For every person who thought their parents’ antics—wearing awkward dad-jeans or mom-dancing in public—were mortifying, Thomas Markle reminds us how much worse things can be. This week, in yet another cringe-inducing interview, he likened the royal family of which his daughter Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is now a member, to a cult. But Thomas Markle, and his extended family have also managed to do something else. They have cast a spotlight on an emerging frontier in mental health, and by extension may inspire a new debate about media ethics.
In addition to Mr. Markle’s recent “cult” claim, he admitted staging his own paparazzi photos for pay ahead of her wedding to Prince Harry, and shared private comments the royal couple has made to him. He has also insinuated he will continue speaking to the press unless the royal family speaks to him, while her siblings have given unflattering interviews and are participating in reality shows to extend their fifteen minutes of fame. If these people were Meghan Markle’s former friends, everyone in the world would universally say, “with friends like these… ” and co-sign her apparent choice to end the relationships.
But they are not friends. You can pick your friends. These people are family.
Part of why the Markle family, and specifically media coverage of them, evokes such strong feelings is they challenge an idea that has been embedded in cultures for centuries, but in recent years has undergone a reevaluation by those focused on mental and emotional health: the notion that you should maintain family ties, no matter what.
I know from personal experience that a lot can fall under the “no matter what” umbrella. I have heard multiple stories of individuals sexually or physically abused by a family member, and then being told not just to forgive, but to move on and maintain contact. Because “family’s family.” Read any article on the Markle family drama and you will find that commenters tend to fall into two camps. Camp 1 is made up of those who wish the Duchess and her new family well and applaud her choice to cease contact with her media-loving father, sister and other relatives. Camp 2 is comprised of people who believe “family’s family.” Their argument is basically, you get one family and no matter who they are and what they do, you should never cut family out of your life and the Duchess should be shamed for doing so.
Camp 2 is giving voice to a long-held perspective, that putting family first means often putting individual happiness and healthiness, second, third, or in the case of victims of abuse, last. Public figures like Academy Award winner Mo’Nique have shared the re-victimization they have felt when family members encouraged them to continue functioning as a happy family unit, after being victimized by a family member. (Mo’Nique was sexually abused by her brother.) While victims of sexual abuse and physical abuse have been asked to move on and maintain contact, victims of emotional and verbal abuse have struggled to be recognized as victims of abuse at all. Only recently has that started to change.
In 2012, the international nonprofit Women’s Refuge dubbed psychological abuse the most common form of domestic violence inflicted on women and children. Two years later, the American Psychological Association published a study that concluded, “Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused, yet psychological abuse is rarely addressed in prevention programs or in treating victims.” The study defined psychological abuse as “caregiver-inflicted bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, severe insults, debasement, threats, overwhelming demands, shunning and/or isolation.” If Thomas Markle’s claims that he will continue to giving unflattering interviews about his daughter unless she and her new family speak to him don’t constitute threats, I’m pretty sure they fall somewhere in the neighborhood of overwhelming demands, coercive control and, possibly, bullying.
Patricia Evans, one of the nation’s leading experts on verbal abuse, said in an interview that threatening to reveal something a child, regardless of age, has shared with a parent in confidence, in an effort to control that child’s behavior, is in itself a form of verbal abuse. Having counseled thousands of survivors of verbal abuse, she explained that she has advised many survivors to cut ties with people who regularly inflict emotional pain. “Those who are regularly targeted often need to end all contact with the perpetrator to avoid re-traumatization.” When asked about critics of Meghan Markle’s alleged decision to cut ties with her father, Evans said, “Real parents don’t blackmail their children.”
Evans also believes that awareness regarding the impact of verbal and emotional abuse on children and adults is increasing, a sentiment shared by Dr. Michael B. Brown. Having worked as a minister for more than forty years, Brown counseled countless families and survivors of abuse. While controversial minister Paige Patterson recently stepped down after his advice to a battered woman—encouraging her to remain with an abusive spouse became public—plenty of children have maintained toxic relationships with parents, because of their religious faith. The Biblical scripture verse “honor thy father and mother,” is often cited to convince those raised in the Christian church to accept their parents and endure their treatment, regardless of whether that treatment is healthy.
But in his new book, “Love is the Way,” Dr. Brown writes extensively of the importance of healthy relationships to one’s long-term physical and mental health. In an email he elaborated on the scripture verse cited above, and what it means for those who may have toxic parental relationships. “We honor the honorable,” he wrote. “But honoring our parents is covenantal. To be honored, they are expected to live honorably – not perfectly, but honorably. “ He continued, “Can we love those who are dishonorable? Can we forgive them? Can we feel compassion when we consider the forces that made them what they are? Of course. But, honor implicitly includes approval, and there are simply some things that people of faith and/or morals cannot condone, approve, or respect.” He added that no one should have to endure physical or sexual abuse and that we “distance ourselves” from psychologically and verbally abusive parents.
This is precisely what the Duchess of Sussex appears to have done. Yet, she has faced endless criticism for doing so as the media gleefully feast on the story. Coverage of her family, therefore, raises ethical questions. If a woman ended a romantic relationship with an abusive man, and that man promised to make her life miserable until she resumed contact with him, most people would be horrified, and responsible journalists would not want to be complicit by giving him a platform to execute his threats. Yet outlets have been enabling the Markle clan nonstop. The only difference? They’re family.
When Prince Harry opened up about seeking psychological help after his mother’s death, and his brother also spoke openly about the topic, they went against generations of tradition. Their awareness of the importance of mental health means they likely recognize the importance of healthy relationships to maintaining mental health, and they also recognize the importance of letting go of toxic ones. The Markle family seems to be the walking definition of toxic.
The Markle family melodrama is playing out as both a Shakespearean drama and Rorschach Test for modern society. People either see the Markle family and see their own, or see them and see a horror show. Maybe they see both. Family is family, but if family is unhealthy, they don’t have to remain a part of your life. Hopefully, the Markle family melodrama will inspire others in emotionally abusive relationships to seek the help they need to set themselves free.