her ongoing familial struggles which have proved click-bait for so many readers, and which of course is now the subject of such a high-profile legal battle.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be robust in the face of others’ criticisms about my own estrangement, but I haven’t had to watch it dissected by the world’s media. Whether or not Meghan Markle wins her legal battle — and the right to protect her privacy around such difficult relationships — remains to be seen. But perhaps, in the meantime, the rest of us could offer a little less judgment and a lot more compassion.
- Hannah Beckerman is a British author, journalist and broadcaster. Her new novel "If Only I Could Tell You," will be published by William Morrow on 15 October, 2019
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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