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10 January 2023

Prince Harry’s Spare is a deeply uncomfortable read

Throughout the book’s 400 pages runs a single theme: the need for closure after a lifetime of repressed trauma.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The most surreal moment of ITV’s landmark interview with Prince Harry, which aired two days before the publication of his memoir Spare, came towards the end.

“I’m not going to turn this into a therapy session, don’t worry,” joked interviewer Tom Bradby. Harry laughed along.

But Bradby was mistaken. The entire endeavour of Spare – a book that has absorbed the national consciousness since extracts leaked a week before it was published, and reveals more about the British monarchy than most of us ever wanted to know – is an extended act of therapy. Some critics have alleged that the memoir is primarily a money-making enterprise, a cynically executed ploy to extract the cash needed to fund a luxurious Californian lifestyle, now that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex can no longer rely on British taxpayers. Others suggest ulterior motives of a different kind: bitterness, score-settling, the desperate need for attention – or perhaps even a vengeful attempt to destroy the monarchy altogether.

There may be a glimmer of truth in those charges. Spare is certainly unsparing with the verdicts it doles out: it is coldly critical of members of the Duke’s own family, scathing about the dynamics of palace intrigue, and utterly vitriolic with regards to the British tabloid media. And Harry is rumoured to have received a $20m advance for the book, ghost-written by the Pulitzer-winning journalist and novelist JR Moehringer.

But if revenge or money were the primary goals, there are cannier ways to achieve them than this. There are safer and more compassionate ways, that don’t involve advertising how many Taliban members he killed or comparing drone strikes to playing video games, and ways that don’t recount every fraught family argument in between diatribes about violations of personal privacy. A memoir from Harry was always going to spark an unprecedented bidding war and send the palace into a tailspin. He did not need to bare his soul in such an unflinching – and unguarded – way.

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What he has published is more jaw-dropping than even the most sensational of the leaked extracts implies. It is also something that perhaps should never have been published at all. Throughout its 400 pages – from recollections of boarding school to memories of his time in the army, anecdotes of failed romances to a wedding day watched by 1.9 billion people – runs a single theme: the need for closure after a lifetime of repressed trauma.

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For those who struggle to see how one of the most privileged men on the planet can have anything to complain about, there is a reminder in the opening pages. Harry’s mother was killed – suddenly, unexpectedly, brutally – when he was 12 years old. That unthinkable tragedy was then compounded: by the circumstances of her death and by the unique position of the royal family that made it impossible for him as a child, adolescent or young adult to properly process his grief. Yes, many people have lost loved ones in horrible ways, but most do not have to parade before sobbing crowds of mourners who never even met the deceased, or walk behind the coffin with the eyes of the world fixed on them. Nor are they forced to face the people they – rightly or wrongly – consider responsible for that death on a daily basis. That Harry blames the paparazzi who hounded his mother for years and chased her into that tunnel has never been a secret. What the experience did to him, however, is only now becoming clear.

[See also: Prince Harry has broken the royals’ infantilising code of silence. It’s about time]

The signs begin immediately. Harry is unable to cry when his father breaks the devastating news. The bagpipes that play the morning after drive him “mad”. He breaks down at the burial and feels “ashamed of violating the family ethos”. At school, he struggles to concentrate – “the whole basis of education was memory… My memory had been spotty since Mummy disappeared, by design, and I didn’t want to fix it, because memory equalled grief.” “Disappeared”, not “died” – because he half-convinces himself his mother is coming back. A decade after her death, while in Paris for the Rugby World Cup, he gets his driver to take him through the fateful tunnel at the speed Diana was travelling when the crash happened, as though that could help him heal. It doesn’t.

As the book progresses, the challenges Harry is grappling with become more apparent. Having left the army, “I was in trouble, toggling between bouts of debilitating lethargy and terrifying panic attacks,” he writes. Those panic attacks are triggered by putting on a suit, giving a speech, or by the snap of a camera shutter whenever he is “papped” – in other words, by being third in line to the throne. He recognises the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from his work with veterans, but realises it’s not just his time in an active war zone that’s responsible: “My war didn’t begin in Afghanistan. It began in August 1997.” It takes another decade before he cries about his mother’s death, for the first time since her burial.

Whether intentionally or not, the book is full of revelations that at first seem absurdly comedic but in fact point to something darker. Before its publication, headlines screamed about Harry’s self-confessed drug use, especially one memorable trip on magic mushrooms when he recounts watching a toilet morph into an open-mouthed head and having a conversation with a bin. They didn’t mention the context: in the midst of a breakdown, he writes of taking psychedelics because “they didn’t simply allow me to escape reality for a while, they let me redefine reality”. Similarly, the ludicrous image of the Queen’s grandson buying his clothes in a TK Maxx sale or skulking to the Kensington Palace supermarket disguised in a baseball cap look very different when seen in light of his worsening agoraphobia: “I came to fear simply being around other human beings.”

Why is Harry telling us these things? It is brave, yes, but also so shamelessly unvarnished it feels reckless – not just to his family or the institution of the monarchy but to himself. This, as much as the conversations with his father and brother he recounts in excruciating detail, is what makes Spare so uncomfortable to read. A common technique for processing abuse or traumatic stress is to write down what happened, to turn the events into a narrative in order to rob them of their power. But that act of catharsis is not usually then shared with the world and sold as trauma porn. It feels intrusive to be combing over such personal confessions, even if we have been explicitly invited to do so. He may feel it is his story to tell and much of it is (although he has also run roughshod over the privacy of others), but in telling it he has exposed himself in a way that feels high-risk. What started as a form of mental health treatment has become commercialised self-exploitation, the kind of celebrity exposé that delights the very tabloids Harry condemns for hounding him his entire life.

The lack of self-awareness that has been gleefully noted by Harry’s critics is dizzying because this sort of therapeutic writing isn’t meant for a public audience. Perhaps he thinks his story could help others heal. There is something evangelistic about the final section, in which he finally finds a therapist who can help him and is able to properly talk about his mother. He recovers memories of her he didn’t know he had; describes the effect of smelling the perfume she used to wear as “like a tab of LSD”. How different things might have been if someone had offered a bereaved young prince that kind of help 20 years earlier.

But I think the answer is simpler. In the prologue, Harry writes of returning from California in April 2021 for Prince Philip’s funeral and seeing his father and brother for the first time since the royal rift began. William claims to not understand why he left; Harry feels the urgent need to explain but in the moment doesn’t know how. “And so: Pa? Willy? World? Here you go.” For all he has said he doesn’t think they will read it, for all he seems to have willingly smashed every bridge, it is abundantly clear who Harry has written this book for. It is equally clear that, assuming a way to reach them even existed, this unfiltered cry for help could never be it. If Prince Harry is ever to get the closure he obviously seeks, he must learn that it is something he needs to do for himself.

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[See also: Prince Harry’s ITV interview revealed more about posh British men than the tabloids or the royals]

This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor