As a recent Northwestern graduate, who attended university during the entirety of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's engagement and wedding, I always felt a cool, sort of local connection to the now-Duchess of Sussex. My love of the royals was definitely passed down from my mom, who admired Princess Diana so much as a grade-schooler, she even copied her hairstyle. So walking down the same streets Meghan did as a college student and going to the same hangouts (like the 24-hour Burger King) was a wild thing to think about. But one way I never thought we'd be able to relate was over family troubles, more specifically Meghan Markle’s relationship with her father — but, as it turns out, I was wrong.
Before Harry and Meghan got married in May, Thomas Markle had been making a name for himself in the British and American media. He made accusations of Meghan ignoring or neglecting him, and he's still making appearances on British TV, continuing his narrative that she’s cutting him off for no reason other than forsaking his side of the family. Meanwhile, her half-sister, Samantha Markle, has also perpetuated this notion, being even more outspoken than Thomas and going so far as taking a note to the gates of Kensington Palace in order to "get a message" across after not being invited to the royal wedding months prior.
At first, I found the situation surrounding Meghan's estranged family hilariously desperate-looking. As far as I could tell, from the information given, this was all a cash-grab. It’s been reported that, prior to the wedding that she wasn’t invited to, Samantha hadn’t spoken to Meghan in years. So why all this focus on their newly royal family member, other than to get some fame from it, or better yet, money?
The rhetoric surrounding all of this — from Thomas staging paparazzi photos, to Samantha showing up to Buckingham Palace with a note for her half-sister — sounded familiar. Pretty much right away, it felt close to home, because it was something I’d dealt with before. And, in the initial hoopla of it all, I could imagine my own extended family doing the same thing if I were in Meghan’s shoes.
To put it simply, my father is a showboat. He loves staging a performance for those around him — whether it’s being the funniest person in the room and acting clown-like to get a boisterous laugh from whoever's watching, or just putting on his huge smile to create the front of happy, nice guy. Not to say he’s not those things to others (funny, nice, or happy), but he also hides his true behavior underneath. That smile has masked a deadly tone at times, or a laugh could also conceal the fact that me or my sister just called him out for his actions. But no matter what's going on behind the scenes, he’s all about looking good in front of others.
For example, my father made sure to "just check up on me" while I was away at college — when he wanted something, that is. Ever since he left my mom and three other siblings on Christmas when I was 15, he’s never reached out without self-motivated intentions. So when he started asking for pictures of my dorm room or photos of my time abroad, it was all so he could show his family back in California that he still has a connection to me, when (spoiler alert) he doesn’t. And that extended family is only kept up-to-date on us through his lies, which they don’t even question.
From the time I was in high school, he’s gaslighted the hell out of me and my siblings. But especially me, since I have the most strained relationship with him and call him out on those lies. “Gaslighting” — as Dr. Robin Stern, the Associate Director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect, explains to me over the phone — is a manipulative way of acting or wording things to gain control of someone’s emotions or make them question their own truth.
The situation usually involves a power dynamic, and as Dr. Stern says, “The person with more power, attempts to sow seeds of doubt in the person they're gaslighting by challenging, negating that other person's reality. In other words, somebody is telling you what you should be believing, or telling you something about your character that causes you to doubt yourself.”
So in Meghan's case, that's her dad Thomas saying she's ghosting him and claiming she's a controlling person during a talk show interview with Piers Morgan. Or in my case, gaslighting included my father texting me that he "tried to make sure [he] would be there for every part of [my] life," and that he's "been trying to be part of [my] life, which [I] have not allowed [him] to be in." When in reality, he can't be bothered to have more than a five-minute conversation with his children once a week. Plus, he left when I was 15; you can't expect an angsty teen to lead such an important relationship when they've been left heartbroken. Where was his effort all along?
I realized, right then and there, I needed to follow through on my promise to myself: I was going to remove him from my life.
Sure, I may have found Meghan's half-sister Samantha’s original behavior amusing (in a she’s-making-a-complete-ass-out-of-herself sort of way). However, the family's frequent badgering and character-assassinating of the new duchess are now not only in gaslighting territory, but also very obviously toxic. And while that’s coming from her half-sister, her father continuing to speak very publicly about what should be a private relationship is also toxic and clearly dismisses any autonomy Meghan is trying to have over her personal life and who's allowed in it.
Dr. Maru Torres-Gregory — a staff therapist, teacher and faculty supervisor at The Family Institute at Northwestern University — tells me via email that gaslighting can be classified as abusive, "in the sense that it highlights manipulation on the part of a person in a position of relative (or actual) power over another in order to exert control." Dr. Maru continues, "The gaslighter usually tries to isolate the victim and keep them in a state of confusion, making it easier to control them."
When dealing with a parent who gaslights, Dr. Stern advises to set boundaries. “Don't get involved in the power struggle,” she explains. “Say things like, ‘We're going to have to agree to disagree,’ or ‘I know you feel that way, but I don't agree with you.’” Communication, in any relationship, is key, of course. And if that person repeatedly ignores those boundaries, then you need to minimize interactions with that person as much as possible.
Despite not speaking publicly on the situation since before her wedding in May, it seems that Meghan is still keeping distance from her father. A recent Cosmopolitan article cited sources who claim the Queen advised Meghan to address the issue publicly, or at least confront her father head-on. Meghan is apparently choosing to ignore that advice and her father altogether, and in doing so, maintaining boundaries she most likely put in place to save herself from the toxicity of her family's behavior.
It doesn't matter if Meghan has talked to her father in private since the wedding, nor does it matter if she's ignored him completely. Her father's blatant disregard for any boundaries is borderline abusive, as pointed out by experts — if only because it negates her wishes for their relationship.
On my end, I don't have a completely estranged relationship with my father, mostly because I have siblings as young as 11, so I have to see him when he comes by once or twice a year. But I recently let him know that, to me, he's a deadbeat dad, and his gaslighting and constant lack of care are bad for my mental health. In private, and even in front of my therapist, he's outright lied about my mother and about his actions when I lived through it all. He tells fallacies so often to try to throw me off — and probably to make himself believe them, too.
This conversation was brewing since I was 15. For eight years, despite me being outright hostile at times, I never fully confronted him. I never listed off what he's failed to do as a parent, along with the very little he's contributed to my life. I hadn't explicitly called out his misogynistic behavior, or the fact that our family has struggled with basic food, rent, and other essentials. Meanwhile, he's bought Burberry, goes on vineyard tours, and flaunted new Nikes when he "couldn't spare money" to replace my hole-ridden gym shoes.
Speaking my truth felt good. God, did it feel good. So good, that I realized, right then and there, I needed to follow through on my promise to myself: I was going to remove him from my life. Our relationship hasn't improved — it's only gotten worse. With no effort on his behalf, I previously toyed with the idea of officially cutting ties, but figured I'd let it fizzle. After that last conversation, though, I'm for sure letting go. Especially since he gaslighted me — or tried to — one last time, blaming me for our failed relationship. As Ariana Grande would say, thank you, next, sir.
Dr. Stern explains that the damage done by a gaslighting parent is "never irreversible," but along with setting boundaries, there has to be a desire to fix things. If that parent were to ask for forgiveness, Dr. Maru says that it can be "a tricky subject," because a gaslighter might not have pure motives, and rather may expect something out of it.
There could be hope for the victim, though. "Forgiveness can be very freeing, as it could help break the controlling bond that ties them to the gaslighter," Dr. Maru says. "I believe forgiveness should be sought for the sake of the emotional and psychological peace of the victim, instead of necessarily as a reflection of true remorse on the part of the gaslighter."
Thomas Markle has apologized, and even said that Prince Harry and Meghan have forgiven him in the past. But the fact that he keeps doing TV appearances seemingly negates all that, specifically his plea for a place in her life on his most recent appearance on Good Morning Britain. Forgiveness would be something Meghan would have to decide is best for her, if it helps ease her mind and heart. And her father's pleas just don't sound super sincere at the moment.
As for me, I never fully closed a door on my father because I was always taught to forgive and that in order to fully heal, forgiveness was key. However, I've come to the realization that if a person doesn't earn that respect, or doesn't seek it out, they don't deserve it. My father won't even admit any wrongdoings, let alone ask for reconciliation. And if redemption isn't possible, I should do what's best for my mental health, regardless of whether forgiveness is part of that equation.
Meghan is a celebrity, and royalty to boot. So, of course, I can't sit here and pretend to be an expert on what's going through her mind or what's being said behind closed doors, and I certainly can't personally know who she "really" is. But what I can do is attest to the fact that I've gone through the pain and humiliation of a father who'd much rather indulge in personal fantasies and self-gratification than support his own flesh and blood. So for the sake of the Duchess of Sussex's sanity, and mine, can our dads please step it up in 2019 and grow up? Accountability would be great, too.