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Death of a Prince

Depression and an exiled prince


When the son of the last Shah of Iran committed suicide in Boston a few weeks ago, the Iranian diaspora exhaled a collective gasp. Everyone was suddenly reminded that time is moving on. The Shah was expelled by the Iranian revolution and died in Egyptian exile over three decades ago. His eldest son Reza, claimant to the throne, has made his presence known in Washington DC exile; he was a young man in his twenties when he first succeeded his father as the leader of Iranian monarchists. Now he is in his 50s, past the prime of his middle age, morphing in physical features into his father. He has his own website, his family, a queen in waiting; Iranians know he is around, waiting in DC in case regime change ever falls on his shoulders.

But there was another son, a younger son: Ali Reza. I remember him well. We were born within a few months of each other, and raised in the same neighborhood of Tehran (he was in a palace, of course; I wasn't).  We lived the last decade of his life, half way across the world from our origins, again in the same city; I worked a few blocks from where he lived.   I remember visiting Iran during childhood summers, and seeing pictures of both boys, a preteen Reza and a five or so year old Ali Reza, all over random shop walls in Tehran. There it was: the Shah and the Queen in the center of the wall, usually above the cash register, and Reza and Ali Reza to either side. The successors were there: two of them. The monarchy was in good shape. And then it wasn't.

Fast forward three decades. Reza was well-established in DC, but Ali Reza was lost. No one seemed to pay much attention to him. Having lived in DC for the first half of my life so far, and Boston for the second, I knew all about one brother and nothing about the other. The Iranian community in Boston did not talk about Ali Reza's presence, at least not to my knowledge; and normally the presence of the Shah's son as a resident of the city for over a decade would at least have been subject of some gossip. The son kept himself out of sight, especially among Iranians. After his death, an Iranian friend mentioned to me that he had met the prince once, in a bar in Somerville, by accident, introduced by an American friend. Once Ali Reza realized that my friend was Iranian, he excused himself and left the bar. Only after the suicide did my friend recognize whom he had met. 

Unlike his brother, Ali Reza never married; he lived alone in the South End of Boston; he studied at length at Harvard, but never obtained a degree. He was said to be more intellectual, more emotional, more sensitive than others in his family. Some say that he became increasingly depressed after his sister committed suicide in London in 2001. His brother related the suicide to despair over the political fate of Iran over the years. Other personal factors can only be imagined: personal relationships, sexual orientation, financial status, drug or alcohol use; nothing is known; anything is possible.

Just as one can't know about such personal factors, it seems equally speculative to guess about the politics. Stephen Kinzer, author and journalist who specializes in Iran and the Middle East, and a neighbor of the prince in the South End, has pointed out some of the relevant history. Kinzer reminds us how, in the past, the Shah's regime had engendered so much internal opposition, leading to the revolution. He notes that the Shah's family suffered in exile because of that history. His comments produced charged responses by some, who either defended the monarchy in the past, or who are unhappy with the regime that replaced it, or both.

Politics may be debatable. Depression isn't. The statistics are unforgiving: about 90% of those who kill themselves have depression, but only about 5-10% of those who have depression kill themselves. Depression is a necessary but not sufficient condition: the prince probably was biologically predisposed to severe depression, and all the rest - social isolation, loss of power and privilege, death of a sibling - added on to finalize the lethal mix.

Whatever the other factors, suicide in two family members generally implies biological and genetic sources. Whether the genetic source is in the paternal Pahlavi line, or the maternal Diba heritage, is unclear. The Shah also had depression, towards the end of his life, but by then he had terminal cancer. The prince's  grandfather, Reza Shah, wasn't known to have had psychiatric symptoms, but it is possible that such symptoms were not noticed or recorded; he was highly energetic and charismatic, sometimes characteristic of manic symptoms, but beyond that possibility, one can say little based on what is documented.

Depression doesn't recognize princes or kings, rank or riches, privilege or power.  Biology cares not for politics. The sins of the father weren't simply visited upon the sons, despite the fall from immense power to anomie. This isn't enough to produce self-destruction; something else was at work, something that created such a bleak darkness that the eyes could no longer see, and the head could no longer think, and all that remained was a heart that sensed only darkness - and nothing more.