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Prince William and a life shaped by trauma

Alastair Campbell interviewing Prince William in 2017 - Credit: Alastair Campbell

Prince William’s angry condemnation of the BBC following the revelations about the way Martin Bashir secured his interview with Princess Diana has underlined just how much the future monarch has been shaped by his mother’s death

There was a cold, dignified anger in Prince William’s response to the investigation into the BBC’s handling of Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana. Every word was laden with emotion not often seen in the future King, more reserved than his brother Harry. The pain of what happened to their mother runs deep. Though his target, given the circumstances, was the BBC, there are many parts of the media he blames for her death.

Four years ago, I interviewed Prince William for GQ. He, his wife Catherine and brother Harry had entered the mental health campaign space with their Heads Together initiative, and that was the focus of our discussion. Inevitably, when discussing his own mental health, we discussed his mother, her life and death, and the role of the media. In light of recent events, and that remarkable statement last week, the following extracts might help explain where he was coming from, how deep the feelings run, and how they continue to shape his attitude to his role, to the media scrutiny that comes with it, and how he sees his role as a father as well as future monarch.

His statement launched an avalanche against the BBC in the written press, and though much of it may have been justified, their coverage was riddled with self-serving hypocrisy, given their own role was every bit as much as culpable in creating the pain and paranoia that became part of Diana’s troubled and shortened life…

Alastair Campbell: When you were growing up, at school, did you feel you were surrounded by people who couldn’t talk about their feelings?

Prince William: Yes, I think so, but I do think a generational shift has gone on. If I look at my parents’ generation, there was a lot more stiff upper lip going on. Don’t get me wrong, there is a right time and place for the stiff upper lip, and for those of us in public life times when you have to maintain it sometimes, but behind closed doors, in normal everyday life we have to be more open and more upfront with our feelings and emotions.

AC: On the stiff upper lip, I can see why there may be a place for that. But listen… my mother died when I was 56, she had a full life, died quickly, relatively painlessly, but it was very upsetting. I am not sure I could have walked behind her coffin with millions of people around the world looking at me, without crying.

PW: No.

AC: So how hard was that?

PW: It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But if I had been in floods of tears the entire way round how would that have looked?

AC: How can you not be in floods of tears if you feel like being in floods of tears?

PW: In the situation I was in, it was self-preservation. I didn’t feel comfortable anyway, having that massive outpouring of emotion around me. I am a very private person, and it was not easy. There was a lot of noise, a lot of crying, a lot of wailing, people were throwing stuff, people were fainting.

AC: As you were walking?

PW: Yes. It was a very unusual experience. It was something I don’t think anyone could ever have predicted. Looking back, the outpouring of grief and emotion was very touching but it was very odd to be in that situation.

AC: When you were up at Balmoral through the week, were you conscious of how big it all was down here?

PW: No, not at all. All I cared about was I had lost my Mum.

AC: So you were protected from everything happening in the Mall?

PW: Yes. I was 15, Harry almost 13, and the overwhelming thing was we had lost our mother.

AC: Did you grieve?

PW: Probably not properly, I was in a state of shock for many years.

AC: Years?

PW: Yes absolutely. People might find that weird, they might think of shock as something that is there, it hits you, and then in an hour or two, maybe a day or two, you are over it. Not when it is this big a deal, when you lose something so significant in your life, so central, I think the shock lasts for many years.

AC: But for you to say you felt you were in shock for years – how much harder is it when you are having to grieve or try to grieve with this extraordinary level of global scrutiny, and the endless ridiculous fascination in every detail of your and your mother’s lives.

PW: It does make it more difficult. It doesn’t make you less human. You’re the same person, it is a part of the job to have the interest. The thing is you cannot bring all your baggage everywhere you go. You have to project the strength of the United Kingdom – that sounds ridiculous, but we have to do that. You can’t just be carrying baggage and throwing it out there and putting it on display everywhere you go. My mother did put herself right out there and that is why people were so touched by her. But I am determined to protect myself and the children and that means preserving something for ourselves. I think I have a more developed sense of self-preservation.

AC: And yet the Heads Together campaign is all about saying we should talk, be more open about our emotions, out with the stuff upper lip, in with more talking… So is it different for you?

PW: Well, I am in the role I am in. But if I had mental health issues I would happily talk about them. I think the closest I got was the trauma I suffered when I lost my mother, the scale of the grief, and I still haven’t necessarily dealt with that grief as well as I could have done over the years.

AC: Who do you talk to?

PW: Family, friends, I talk to those around me who I trust.

AC: But it can’t be easy in your position to find people you can trust totally.

PW: It is hard. But I have always believed in being very open and honest. One of the few strengths I might have is that I am good at reading people, and I can usually tell if someone is just being nice because of who I am, and saying stuff for the wrong reasons.

AC: Have you ever talked to people other than friends and family about your feelings?

PW: No, I have not talked to a specialist or anyone clinical, but I have friends who are good listeners and on grief, I find talking about my mother, and keeping her memory alive, very important, and I find it therapeutic to talk about her, and to talk about how I feel…

AC: The first time I met your mother in 1994, she said to me “why did you used to write those horrible things about me when you were a journalist?” I said “my God, I can’t believe you read that stuff”. But she did. I was shocked that she had read it and also remembered it, it was years earlier. And it made me think at the time that some people reach a certain level of fame that media and public cease to see as human beings. Do you think that is what happened to her, and do you think it has happened to you ever?

PW: Not with me, no. I think with her it was a unique case. The media issue with my mother was probably the worst any public figure has had to deal with.

AC: What? The intrusion, the harassment?

PW: Yes, but more the complete salacious appetite for anything, anything at all about her, even if there was no truth in it, none whatsoever.

AC: So you don’t have any sympathy with the argument that she cultivated her own friends in the media and fed the whole thing?

PW: I have been exploring this. Remember I was young at the time. I didn’t know what was going on. I know some games and shenanigans were played but she was isolated, she was lonely, things within her own life got very difficult and she found it very had to get her side of the story across. I think she was possibly a bit naïve and ended up playing into the hands of some very bad people.

AC: Media people?

PW: Yes. This was a young woman with a high profile position, very vulnerable, desperate to protect herself and her children and I feel strongly that there was no responsibility taken by media executives who should have stepped in, and said ‘morally – what we are doing, is this right, is this fair, is this moral?’ Harry and I were so young, and I think if she had lived, then when we were older, we would have played that role, and I feel very sad and I still feel very angry that we were not old enough to be able to do more to protect her, not wise enough to step in and do something that could have made things better for her. I hold a lot of people to account that they did not do what they should have done, out of human decency… I suppose the one glimmer of light is that because of what happened to my mother, we do not get it as bad as she did. We still have problems for sure, but do have a little more protection because of the ridiculous levels it got to for my mother, the fact she was killed being followed, being chased, I think there are more boundaries to their actions…

AC: That feeling of shock, sadness [following Diana’s death], you never felt it strayed over to what I would know as an illness, depression?

PW: I have never felt depressed in the way I understand it, but I have felt incredibly sad. And I feel the trauma of that day has lived with me for 20 years, like a weight, but I would not say that has led me to depression. I still want to get up in the morning, I want to do stuff, I still feel like I can function. Believe me, at times it has felt like it would break me, but I have felt I have learned to manage it and I’ve talked about it. On the days when it has got bad I have never shied away from talking about it and addressing how I feel. I have gone straight to people around me and said ‘listen I need to talk about this today.’

AC: Like when?

PW: Last week with the air ambulance [from 2015 to 2017, the prince worked for the East Anglian Air Ambulance], I flew to a really bad case, a small boy and a car accident. I have seen quite a lot of car injuries, and you have to deal with what you see but every now and then one gets through the armour. This one penetrated the armour, not just me but the crew who have seen so much. It was the feelings of loss from a parent’s point of view, the parents of the boy. Anything to do with parent and child, and loss, it is very difficult, it has a big effect on me, it takes me straight back to my emotions back when my mother died, and I did go and talk to people at work about it. I felt so sad. I felt that one family’s pain and it took me right back to the experience I had. The more relatable pain is to your own life the harder it is to shake it off.

AC: How much has the passing of time helped?

PW: Well, they do say time is a healer, but I don’t think it heals fully. It helps you deal with it better. I don’t think it ever fully heals.

AC: Is there a part of you that in a way doesn’t want it to heal fully because for that to happen might make her feel more distant? So you feel the need to stay strongly attached? If grief is the price we pay for love, maybe you want to keep the grief out of fear that loss of grief means you love her less?

PW: One thing I can always say about my mother is that she smothered Harry and me in love. Twenty years on I still feel the love she gave us and that is testament to her massive heart and her amazing ability to be a great mother.

AC: How different do you think the country would be if she was still here?

PW: I have thought about that, but mainly from my own perspective. I would like to have had her advice. I would love her to have met Catherine and to have seen the children grow up. It makes me sad that she won’t, that they will never know her.

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