Peaches Geldof: Examining the sadness that can come from wealth

Special to The Globe and Mail

Peaches Geldof, daughter of Bob Geldof, arrives for the European premiere of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2" in London in this November 14, 2012 file photo. Peaches Geldof died at her home in Kent, southern England, aged 25, April 7, 2014. (Luke MacGregor/REUTERS)

On the face of it, Peaches Honeyblossom Geldof had it all: beauty, youth, fame, talent and near-boundless wealth. And yet, from the moment she was thrust into the public eye (in this case birth – celebrity parents and a name like Peaches will do that to you), she was almost the opposite of enviable. Tragedy seemed to shadow her every move like an aura.

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Earlier this week, when the 25-year-old socialite’s death was announced, suicide or overdose was the immediate assumption on social media (the coroner has ordered an autopsy into what was deemed a “sudden and unexplained death”), but in the end no drugs or suicide note were found on the scene.

Her father, musician and activist Bob Geldof, released a heartbreaking statement, saying the family was “beyond pain,” and paying tribute to his daughter as “the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and the most bonkers of us all.” Her husband, Thomas Cohen, lead singer for the South East London band S.C.U.M. and two young sons, Astala Dylan Willow, nearly two and Phaedra Bloom Forever, almost one, will, according to Geldof, “always be in our family.”

There is no point in speculating on what might have caused Geldof’s untimely death (we will, in time, find out), but the surrounding mystery does little to diminish the feeling that somehow, despite all her many advantages, here was a young woman upon whom the world bestowed lots of everything she didn’t need and tragically little of what she did.

Like so many children born into great wealth and notoriety, Peaches struggled to make sense of her life. In an interview for Elle last year she described her childhood as “traumatic,” a series of years “of feeling lost at sea, rudderless and troubled.”

There is good reason for this. Her mother, the actress and TV personality Paula Yates, left Bob Geldof for the INXS singer Michael Hutchence when Peaches was just six.

The public split was difficult for Peaches and her sisters Fifi Trixibelle and Pixie. Their childhood, according to Peaches, went from idyllic (their mother cared for them at home while writing several parenting books in the Kent countryside) to chaotic. Yates and Hutchence had another colourfully-named daughter (Tiger Lily) in 1996. Hutchence died from autoerotic asphyxiation in 1997, and Yates succumbed to a heroin overdose in 2000, at the age of 41 (leaving the orphaned Tiger Lily to be raised with her half-sisters.) In the same 2013 interview, Peaches recalled her own father’s insistence that the girls attend school the day after their mother’s death. “So we all went to school and tried to act as if nothing had happened. But it had happened. I didn’t grieve. I didn’t cry at her funeral. I couldn’t express anything because I was just numb to it all. I didn’t start grieving for my mother properly until I was maybe 16.”

Given this bumpy start, the adolescent drama that followed is perhaps not surprising. As rich-kid-tabloid-fodder went, no one dished it up like Peaches. She was Britain’s Paris Hilton with a sharp tongue and a tragic backstory. Drug convictions, overdose, rehab, quickie Vegas weddings and divorce, lingerie modelling contracts terminated over party girl antics – there was little she didn’t manage to do before finding true love (with Cohen) and becoming a mother.

While Geldof did find fulfilment through her babies, the way she spoke of them sounded at times like a very young woman seeking to fill a void. Having children, she has said, was a way “to correct the multiple mistakes of my own traumatic childhood” and an experience she found, “beyond healing.” (Peaches’s last tweet before her death was an Instagram photo of herself as a toddler with her mother and the caption, “Me and my Mum.”)

Now, of course, those children will grow up without a mother – just as their own mother did before them.

A comprehensive 2011 study by Boston College funded by the Gates Foundation found that people who are brought up with great wealth (categorized as fortune of $25-million U.S. or more) are generally dissatisfied with life, and in many cases prone to depression, with deep anxieties involving love, work, and family. So what is it that so often makes the children of great privilege so sad?

Jessie O’Neill, author of The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, writes in her book how money transferred to heirs without strong values and a sense of purpose often culminates in “affluenza” – a social condition that diminishes an heir’s ability to cultivate a sense of self-worth, motivation and forge a strong personal identity apart from the family. More dangerous still is the vacuum created by great wealth (and in some cases, fame). Its inheritors, O’Neill writes, often show “an inability to delay gratification, unwillingness to tolerate frustration, feelings of failure, and a false sense of entitlement.”

In the case of Peaches Geldof, it seemed she’d found a way through her youthful case of affluenza and into a better, healthier place. As her family mourns yet another untimely death it’s hard not to marvel at how riches and notoriety so often culminate in terrible sadness and tragic endings. But as Bob Geldof insisted in his statement, he and his surviving children are determined to carry on. “Our family,” he writes is, “fractured often, never broken.”