Book Review: SPARE by Prince Harry

I was moved and impressed with Prince Harry’s new autobiography SPARE, a gripping and powerful read, though not without its problems. I enjoy stories about under dogs, since I know that position well. I also like reading now and then about glamorous people, especially famous actors. While not a professional thespian, Prince Harry was born into glamour whether he liked it or not, and into a life where he was deeply pressured to act a certain way for the public. With the help of J. R. Moehringer, a skilled ghostwriter, Harry Windsor eloquently shares a fascinating narrative of privileged life, emotional (and sometimes physical) pain, and often dysfunctional family dynamics. After a tense prologue about the author meeting fairly recently with his father and brother in a last ditch effort to end his estrangement from them, the proper story begins with the morning he learns of his mother’s death just weeks before his thirteenth birthday. Prince Harry’s recollections about his dear mum (“Mummy”), Diana, Princess of Wales evoked my fond memories of her from afar, watching her in the news now and then. Like so many, including Harry himself, I was taken with her beauty and fun-loving, compassion-filled soul. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the breaking news of Diana’s death on the BBC. In her innocence and kindness, she was too good of a person to be the wife of Prince, now King, Charles, whose love was always elsewhere and not for Diana. However, her radiant, all-too-brief presence in her two sons’ lives was a blessing, which Harry often conveys in this book. She seems to have helped make him into a far better person than how he would be if, say, his stepmom Camilla had actually been his mother.

I could not personally relate to the prince’s core identity of being a soldier but I did find myself relating to his feeling like a “naughty boy” outsider within his own family of origin (with the added layer for Harry of also being portrayed this way by the press or “paps,” as he calls reporters) and to coping with PTSD. Harry (and Mr. Moehringer) writes candidly about himself and those around him, such as his frequent substance abuse to numb his grief. I respect and admire the prince’s courage, balanced with compassion he expresses for his family, friends, fellow war veterans, and their families. I appreciate how he owns his vulnerability and (at least some) mistakes he has made and reflections on what he has learned from them.

The veracity of details in his life story is questionable in places. Apparently, assorted individuals, such as a former butler to the royal family, have publicly denied or contradicted some of the things Harry has written. We readers do not know the full truth of what happened in Harry’s life, and we probably never will. However, I think anyone will end up knowing more after reading this book. In this sad and problematic age of people habitually distorting facts to garner sympathy, seek revenge, gain power, and/or earn money, Harry is likely no exception here. This is clearly a flawed text about a flawed, hurting human being sharing about their flawed family of other hurting humans. Many have said he has over-shared. And perhaps Harry has. So swings the pendulum after so much under-sharing and deception by those within the British monarchy and under-challenging its ancient status quo. Eventually, a healthy medium can be found, or so I choose to hope for this. This book seems to be a contributing part to a longer term sea change that I believe is awkwardly, messily underway with Western institutions and their racism, sexism, and other inherent isms. Such deep shifts do not happen without incredible resistance and backward steps in reaction to forward ones. And those who rip the tops off of things to show what is wrong inside and needs to change are generally initially maligned, vilified, scapegoated. It takes courage and determination to protest for change. This book is many things, a kind of protest being one.

In an impassioned, often angry, tone, Harry confronts the racism, sexism, and classism of the British press and by members of his family, the latter group acting comparatively more covert with their racist thinking and treatment of his mixed Black and white wife Meghan Markle. His falling in love with and marrying her came across as a political act, which it was, unintended as this was for Harry and eye-opening that it soon became for him and the world at large. I felt for him and Meghan as they navigated a firestorm of hatred over simply entering a “mixed race” marriage. At least Queen Elizabeth II apparently took no issue with it while so many people, including a lot of the British press, sadly, frustratingly did. The couple’s act of love was and is also an act of courage, particularly given the family and establishment the two were and are up against. Their remaining loyal to each other and moving far away from Harry’s family was a mix of protest by them (their loyalty particularly) and punishment by the monarchy, who forced Harry to choose either complete duty to the Crown all year round or, otherwise, complete cut off of their financial and social support. While, on the surface, those choices may sound fair and reasonable, the way the discussion of them occurred, according to Harry, was far from honest, respectful, or collaborative. This only served to reinforce Harry’s wish to leave his role of being the scapegoat, less valued “spare” to his older brother William’s golden child “heir,” a major theme Harry explores throughout the book.

SPARE, with all its flaws of narration and its narrator, is a cultural artifact of sorts, a window into the workings of a unique way of life within an ancient establishment and its traditions. I am not one to often read about royalty, especially royalty in current times. This is actually the first book I have ever read about a modern royal. Harry’s accounts of private schooling, living in assorted palaces and castles, initiations into manhood (namely learning to hunt game), funeral and marriage observances, military training and combat missions, and travels, among other things, all add up to a fascinating read, even though what I often perused was not congruent with my own values. However, reading about another culture and background so different from one’s own is educational, not always comfortable. While reading, I felt like a drawn-in observer, lead along by a very human-sounding tour guide who I felt I could approach and talk to. In short, through story, I learned things and, to a significant extent, got to know the storyteller.

Some best, deepest moments in this book are when Harry shares about his psychotherapy sessions, during which he uncovers memories about his mother that he had repressed after her death to shut down his grief within a family and culture so highly valuing stoicism. He goes against this value and attribute, embracing those of openness and emotional release instead. More courageousness. Adherence to hard facts is not such a relevant concern here as he movingly shares how much of a powerful, positive presence Princess Diana was in his childhood and even after she was long gone. His rush of memories after smelling one of Mummy’s favorite perfumes while meeting with his therapist is very touching. And he shares a few other poignant, charged memories. I became choked up and shed a few tears. These reflections are his most genuine and sincere sounding, along with his love for and dedication to his wife Meghan. This comes through, for example, as Harry recounts being present at his two children’s births. I would have liked it if there were a few more accounts of his therapy sessions. But, then, I’m a psychotherapist by profession, so I’ll own that personal bias up front. He may well have had more session material to share but the editor(s) probably left it out for book length management, pacing, and, perhaps, perceived lack of interest by the general public.

In many places, the narrative is quite raw. Harry often grapples with much hurt and anger over problematic behavior of people in the British press, his older brother, his father, his stepmother, and some of the Royal Family’s staff. He repeatedly discusses the often toxic interrelationship of the press (with its share of amoral, greedy reporters) and the monarchy, how members of each of these collective bodies plant stories in the media for their own personal gain at the expense of others, that is, relatives and close associates of the Royal Family. Personal press agents for royals have become their attending guards and courtiers, doing whatever is necessary to foster public favor at the expense of someone else, even resorting to lies and half truths. Obviously, none of this is exactly new, it’s just done exponentially these days with the help of the Internet and a major deterioration of practicing the value of seeking and adhering to the truth more than not.

SPARE is a rough piece of writing that is clearly part of Harry’s ongoing healing process, including an attempt to set the record straight, something partially accomplished, at best, in this book. The story is clearly that of a trauma survivor, both in childhood and adulthood, with the British press (particularly the tabloids) a major abuser/perpetrator, starting with likely causing or at least contributing to Diana’s death in a car accident in Paris.

Among a handful of good causes Harry writes about, he advocates for the needs of veterans and validates the importance of distressed people receiving mental health care. His being a white male from such a position of privilege and soldierly machismo is great messaging for other white (and other ethnic background) males to allow themselves to introspect and seek out professional help. We need more men like Prince Harry encouraging this instead of keeping to maintaining rigid patterns of toxic masculinity.

It is obvious that Harry and Meghan have chosen to exploit their Royal Family privileges for their personal and financial gain. They have kept their main titles of aristocracy, fostered their public celebrity status, and have replaced his family and British government funding and security support with corporate business deals to maintain a very wealthy, secure way of life. Ah, the seduction of money, especially when one is used to having it, or being sheltered and somewhat coddled by it in Harry’s case, even when he himself earned nothing while in England (what he aptly refers to as “forced infantilization”). Harry may have broken the mold by leaving his family fold and the gilded cage of the British monarchy, but he has replicated his extreme privilege a la American style. A living saint or bodhisattva he is indeed far from being. But, like any of us uniquely is, he is a work in progress and has chosen to share some of that process to the public at tremendous emotional cost to himself, including between him and his family of origin. Time will tell how he further evolves and, by extension, his relatives will in Britain. Will they mature through, say, opening up and challenging the British press and socially toxic aspects of the monarchy, like Harry has daringly, albeit often roughly, done? Will there be healing and reconnection between Harry and his father and brother? Will Harry eventually follow up with a more measured, thought-out book about his life? Will he and Meghan ever opt to give even more of their money away to charities and healthy causes, thereby simplifying their relatively lavish-looking lifestyle? (Probably not, but who knows? Full disclosure, I have not yet watched the Netflix miniseries HARRY AND MEGHAN.) This all remains to be seen, though I am not holding my breath.

I’m all for breaking away from toxic family dynamics, challenging racism and sexism, and getting professional help, including psychotherapy, and support from friends along the way. Good going for Harry and his wife Meghan for doing all of these. Sadly but realistically, in their humanness, along with possessing courage and other positive attributes, the two are also rather greedy and vain because, in their high positions of privilege, they can be. We readers of SPARE must look elsewhere for better examples of generosity, non-materialism, and genuine, healthy modesty. That said, Harry’s autobiography is still a worthwhile read.

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