It took just 45 seconds for Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, to deliver the comeuppance that the world deserved for months of callous and often cruel speculation about her whereabouts. In doing so, she exposed social media at its worst, how a personal tragedy unfolding privately — a diagnosis of cancer in a 42-year-old mother — can become unseemly entertainment. We like to believe that we are morally distant from the crowds at Rome’s ancient Colosseum, but on days like today, it seems that maybe we aren’t.

The princess’s news, delivered while she sat outside on a bench, with a backdrop of yellow flowers, was nearly as shocking as the announcement that came more than a quarter century ago when Prince William’s mother, Princess Diana, died in a car crash. There is irony in this, given that, among the many shameful theories that have been floated in recent days about Kate’s condition, some people had jokingly suggested that she had died. Other speculation is equally horrific in retrospect, especially the rumors of extramarital affairs, illicit children and even a pending divorce.

The royal family, of course, inadvertently contributed to this debacle in its clumsy handling of Middleton’s illness. In the inevitable soul-searching that will go on this week, many will point fingers at the palace for its lengthy silence as people around the world began to wonder why the princess had not been seen in months and for its terrible decision to release a doctored photograph of Middleton and her children on Britain’s Mother’s Day. It’s still unclear whether other photos of the princess that have been published in recent weeks were real or not, and unquestionably they contributed to the media feeding frenzy. But it’s past time to cut the palace some slack.

Related
Royal aide shares vague update on Kate Middleton's post-surgery health

As is now painfully clear, the royal family has been dealing with unprecedented circumstances: synchronous cancer diagnoses among two of its most high-profile members, a king and a future queen. If they weren’t sure how to deal with this, well, they are like any other family coping with a shocking and frightening diagnosis, except that in the case of the Windsors, there is a ravenous and insatiable public skulking outside the palace, looking for any salacious breadcrumbs of gossip they can share. And a disturbing number of us are complicit in this, whether we shared bits of gossip online, or merely read or talked about #Kategate. On a scale of interest in the royal family, I’d rank myself at the lowest level, and yet, I was still overcome with a sense of having been properly chastened when I watched the princess’s video today.

Watching her, I thought of the saying, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” That means that people are always telling us who they are in their actions.

In her silence over the past few months, Middleton had been telling us who she is: a mother of young children whose life has just been upended. As it turns out, there was a dignity in her remove that was a large component of what we always loved about the princess. She, unlike some other past and present royals, had never seemed one to aggrandize herself or to play games with the public. And yet, in the late stages of “Where is Kate?” mania, some people had even begun to speculate on social media that she was enjoying the attention and the drama. For shame. Like Kate, we were showing who we were throughout this saga. Unlike Kate, nothing we revealed was good. Like the narrator in D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake,” we have something to expiate.

Even though the princess has the best medical care the world has to offer, and survival rates for many kinds of cancer are improving because of early detection, difficult days lie ahead for the royal family. In this, a season of penance for millions of people of faith around the world, we have been dealt a reckoning. There was a subliminal message in the princess’s video today: Be better, it said, and we must.