Meghan Markle's estranged Christmas: Her father's public pity party is familiar to many

If you consider weird family dynamics as much a part of the holidays as candy canes and caroling, you are not alone

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 17, 2018 3:59PM (EST)

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (Getty/Jack Taylor)
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (Getty/Jack Taylor)

The holidays are fabulous for family drama, aren't they? It doesn't matter if you're the daughter-in-law of the Queen of England or just another sloppy commoner trying to hang on your sanity till January 2, the presumed most wonderful time of the year really brings all the dysfunction to the surface. In related news, who'd have thought that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, would seem more relatable once she became a royal?

In a Monday interview with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid  on  "Good Morning Britain," Thomas Markle, the outspoken father of Meghan, accused his pregnant daughter of "ghosting" on him — and made a public plea for her to contact him. It was an interview tailor made for tabloid spin.

"I am very disappointed," he said. "I am not sure why it is happening. I am been reaching out. I have been trying to reach out for several weeks. Every day send a text, I just haven’t got anything back. I just keep asking for her to respond back to me and I haven’t got any response back. I have sent letters." Speaking above a chyron that read "Heartbreak of Meghan's dad," Markle went on to say of his child that "she always been a very controlling person and that’s part of her nature but she’s never been rude. She’s always been in charge, that’s her nature. But she’s always been polite. I don't know what's really happening right now." As he explained, "all families, royal or otherwise, are the same and they should all be together over the holidays."

The interview appears to be part of her father's holiday-themed public relations push. Markle also did an interview with the Daily Mail last week, telling the paper, "I have been frozen out and I can’t stay silent. I have made dozens of attempts to reach my daughter via text and letters, but she and Harry have put up a wall of silence."

He added, "the Meghan I know was always sweet, kind, generous. She was always demanding but never rude. I don’t want to say or do anything to hurt my daughter but I worry she is going to hurt herself."

As if to prove his point, Markle shared old cards and letters, including a Valentine in which Meghan wrote, "All I want to do is make you proud . . . and I promise, no matter what, I’ll do it."

At this point in the narrative, you're probably either the kind of person who thinks, "how sad that there's this rift in a family," or you are in full "this is exactly the kind of stuff I tell my shrink about" mode. If you're in the former population, bless. For the rest of us in the latter, I feel you. And if you consider weird family dynamics as much a part of the holidays as candy canes and caroling, you are not alone.

The complex relationship between Thomas Markle and his daughter has been playing out in the press ever since her engagement to Prince Harry was announced late last year. There were already hints that they were no longer close — in the couple's first interview together, Megan said that Harry had "talked to my dad a few times, hasn’t been able to meet him just yet." In early May, Kensington Palace announced, "Mr. Markle will walk his daughter down the aisle of St George's Chapel. Ms. Markle is delighted to have her parents by her side on this important and happy occasion." But then a few days later, news came out that Markle had been paid to stage paparazzi pictures of him allegedly preparing for the nuptials. It was soon announced that he'd suffered a heart attack, and eventually he withdrew from attending the ceremony. Prince Charles walked Meghan down the aisle on the big day.

Markle has been speaking to the press fairly regularly since, notably in July, when he told the Daily Mail, "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." In the same interview, he also defiantly insisted, "I refuse to stay quiet. What riles me is Meghan's sense of superiority. She'd be nothing without me. I made her the Duchess she is today. Everything that Meghan is, I made her." To bolster his case, the paper noted how Markle paid for his daughter's education, from private schools to Northwestern University. In an August Daily Mail interview, Markle repeated his views, saying that he told his son in law Harry in a phone conversation, "'maybe it would be better for you guys if I was dead . . .. then you could pretend to be sad.' Then I hung up."

The appeal to domestic harmony, the not-so-subtle put downs, the recruitment of other people to get them to take sides, the itemizing of services rendered — these are all tactics people living at varying degrees of estrangement from family members recognize intimately. Folks like us know all the words of the song sung by the person who's been "ghosted," in Markle's words. You're terrible. I miss you. I made you what you are, you selfish ingrate. You'll be sorry when I'm gone. (For a pop culture primer on this type of behavior, Tovah Feldshuh really nails it on "Crazy Ex Girlfriend.")

This is often a very effective strategy. Newsweek reported on Monday that Markle had issued a "desperate plea" to his daughter, and in a follow-up tweet, Piers Morgan called this "a very sad situation that needs to be resolved," noting that "Diana would have hated it."

It can be difficult for people who have had reasonably harmonious upbringings to overcome the cliché that blood is thicker than water. (No shocker, it's also baffling for those who perpetuate dysfunctional family dynamics.) But you don't have to know any of the particulars of the Markle family drama or why Meghan has allegedly cut off contact with her father to appreciate that it is the right of any person to detach from any other person, period. The idea of that the happiest of all possible outcomes is always reconciliation is utterly ludicrous. It's extra ludicrous when you're in the position to have to think of the well-being of your own family, as the Duchess of Sussex now is. But the beauty of living long enough to identify your boundaries is that you get to recognize that the idea that families "should" be together on holidays is just as often as not a steaming pile of emotionally manipulative BS.

Estrangement is often considered tantamount to failure to the outside world. Limits are discouraged. The love and trust you expressed for your family as a child can be weaponized against you in the present. I know. I would not have chosen this field of expertise, but it's a club with a lot of members. At this time of year — just like on Mother's Day, Father's Day, and birthdays, I think of the parents who are strangers to me, and how difficult it is to explain why that is to other people. I think of my friend Jessica Berger Gross, who literally wrote the book on the subject, and her advice: "You don't have to torture yourself by continuing this relationship. If your life would be better if you moved on . . . you can walk away. It's OK. It doesn't make you a bad person." And I wish for every person, when they're in a castle or a condo, the gift of spending the holidays with the loved ones of their choosing.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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