Tessa Dahl: Roald Dahl"s daughter on life with her father, the best-selling children"s author

'Daddy gave joy to millions of children. But I was dying inside': Tessa Dahl on life with her best-selling author father Roald



13:10 GMT, 12 August 2012

We should have stuck to Anna Freud’s advice in 1961. My father Roald Dahl took me to see her after I had witnessed my baby brother Theo being squashed in his pram by a taxi in New York City. The nanny had crossed the road without looking.

I was deeply traumatised. Wetting my bed. I asked when my brother would be coming home. Anna Freud, an eminent daughter of Sigmund and the founder of child psychoanalysis, told Daddy that the whole family needed therapy, not just me. Not just me.

He hated the idea of therapy, analysis or psychiatry, as he said all his friends – Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett and the rest – ‘could never write after they had had all their nooks and crannies flattened like pancakes’. He was convinced that drugs were the answer (they didn’t flatten you like a pancake). I believe he did not want to face his inner demons. So he told Anna to medicate me instead.

Troubled relationship: Roald Dahl offers Tessa, then aged eight, a sip of his champagne in 1965

Troubled relationship: Roald Dahl offers Tessa, then aged eight, a sip of his champagne in 1965

She refused – as I later discovered – telling my father that if I were medicated, ‘she will never know how to feel. Not any feelings. If every time she has an emotion you give her a pill to stop the emotion, you will be left with a very dangerous potential situation. A melting pot of confusion, of narcissism, of other personality and character disorders because she will have no sense of how to process her own world.’

Well, my father was too overwhelmed trying to deal with my baby brother’s massive brain injuries. Instead of heeding Anna Freud, who adamantly refused to give me prescription drugs, he found a man who could and would.

So, at the age of four, I started on the road to swallowing my sorrows with a pill.

Today, my father is known around the world for his books Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and James And The Giant Peach. But this was years before he found public acclaim, and he was making his living as a writer for The New Yorker and other periodicals.

My American mother, Patricia Neal, was a Broadway actress and a film star, and much the more famous of the two. We used to split our time between winter in America and summer in Buckinghamshire. But after the accident, we moved back to our house at Great Missenden for good.

For material things, we were fortunate, but it was not a happy beginning to my life.

Tessa with her father in 1986. Roald hated the idea of therapy, analysis or psychiatry

Tessa with her father in 1986. Roald hated the idea of therapy, analysis or psychiatry

My beloved sister Olivia died when I was six and I truly had to wrestle with my identity as my poor old dad, so devastated by the loss of his first-born, took it out on me. Making it clear I was a poor understudy, a very inferior replacement.

‘Why can’t you be like her’ he screamed. I wet my bed. Tried hard to be someone else and ‘they’ – although I really mean my father – upped my medication. So I could not process grief or sadness or pain or any of the other natural emotions I should have had.

Even now, when I think of Olivia, I cannot picture us together, yet I weep profusely the tears I should have cried in 1963. Thus medicated, I plodded on. I had sleeping medicine too. Syrup in an Alice-like bottle.

Then, when I was eight, my poor mother had three strokes, the first as she was giving me a bath. In 24 hours she went from being a ravishing, glorious movie star to a monster with no hair, tubes coming out of each orifice and unable to speak.

Dad couldn't get over my sister's death. 'Why can't you be like her' he screamed

After she came round from her coma,
Dad took me to see her, without any warnings. I was horrified but said
nothing. I fed her but expressed no real emotion. I was petrified.

We drove away from the hospital and never spoke of it.

When Mum came home, I found she was miraculously growing up at the same speed as me. I was nine, and so was she. We fought relentlessly. I was always trying to prove to Dad that I was worthy of being alive. But I wanted to win my fights with Mum.

It was chaos at home. I had a baby sister and a brain-injured brother. My mother became pregnant before the strokes. I was being heavily medicated.

My mother and I were like sparring twins. Together, we were sent to a child psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Everyone was secretive about it, but I remember being disappointed that he didn’t have a chaise longue like the cartoons in The New Yorker.

I had the shrink wound around my little finger. I had developed what is known as borderline personality disorder. This comes from multiple losses, and exhibits itself in an effort to manage intimacy. It recapitulates the loss and renders one immensely manipulative. Even at a young age, I had become a tremendous keeper of family secrets.

Lull before the storm: Tessa and her mother Patricia admire baby Theo in 1960, as Olivia and father Roald look on

Lull before the storm: Tessa and her mother Patricia admire baby Theo in 1960, as Olivia and father Roald look on

Tragedy was to strike the family. Theo (with Roald) was badly injured in a car accident in 1960, Olivia died in 1965 and Patricia suffered a series of strokes while she pregnant with Ophelia (pictured with her mother)

Tragedy was to strike the family. Theo (with Roald) was badly injured in a car accident in 1960, Olivia died in 1965 and Patricia suffered a series of strokes while she pregnant with Ophelia (pictured with her mother)

I had definitely developed
narcissistic character disorders, too. I was raised by narcissistic
parents, taught that the parents are always right and that you are the
one who is wrong.

A lifetime
of this typically instils a lack of confidence in one’s own judgment,
along with habitual shame at never getting it right or being good

The combination of my fledgling narcissism and borderline behaviours was, in Anna Freud’s words, ‘a melting pot’.

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Shattered happiness: Tessa with her father in 1965

though he was present for me physically, he was not emotionally. It was
just bad luck, jolly bad luck, that I had been present both for my
brother’s accident and my mother’s strokes. That my older sister Olivia
had been the love of Daddy’s life. That both of us contracted measles,
but that she had died.

I think he gave me drugs because he knew
no other way to communicate with me to calm me down.

I had seen three
different occasions when ambulances came and took away my beloved
family never to return them – or to return them as very different

These days we know what post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) is. I had it. Even now, when I am at home and I
hear an ambulance, I am convinced it is coming to my house.

But throughout my teens my parents did not know what to do with me. Dad used to shout: ‘You’re not like normal people.’

had a career as a model and as a film actress. But, finally, I followed
the advice hammered into me and found a rich, successful man to marry
me and make me happy.

Kelly was a kind American, the president of a successful management
consultancy. What I did not know is this: no one can make you happy.

organising a huge wedding and redecorating our mansion in Boston, I
sat back waiting to be made happy. Instead I ended up with a Boston
psychiatrist who put me on Valium ‘to cry the tears you should have shed
in your childhood’.

Things went downhill fast. I became addicted to the Valium, which took away the pain I was feeling about my marriage.

My new husband, in despair, flew me home. I was admitted to hospital under the care of Dr Maurice Lipsedge, Princess Diana’s psychiatrist. This whole foray probably cost 50,000.

Born survivor: Tessa Dahl, pictured in London in 1975, during her modelling days

Born survivor: Tessa Dahl, pictured in London in 1975, during her modelling days

Tessa Dahl in 1975

Tessa Dahl in 1975

My father came to see me and reiterated that I must ‘stop seeing psychiatrists at once. Get on with your marriage’.

I did as I was told. But it wasn’t a good time. I had two wonderful
babies, Clover and Luke, to join Sophie, my other perfect daughter, whom
I had with an actor called Julian Holloway before I got married.

I would have huge bouts of energy, buy
new houses, have parties, make Christmas shopping lists in July and
then be admitted to hospital on intravenous lorazepam [for anxiety] for
two weeks.

Just lie in bed crying. Of course, in
retrospect, these were the symptoms of bipolar disorder, but no one saw
it. Because my finances accommodated it. I was married to a rich man.

my divorce, I wrote with fervour. All day, often all night. And I
bought, decorated and sold houses to make some extra money, too.

fell in love with a Guru – Gurumayi Chidvilasananda – to whom I donated
a lot of money. During those years the yearning was filled with my
search for God and meditation. I replaced medication with meditation.

Guru’s main go-to guy was insidious with his requests. ‘The Guru has
chosen you to buy all the ashram children’s party clothes for the
birthday celebrations,’ he would say. Or, ‘The Guru has chosen you, as
an honour, to buy all her hats for the season.’ You never said no to the

I was happy and on an
amazing search for God. Sadly, this all came tumbling down around me
when I began to see the corruption in the world of ‘God in human form’. I
was searching to become whole.

Me, Bette and a 500 tip

the only things that helped were psycho-pharmaceutical. Drugs. They
switched me off from real pain, physical pain, emotional pain, and

Nothing else
filled the hole in my heart. Not men, not my wonderful children. Not
even the enormous success I was enjoying as a writer.

My journalism was prolific and I
published a novel and a string of children’s books. My father could
see my writing talent, and said so on television. That was what I was
living for.

Then came the worst day of my life. On November 23, 1990, at the age of 74, he died.

Loved by millions: Roald Dahl with a group of children. He was adored the world over by young people for his imaginative stories

Loved by millions: Roald Dahl with a group of children. He was adored the world over by young people for his imaginative stories

I sold my first children’s book, he had struggled up to his hut with
agonised hips to fetch his royalty statements. To prove to me that I
would never make as much money as him, however successful I became.
More narcissistic than fatherly, perhaps.

I loved him with an undiluted and unmet passion. He was my major
motivation as my whole life consisted of proving to him that, although
my sister died, I was still worthy of life and love.

he died, I felt such a screeching pain, all I knew was I needed to
medicate it at once. The pain must be dulled. I telephoned my doctor
from Dad’s hospital and within an hour was swallowing oblivion. After my
father’s death, my road to doing all I could to numb the pain, day in
and day out, consumed me.

father told me he loved me for the first time the night before he died,
which felt cruellest. I had yearned for him to love me for all my life
and now he was being taken away.

Selling sweets to movie stars

When we went to Honolulu, Hawaii, with Mummy, she was making a movie called In Harm’s Way. I was seven and hung out with the director, Robert Altman.

For three months, he was the unofficial boss of what we called our Creatures Of The Water Club. He was the blue whale and I was the dolphin. John Wayne’s daughter, the marlin, was in it too. Bob used to leave me little notes written in code in my hotel pigeonhole.

This was before M*A*S*H. Dad had discovered him and they were working on a film script. Dad also had to work on his children’s books in the afternoon – I think Charlie And The Chocolate Factory had just come out – so that meant I could spend time with Bob.

It was a bittersweet time. Mummy had won her Oscar, so she was a huge star. We lived in the first skyscraper hotel in Hawaii. My baby brother and sister, Theo and Ophelia, (and two nannies, excuse me!) were in three adjoining suites, with the balconies covered in mesh.

One day the club, without consulting Bob, decided to open a shop, which involved going to the hotel store, buying lots of sweets and putting them on our parents’ bill.

There was only one problem: we did not have any bags in which to put the sweets before we sold them on.

‘I know,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen bags in the ladies’ loos. They are in each lavatory and very nice. They have a pretty pink rose on them.’

I had solved the problem. The blue whale and I went from room to room, from movie star to movie star in this enormous luxury hotel – Kirk Douglas, Stanley Holloway, John Wayne – selling mints and Smarties. And every time we put our sales in our bags, I would say proudly: ‘Look at these fantastic bags we got in the ladies’ loos. I have no idea what they were doing there.’ I was too young to know that they were sanitary bags.

It was around then that Bob persuaded us to put bubble bath in the fountain. It completely exploded.

And one night a drunken Dad and Bob and I swapped all the shoes left outside the rooms, which was the cause of much grown-up hilarity.

It was always fun to do something with my daddy.

I say it was a bittersweet time because In Harm’s Way was the last film Mum made before her strokes. Although she made a near-miraculous recovery, it was the last time we went on fantastic location trips.


The vacuum in my soul was filled when the great love of my life, the
actor David Hemmings, reappeared. His charisma seduced me into
forgetting everything.

He may have been my great love, but his great love was alcohol. His wife had kicked him out because of his drinking.

In the early Nineties I persuaded him to go to an addiction treatment centre in America. He said he would only go if I went.

Tessa Dahl and David Hemmings

During this time I was
drug-free as my only addiction was him. He left me there and went back
to his wife, who said if he left me he could drink again.

I was so pathetic and heartbroken, I let one of the night counsellors seduce me. Then I confessed all. We were both expelled.

I returned to my boyfriend Patrick, who took me back, saying my foray with Hemmings was ‘just a long lunch’.