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What the frenzy over Kate Middleton’s ‘disappearance’ says about the royals — and us

Britain's Prince William and Kate, Princess of Wales, in November
Prince William, left, and Catherine, Princess of Wales, in London in November.
(Chris Jackson / Associated Press)
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In case you’re keeping track, and many people are, it has been 66 days since Kate Middleton was seen in public.

According to a Jan. 17 announcement by Kensington Palace, Catherine, Princess of Wales underwent a “planned” and “successful” abdominal surgery on Jan. 16. She would remain in the hospital for 10 to 14 days “before returning home to continue her recovery,” the statement continued. “Based on the current medical advice, she is unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter.”

In the months that followed, Palace reports indicated that the princess had indeed returned home, where she was recovering nicely. But the complete absence of Kate (and her children and her parents) from the public eye, coupled with King Charles’ recent announcement that treatment for an enlarged prostate revealed an unnamed form of cancer, has sparked an increasingly agitated royal watch, replete with conspiracy theories ranging from a looming royal divorce to “Kate’s in a coma,” all of which have been denied by the palace.

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This week, when Prince William cited “personal reasons” for his absence from the funeral of his godfather, King Constantine of Greece, the hysteria hit a fever pitch, with some demanding that the palace provide proof of life (preferably with Kate holding today’s Guardian high enough so the date is visible).

Times senior writer Meredith Blake and columnist Mary McNamara discuss the ever-deepening “Where is Kate?” rabbit hole.

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Mary McNamara: “The Crown” may be over, but the drama around the House of Windsor continues. Things have gotten even crazier than usual in the land of royal watchers, with folks parsing photos from long before Kate’s last public appearance — apparently there was a “mysterious” finger injury in the fall — and late-December reports of an ambulance at Sandringham, where the family spent the holidays. Her weight (she’s a woman, so, of course) has also become a matter of close scrutiny. She’s always been thin but seemed, to some, to be growing thinner. And the fact that her kids didn’t visit her in the hospital has led to all manner of alarming suppositions, particularly about the state of the Waleses’ marriage.

Me, I just thought she was living every working mother’s dream: Who among us hasn’t longed for a bit of non-life-threatening surgery so we could just lie the hell down and read, undisturbed, for a bit?

Certainly this story hits pop culture where it lives — no matter what anyone says, we remain obsessed with royals, and in these days of oversharing, who isn’t interested in a medical mystery? In our current burn ’n’ churn medical climate, many people wondered from the first exactly what kind of surgery requires a two-week hospital stay and an almost three-month recovery period. But that says as much about the state of medical care, and the capitalism-run-riot belief that everyone should get back to work the moment they can stand up for five minutes without fainting, as it does about Kate. She is a princess, after all, so extra attention is not surprising. She is also entitled to privacy, both medical and personal.

Although I’m more interested in which co-star Rebecca Ferguson was talking about when she recently described being yelled at and insulted on set, I now find myself keeping an eye out for Kate Middleton news. How about you?

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Meredith Blake: I will readily admit to burrowing myself deep into this particular rabbit hole. And I make no apologies for it: Those Reddit threads aren’t going to read themselves! What else am I supposed to do when I’m jolted awake for some ungodly reason and unable to fall back asleep at 4:30 a.m.? (For what it’s worth, I found the theory that she was getting some rather complicated bowel surgery she found too unseemly or embarrassing to acknowledge publicly to be rather compelling, except for the fact that Charles was issuing statements about his enlarged prostate while all of this was going down. So, really, I have no clue.)

I do, however, think it’s telling that when I scanned the intro to this piece, I read the phrase “palace reports” as “police reports.” We live in a culture obsessed with disappearing white women, and is there a more prominent white woman in the world than the current princess of Wales? I can only imagine a bigger fuss if Taylor Swift’s private jet suddenly vanished over the South Pacific during one of her jaunts across the globe for date night with Travis Kelce.

Some internet commenters have even likened Middleton to Shelly Miscavige, wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige, who has not been seen in public since 2007 and whose whereabouts are a constant source of speculation in certain corners of the internet.

I am not suggesting there is foul play or anything cultlike going on here — merely that our brains have been trained by so much true crime content that many will see a sinister plot in something potentially much more mundane, like a middle-aged woman drawing a healthy and perfectly reasonable boundary around her personal life as she recovers from surgery.

The thing, though, is that there is really nothing healthy or reasonable about being a working royal. Queen Elizabeth II was known to say she had to be seen to be believed — that she needed to be visible as a monarch in order to be supported by her subjects. And Kate has always seemed spectacularly well suited to the unreasonable demands of a job that turns people into mascots of a massive and unforgiving institution. I recall the slight horror of seeing her trotted out, mere hours after giving birth, to pose for pictures and wave to the public, her hair perfectly coiffed and belly displaying no signs of having recently housed a fully gestated baby. Every time she stood there, appearing as if she’d done nothing more strenuous in the last 24 hours than taking a coffee run to the nearest Pret, I found myself both in awe of Kate — and a little sad for her. I hoped, if nothing else, those fancy private hospitals hooked her up with a bunch of those postpartum mesh undies, which are truly every new mother’s birthright.

This is all a way of saying that I completely get the fascination — especially because it’s so out of keeping with Kate’s willingness to play the game, maintain a stiff upper lip and give the public what they want. In this case by posing for a picture while holding up a copy of the Telegraph as proof of life. (Come on, Mary, she’d never read the Guardian.) Here’s where I state the obvious: I sincerely hope she’s doing well and recovers from whatever is ailing her. But I think that Kate’s apparent desire for privacy, while understandable on a human level, is just playing into the frenzy. Mary, do you think the palace should just come clean about what’s going on? At this point, would it even help quell the speculation?

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McNamara: Well, so much of the random theorizing is just people killing time being bonkers; at this point, the rabbit hole has a life of its own. I guess a photo of her puttering around the garden or waving from a window might make some people feel better, but why on earth should she be expected to do that?

There is, of course, a chance that she is more ill than the palace would like people to believe, but abdominal surgery of any kind involves a fair amount of pain. And even if she is, as the palace has said, well enough to be working from bed, it’s not like she could just send out a snap of her in a recuperative hoodie and sweats, with her hair yanked back in a post-surgical braid and a prescription for Vicodin on the nightstand.

A big part of Kate Middleton’s job is showing up and standing around for long periods of time in heels and unforgiving fit ’n’ flare dresses or high-waisted slacks, smiling and chatting and crouching down to converse with small children all while looking fabulous. I have had abdominal surgery (though not of the sort that required a two-week hospital stay), and I’m here to tell you that, even minus the “looking fabulous” part, none of that would have been possible for months.

Yes, it is weird that the palace, which has required those barbaric immediate-postnatal glamour shots from so many of its female members, is not demanding that Kate slap on some makeup and prop herself up on a sofa for the royal photographer. But isn’t that a good thing? A move in the right direction? How many times do we need to be reminded that a princess, or any celebrity, is simply a human being with all the often-messy biological and emotional needs that implies?

It would be nice (but definitely not a job requirement) if, once she has recovered, Kate discusses the reality of her medical issues. It might help remove the shame we still too often feel about certain physical conditions, and the fear we collectively have about any illness or physical problem that cannot be overcome in a week or less. Even after a pandemic, our culture continues to shift the burden of medical care to the individual, allows a very small window for recovery from anything and insists everyone get back to work as quickly as possible.

The only thing the Kate rabbit hole has proved thus far is that we literally cannot believe anyone requires a two-week hospital stay and a 2?-month recovery period for anything that is not documented as immediately life-threatening and/or a cover-up for something else.

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If Kate comes out of this advocating for longer hospital stays and more emphasis on rest and self-care, I for one will cheer.

Blake: I’ll be right there cheering with you. One of the more shocking discoveries I made thanks to the accounts of the many medical experiments lurking in the Royals Gossip subreddit is just how rare it is for any kind of abdominal surgery to require more than a few days in the hospital. And I know from the experiences of friends that, in this country at least, hysterectomies are typically an outpatient procedure, with patients going home to recuperate before they even have time to tuck into some bad hospital food.

Could it be that we are just telling on ourselves as Americans (accustomed to a brutally cost-conscious healthcare system) by being so surprised that Kate — who has the money to go to private doctors rather than rely on the overstrapped, underfunded National Health Service — would take more time to recover than might be typical for an American patient, or regular working folks in the U.K.? Maybe. But I hope that whenever she is better, she does speak out about her experiences — and acknowledge that she has it far, far better than virtually all of her countrymen.

Outside the issues of medical privacy, I think there is something else going on: the objectively very strange handling of this delicate matter is feeding into a larger meta-narrative that, barely a year and a half after Elizabeth’s death, the pared-down monarchy is in disarray. Charles, 75, who spent his entire life waiting to take over the big job, is now fighting an undisclosed form of cancer, and it’s not clear who could really step in for him should he need to take an extended break from public life — or if, well, things take a turn for the worse.

William is bailing on royal funerals for unexplained reasons and is probably, quite understandably, feeling overwhelmed by the problems of middle age coming at him all at once. (Having busy young kids, sick parents and a spouse with a medical emergency all at once? Welcome to your 40s, Will!) Princess Anne has already played pinch-hitter for her brother Charles since he began treatment, but she’s 73 and already one of the busiest members of the family — a notoriously uncomplaining workhorse. And despite an apparently very brief visit to see his father after the cancer diagnosis, Prince Harry still remains on the outs with his family. The royal tensions that Harry and Meghan helped expose after they defected to Montecito and built a media empire by spilling the family tea have not gone anywhere, it seems. By trying to suppress Kate’s illness — or failing marriage, or whatever it is that’s keeping her from leaving Sandringham or even posing for a glamour shot — the Firm has just invited more scrutiny for the princess, her digestive system and the dysfunctional institution she represents.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got some Reddit threads to catch up on.

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