I have long had a difficult relationship with my biological father. Like so many – so many – women and men, I’ve danced over the boundaries and distance between us for the whole of my adult life, since he left the country without a word when I was 15. I don’t hate him. I don’t need him, either. Yet, somehow, I have ended up carrying a load of guilt for his actions. On Saturday evening, my boyfriend asked whether my fractured relationship with my father was adding to a bubbling anxiety I’ve been feeling recently, and I answered yes. Because, while I have been abstaining from returning my dad’s (very sporadic) phone calls of late, I’m afraid that he’ll die and I won’t know about it.
The following day, what did we wake up to but news that Meghan Markle’s father, Thomas, is using that very fear against her. “It’s lucky I’m still alive,” Thomas Markle told The Mail on Sunday in yet another bizarre, nine-hour sit-down with the British tabloid media. “The men in my family rarely live over 80 so I’d be surprised if I had another 10 years. I could die tomorrow. It wouldn’t be so bad. I have something of a Buddhist philosophy about death. Perhaps it would be easier for Meghan if I died. Everybody would be filled with sympathy for her. But I hope we reconcile. I’d hate to die without speaking to Meghan again.”
It is, quite obviously, a most transparent and unsophisticated guilt-trip. For those of us with estranged parents, the fear that they will die without us knowing and the responsibility to make sure that does not happen, regardless of how hurt we get ourselves, is constantly, quietly present. The feeling is particular to parent-child relationships, because of the narrative of “unconditional love” that is tied up in biological bonds. As a result, we’re taught to feel responsible for the upkeep of parent-child relationships, no matter how many times we’ve been rejected, or humiliated, or ignored, or made to feel unimportant or worthless. These feelings play out quietly at times and dramatically at others; they seep into other relationships disguised as defensiveness or jealousy or as other deep-seated issues with trust. It takes a lot of effort to try and stop this. Even when it’s not front-page news.
We’re taught to feel responsible for the upkeep of parent-child relationships, no matter how many times we’ve been rejected, or humiliated, or ignored, or made to feel unimportant or worthless
But Meghan Markle, while dealing with the shit-show of emotions that comes with having a shit-show of a father, must also deal with her relationship with Thomas Markle being at the centre of a tabloid field day. The media has had a whiff of the drama and drilled down, poking and baiting Thomas Markle like a dog with a bone. And, while I don’t believe that Markle should be relieved of guilt for his consistent (and worsening) attempts to emotionally blackmail his daughter, we should also be asking why this is allowed to happen.
More to the point, we should be asking: when will the media stop facilitating this behaviour? If Markle’s actions were that of an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband, we’d regard them as coercive control (which, as a reminder, is a criminal act in Britain). Yet, instead, Thomas Markle is afforded platforms and sympathies; described as “heartbroken” and defiant that he “WON’T let the palace silence him”. The topspin on his actions is almost as despicable as the act itself.
Because, while we support this narrative, we’re peddling the idea that parents’ actions do not have consequences and that young women, with minds of their own, should not be afforded autonomy over who they allow to be a part of their lives. The media must recognise that legitimising this behaviour, and acting as a messenger for Thomas Markle, is dangerous and irresponsible and demeaning to Meghan Markle, while piling surplus culpability on her. Those of us in a similar position know this story well, and we already feel guilty enough.