Opinion: Could King Charles’ cancer diagnosis mend the fissures in the royal family?

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.

King Charles is both one of the luckiest men on earth and one of the most tragic. He is the King of England, with virtually unlimited resources and an incredibly charmed life.

He has also lived a life of near-storybook failure and resurrection: He entered an unhappy marriage with a widely beloved but extremely vulnerable young woman, which inevitably fell apart (to great public dishonor) because of his affair with the woman he truly loved but was long denied.

Jill Filipovic. - Courtesy Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic. - Courtesy Jill Filipovic

After securing a divorce (another public scandal), he was picked apart by the tabloid press; then, Princess Diana, his ex-wife and the mother of his children, was killed in a horrific car wreck, leaving their two sons devastated and a nation bereft.

It wasn’t until 2005 that he finally married Camilla, the woman he spent his life pining for; his own mother, Elizabeth II, didn’t attend the wedding (the official line was that the couple wanted a lowkey ceremony, but it was widely rumored that the Queen, in her capacity as the head of the Church of England, did not feel she could be publicly seen at second civil marriage ceremony between two divorcés).

Queen Elizabeth was the longest-serving British monarch, remaining on the throne until her death in 2022. Charles, who spent much of his life preparing for the kingship, didn’t ascend until he was in his 70s. And now, after just over a year on the throne, he has been diagnosed with cancer.

The details are thin – the crown has not even disclosed what kind of cancer the King has, just that it was diagnosed after he was evaluated for an enlarged prostate, and that it is not prostate cancer. Charles is receiving outpatient treatment in London, and is expected to continue the paperwork duties of his office and his weekly meeting with the British Prime Minister, while suspending public-facing events.

It’s not particularly fashionable to evince any empathy for an ultra-wealthy family that lives in luxury in large part on the public dime, deemed special by birthright and not because of any actual aptitude or achievement. I find the royal family to be an anachronism. But its family members they are also human beings, and spectacularly influential ones at that.

Charles’ diagnosis, on a basic human level, should merit all of our sympathy — which, after all, is an unlimited resource.

It could also be a moment for this fractured family to reckon with some of its internal misdeeds, and perhaps come back together. The most obvious fissure is that initiated by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

The details of that break remain contested, but in Harry and Meghan’s telling, part of the reason for it was the royal family’s failure to fully protect Meghan from an aggressive, harassing and often racist British tabloid press, a particularly sensitive issue for Harry, whose mother was killed after a car she was in, driven by a drunk man, sped away from paparazzi.

Another aspect, the couple said, was the royal family’s racism, including, as Meghan told Oprah, “concerns and conversations about how dark (their son’s) skin might be when he’s born.” She also felt “silenced” by the family, and said she “came to understand that not only was (she) not being protected, but that they were willing to lie to protect other members of the family.” Harry said he believes the stress of the press attacks on Meghan caused her to miscarry. (Of course, the couple’s relationship with the royal family was strained further by publicly airing this dirty laundry.)

Harry has also shown some degree of softness toward a family that has, I believe, badly mistreated his wife. He showed up at his father’s coronation ceremony, although he didn’t stick around for long. And, according to CNN reporting, he is flying back to the UK to see his father.

Serious illnesses can remind us of our own mortality and put our lives in perspective — clarify our values and hopefully spur some soul-searching. Harry, it seems, is doing his filial duty and rushing to his father’s side in a time of need. This is undoubtedly a difficult time for Charles, as he confronts a serious illness, but if he can muster the energy, this would be a prime opportunity for him to do his paternal duty, face the many ways he may have failed his youngest son, apologize and perhaps to begin making amends to Harry and his family. William, Harry’s older brother and the heir to the throne, would be wise to do some reflecting as well. As the next patriarch of the family, he has a unique opportunity to set it on a new, hopefully kinder, course.

It may be too little too late, and I certainly wouldn’t blame Meghan if she decided she’s simply done with these people. But family bonds are tough to break even for normal people; when your family is among the most famous in the world, and when your identity hinges on being one of them, those ties bind in even more complex knots. By many accounts, the royal family has been profoundly dysfunctional for generations. And this cannot be undone in a day, or even with a single emergency or tragedy.

But every reconciliation has to begin somewhere, often with a single act of contrition and an attempt at repair. If this diagnosis has Charles contemplating his life and his legacy, it would be an apt moment for him to be honest with himself and his sons about a near-universal reality of parenthood: that he has had his own struggles, that he has some regrets about the choices he made as a father, and that he loves his boys tremendously and wants to walk forward on a better path.

Harry may not be wholly receptive – family estrangements like the one Harry and Meghan have chosen are often both exceptionally painful and deeply thought-through last resorts. But in flying to London, Harry seems to be making a noble effort to support his father in a difficult time. His father, I hope, will rise to the moment, and do the hard work of fighting cancer while also fighting for his son.

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