We don’t know how Peaches Geldof lived or died
We think we know celebrities, and when they die we’re quick to speculate about the reasons. But we have little insight into their true personalities or circumstances
Life in the limelight: Peaches Geldof in London in January. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty
Life in the limelight: the photograph that Peaches Geldof tweeted of her toddler self with her mother, Paula Yates, shortly before she died. Photograph: Twitter
Life in the limelight: Peaches Geldof with her husband, Thomas Cohen, and their sons, Astala Dylan Willow Geldof-Cohen and Phaedra Bloom Forever Cohen, in London last Christmas. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty
Life in the limelight: Peaches Geldof and her father, Bob, at London Fashion Week in 2009. Photograph: Danny Martindale/WireImage
‘Becoming a mother was like becoming me, finally,” Peaches Geldof recently told Mother & Baby magazine, for which she had just become a parenting columnist. “After years of struggling to know myself, feeling lost at sea, rudderless and troubled, having babies through which to correct the multiple mistakes of my own traumatic childhood was beyond healing.”
Hearing that Paula Yates and Bob Geldof’s daughter had died suddenly at home at the age of 25, leaving two baby sons and their 23-year-old father, Thomas Cohen, her second husband, was a heart-sinking moment. Many of us were filled with a horrible sense that the dark she had battled had somehow won.
“I’ve felt like 30 since I was 13,” she once said. Fighting against a troubled family and personal history, Peaches Geldof was an articulate, ebullient and beautiful 25-year-old journalist and model who had seemed to triumph.
But her heart stopped beating on Monday, only 19 minutes after her last Twitter post and a day after she posted a photograph of her toddler self with her mother.
Those of us who remember it thought back to the overdose and death of Yates when Peaches was only 11, and wondered how much more Bob Geldof could take. His own mother died when he was seven, and he was raised by his father in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. In his words this week, his family has been “fractured so often, but never broken”.
And we worried for her surviving sisters: 31-year-old Fifi Trixibelle, 23-year-old Pixie and her 17-year-old half-sister, Tiger Lily, who had had already lost both parents: Yates when she was four and, before that, when she was 16 months old, her father, the Australian rock star Michael Hutchence.
Such concern is human. “The unexplained death of any apparently healthy 25-year-old causes us all emotional distress and worry,” says Paul Gilligan, a psychologist who is also chief executive of St Patrick’s University Hospital, in Dublin. “When this person is a well-known public figure this distress and worry can be greater, because, in an age of heightened media awareness, it brings home for us our own and our loved ones’ vulnerability to the sometimes randomness of death.”
But there’s a fine line between the need to understand and prurient gossip or speculation. Peaches was born into a life
by which the media was fascinated and in which it often intruded. She knew its dangers, writing that “our need to knock celebrities is twisted: it’s deep in the mid-brain, below the survival instinct”. But she chose to embrace it.
It’s tough being the child of a famous person. “Most children want to outdo their parents: to shine brighter than their parents did,” says Trish Murphy, a Dublin-based psychotherapist. “This is very difficult if your parents are famous or infamous, and the effort to create an identity that is beyond their parents might be too much.”
With Peaches Geldof’s unexplained death, her Instagram photographs of herself with her two “fat little cherubs” turned from tokens of a mother’s pride to online memorials.
Candid Instagrams of her babies, Astala Dylan Willow, who will be two on April 21st, and Phaedra Bloom Forever, whose first birthday will be on April 24th, survived, disturbingly, online in her Twitter account for a day before they were deleted. (Although as a teenager Peaches had condemned “silly” and “weird” children’s names, Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa had followed family tradition.)
In her column for Mother & Baby , Peaches wrote that before becoming an “earth mother” she “lived a life of wanton wanderlust . . . lost in a haze of youth”. Like many at her stage of life, she took drugs. In her case they included heroin. But the constant fun had become boring, and she had craved an anchor. “When I had two wailing, smiling, joyful little blobs of waddling pink flesh, they became my entire existence, and saved me from one of pure apathy.”
The transition to motherhood had been hard, isolating and scary – at one point she said it had broken her – yet the “pure love” her babies gave her made her realise she “had it all . . . the perfect life . . . bliss”.
Every mother has felt those moments of bliss, the pay-off that keeps us going when we’re exhausted by caring for young children 24 hours a day. And, like Peaches, many of us use social media to share pictures of domestic happiness even when we’re depleted by it. “As human beings we can be very fragile while putting on a public face of contentment,” says Murphy.
When we relate with empathy, this is the best in us. Our need to understand family dynamics is only human, inspiring Greek dramatists and Shakespeare.
“I think we use celebrity families to consider family dynamics, family rebels and difficulties from a safe distance,” says Murphy. “It allows us to measure our own families and relationships from this perspective while not putting ourselves at risk. Also, in a way, we feel the Geldofs are family: we know them, we have shared their success and losses . . . and felt proud of our countryman doing so well. We want to know them better, to feel our support and be part of their network.”
But it also brings out the worst in us
. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote in the 19th century about the fascination of Cape Cod residents with shipwrecks and described seeing people comb the shore and climb a wreck for clothing and valuables to sell or use. Some, like him, were merely sightseers, drawn to death. In the social-media age we do much the same, poring over the tantalising wreckage of people’s lives, recycling and selling not objects but speculation spun as fact.
When the subject is someone who peddles self-exposure by becoming a “brand” we may even feel justified. Peaches gained 100,000 Twitter followers after her death. Her public sharing of her personal struggles, combined with so much having been written about her famous family, entices us to construct narratives that imply cause and effect.
Yet the result is tawdry: soap-opera tragedy condensed to a few paragraphs, like a beachcomber searching the pockets of a dead sailor and finding his wife’s letters.
The media can be horribly smug as it turns personal tragedy into a rolling event. “In the absence of a reason or explanation, and in order to protect ourselves psychologically and emotionally, we attempt to rationalise the death and speculate about its cause,” says Gilligan.
“If the death was as a result of drug use or suicide it somehow helps us to rationalise it, and reinforce for us that it could not happen to us or our loved ones, or that we can protect ourselves against such occurrences by taking action.”
Gilligan suggests that speculation, for some, “reinforces the sense of anger or bitterness they feel towards those they feel are privileged or chose to live their lives in the public arena. For example, ‘she might have had money and fame, but this always leads to unhappiness or drug abuse.’ ”
The nature of our relationship with media celebrities is psychologically complex. “We know – or think we know – so much about them and feel we know them intimately, yet we have no real insight into their true personalities and have no real emotional connectedness or responsibility to them,” says Gilligan. “If we are mature and compassionate we will know it is important we park our speculation and give them the space and time to come to terms with their loss.”
We will never know what happened in Peaches Geldof’s interior life or that of her family, despite their fame. We have no right to.