SHE must have wondered if she was predestined to live a short, chaotic life, says Dani Garavelli
Anyone who has lost a parent at a young age knows what it means to fear their genetic heritage. My father died of an cerebral aneurysm at 36, and every now and then, when I have a headache, I imagine my blood pumping through my brain until it reaches a weakened blood vessel and ruptures, felling me as it felled him. I’m not obsessed by it, particularly now I’ve outlived him by ten years, but since I inherited other traits, like a crooked little finger, the idea that an early death might have been passed on like a toxic heirloom has always been there, hovering around the edges of my consciousness.
If that’s how it feels when a parent dies of a rare physical condition how much worse must it be to lose one to the kind of mental illness or addiction that wraps its tendrils round everything it touches, transforming personalities long before it actually claims a life? Scientists aren’t sure whether there’s a genetic component or whether mental illness just breeds mental illness, causing a chain reaction out to other relatives or down through the generations, but the evidence is clear: depression, addiction and suicide do run in families, with the children of alcoholics four times more likely than other people to be alcoholics themselves, and the children of those who have taken their own lives four to six times more likely to attempt to do the same. Other dynasties – such as the Kennedys, the Bhuttos, Tim and Jeff Buckley – just seem to be cursed. It’s as if tragedy has been etched into their DNA.
Is this what it was like for Peaches Geldof? Did she feel she was a hostage to Paula Yates’ past? Just six when her parents split up, eight when Michael Hutchence killed himself, nine when her mother attempted suicide and 11 when Yates died of an accidental heroin overdose, Peaches must have wondered if she was predestined to live a short, chaotic life. Those fears would surely have been heightened when she looked at the picture she tweeted not long before she died of Yates holding her as a toddler. With their tousled blonde hair swept up off their faces, they could easily be the same person photographed 25 years apart.
How could Peaches possibly escape her mother’s fate? What made it worse is that other people – particularly journalists – were constantly scrutinising her life for parallels and asking the same question. “It’s almost as if they wish it would happen,” she once said, while dismissing their concerns as nonsense.
Yet, for many years, she seemed almost to be willing history to repeat itself. Where her older sister Fifi Trixibelle avoided the world of celebrity and scandal she had grown up in, Peaches was unable to resist its lure and sought out the spotlight. Like her mother, she bagged herself a pop star, marrying Max Drummey, from the US band Chester French, when she was just 19 and, like her mother, she forged a successful career as a magazine writer and TV presenter. But she was the consummate party girl and there was always a recklessness about her. Then, just as her career as a model was about to take off lewd photos and drug rumours began to circulate on the internet and the deal with Ultimo fell through. If Peaches had died back then, it would have been sad, but not unexpected.
What was particularly shocking about the news last week was that she had turned her life around. Divorced and remarried, this time to Tom Cohen, leader singer of the band S.C.U.M, she had embraced a life of domesticity, writing books on attachment parenting, and in bed, she said, by 8pm every night. In a reversal of Yates’ journey, she’d gone from messed-up wild child to earth mother, revelling in the stability and “healing” her sons, Astala and Phaedra, had brought her. It seemed too cruel that she should meet her predicted end when she finally appeared to have divested herself of her tragic legacy. Cruel for her, for Sir Bob, who last week described her as the “wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and most bonkers of us all”, for her sisters Fifi Trixibelle and Pixie and, of course, for Tiger-Lily who, at the age of 18, has already lost her father, mother and half-sister.
In death, the similarities with her mother have been reinforced. Like Yates, Peaches is reported to have been found with one of her children by her side. And whether her death was the result of a physical condition or a mental one, Astala and Phaedra are now destined to grow up without her and under the shadow of their own questionable genetic heritage.
Thankfully, they are younger than Peaches was when Yates died. They haven’t had to endure an acrimonious divorce or the burden of realising they are incapable of assuaging their mother’s grief.
Peaches’ focus was all on her boys and one of her last acts was to post a picture of herself playing peekaboo with Phaedra in his bath on Instagram. Yes, fear of an early death can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you are doomed, then perhaps you take risks that make that outcome more likely. But it’s not inevitable. If Peaches’ sons are brought up in a loving environment, away from the press and encouraged to see themselves, not as the bearers of a fatal family flame, but as the embodiment of all that was good in their mother, then perhaps they will break the chain. «