Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: It wasn't just depression that claimed Charlotte

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Charlotte Dawson. Photo / Getty Images
Charlotte Dawson. Photo / Getty Images

Charlotte Dawson was about the same age as I am. Today, I'm alive and she is dead. I didn't know you when you were alive, Charlotte, so I hope you don't think it is presumptuous of me to write about you now you're not, but then ... hardly.

You always did like to be talked about. I wonder if you'd laugh at the way everyone likes you when you're dead. You're Princess Diana now.

You might be pleased that they're saying you were killed by bullies and internet trolls. Or by those pesky ubiquitous - annoying word alert - "demons". Maybe. But that's not what I think. It wasn't just depression that claimed you.

I think you were also claimed by the fear of getting old. It is hard being 47. At the crisis of middle age, losing your sexual currency, becoming invisible. Psychologist Joseph Burgo says getting older inevitably involves a kind of narcissistic injury: as our bodies age and younger people find us less physically attractive, they seem to look right through us, as if we no longer exist.

Finding we have lost our sexual currency can come as a blow to our self-esteem, even those of us who haven't relied on our looks to get attention. So it would have been even harder for you, Charlotte. Dr Burgo says women who can't bear the shift to a supporting role may ape the behaviours, clothing and attitudes of the young, trying to preserve their sexual appeal. They may opt for plastic surgery.

Socially, they become more self-absorbed and insensitive, demanding to remain the centre of attention. Sound familiar?

The famous fashion muse Isabella Blow, who also lost her battle with depression aged 49, was anguished over her inability to "find a home in a world she influenced".

We might not all walk the red carpet but we all struggle to find a way to feel we matter as we get older. "I'm not a brand. I'm a human being," you said in a tweet not long before you died. The problem was you were a brand, actually.

But it seemed you were trying to let go of your invented sense of self, the fake persona Charlotte Dawson. You were trying to become real. It is hard. You were clever but that's not much help.

When doing this sort of Velveteen Rabbit work, intelligence can be a liability rather than an asset. To do well in rebuilding yourself piece by piece requires modesty rather than brilliance.

Ageing is brutal. I definitely think we need to find a new way to age as women, to feel valued, to not be wiped out. I was excited to read in the Guardian that there might be a bit of a fledgling new movement for women of a certain age to get stroppy, to boil with fury, to refuse to go beige, to refuse to become invisible.

The Guardian's Melissa Benn says women aged over 50 face deep injustices - divorce leaves most women financially worse off, and women earn less and do more - yet we tend to stay silent in public.

Benn is agitating to say we should stop shutting up and start being witty, daring and stroppy. For some, the idea of rebelling means they risk being tarred as alone, unsuccessful, troublesome and now old to boot. But don't say it like it's a bad thing.

That is the path to freedom, I think: embrace the idea of being subversive, powerful, batty old broads.

Could you have been one of those, Charlotte? (It's why so many of us go back to university. We all want to be Doris Lessing, Mary Wesley, Iris Murdoch.)

But to get eccentric old bat status, you have to stop caring what other people think of you. That was particularly hard for you, Charlotte. Individuals with low self-esteem tend to be more concerned with what others think of them than what they think of themselves.

You felt shunned for being single, being childless, for having a mental illness. The truth is no one really cares. But for you that was even worse.

It is terrifying to think of becoming insignificant, being wiped out, being annihilated. So, ultimately, you chose to preserve Charlotte Dawson, the glamorous brand, aged 47, forever.

Debate on this article is now closed. Readers are reminded to keep their comments to a publishable standard.

- NZ Herald

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