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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Why Diana's Death Will Haunt Us

September 03, 1997|ROBIN ABCARIAN

"By Wednesday," my media-savvy friend declared, "it'll be over. No one will care."

He was, of course, referring to the death of Princess Diana and to the American public's perilously short attention span. Ordinarily, he'd be right. But this was no ordinary death, no ordinary woman, no ordinary tragedy.

With her "unique" funeral looming in three days, promising to be a bigger media event than her 1981 wedding, with the world's heartfelt concerns about the emotional fate of her boys, and with an increasingly sordid and morally complex picture emerging of the crash, the death of Diana is a story that continues to haunt.

And will, I'd wager, for years to come.

Commentators say we have not reacted to the death of a public figure with such sadness and shock since President Kennedy was slain in Dallas in 1963. They say no funeral for a Briton since Winston Churchill's in 1965 will compare to that in store for Diana on Saturday at Westminster Abbey.

At a birthday party for a 5-year-old last Sunday, three mothers I know--women whom I'd never have guessed spent any time at all thinking about Diana--used the word "devastated" to describe how they felt upon learning she'd died. They compared Diana to Mother Teresa and the pope in terms of the good she could cause, the comfort she could deliver to the suffering, the hope she could instill in the hopeless.

On Monday, a woman who said she was the same age as Diana and also a mother of two boys, told me that she'd made a vow to drive more carefully.

I knew what she meant: Just the night before, my daughter begged me to take a bubble bath with her. "I'm sorry," I said. "I have to watch the news. This is very important." (After all, two boys in England had just learned they would never see their mother again.) I winced at myself, turned off the TV and climbed into the bath.

*

In the swirl of praise and sorrow, it should be noted that there is a contrarian view, albeit a minority one, about the meaning of Diana, in life and in death.

Two callers to a radio talk show I guest-hosted Monday took issue with the premature beatification of the princess. They practically sputtered their outrage that so much was being made of this woman, this famously neurotic clotheshorse who, they claimed, devoted herself to causes such as ridding the world of anti-personnel land mines only as a self-serving gesture designed to force people to love her. With all the really tragic problems in our society, they said, why waste so much time and emotion on a crash involving four unsympathetic people half a world away?

Several answers come to mind.

Because it's easy, for one thing. A glamorous princess dying in a tunnel, surrounded by paparazzi who hounded her in life, and now in death, is a discrete event, easy to grasp, easy to debate. That her well-being was apparently entrusted to a drunken driver is also easy to get a handle on as yet another betrayal of a woman who had already experienced so many.

Because she was the most famous, and one of the most beloved, women in the world.

Because, thanks to her collusion with a hungry press, we felt we knew her.

And because none of us knows how to stop gang violence, end the scourge of drugs, win peace in the Middle East--name your favorite intractable issue--but we can all agree on how terrible it was that Diana was cut down in her prime just as she appeared to have found true love.

*

For the purposes of romantic tragedy, for our happily-ever-after fantasies about the fractured fairy tale that was the life of Princess Diana, her death comes at a particularly spectacular moment. Public interest was peaking again--because of her budding relationship with Dodi Fayed and because of her adoption of the politically charged land mine issue.

But just hours before she died, in an interview with London's Daily Mail, she was reported to have announced that come November, she planned to "radically change her life." She would complete her obligations to her chosen charities and causes, went the report, and then she would withdraw completely from public life.

Who knows what other revelations are in store? My guess is there are plenty, and that the public, insatiable about Diana in life, will be just as fascinated by Diana in death.

* Robin Abcarian will be writing an occasional essay on culture and society.

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