Prince Harry’s Spare book review: pain, panic and PTSD - memoir shows depths of despair
In Spare, we have an unflinching story of a man who is really still a little boy following his mother’s coffin
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In what is essentially a very public domestic squabble, as well as a serious look at identity and mental health, Prince Harry is pictured as the lonely black sheep of the royal family in his controversial memoir Spare. For the first time, the Prince of Wales and Prince Harry or ‘Willy’ and ‘Harold’ as they call themselves, are humanised as brothers amidst an antiquated system. The author’s feeling of being inconsequential jumps out on every page, citing himself as a “spare” at least 33 times in the book.
He begins with his immortalisation of his mother Diana, who seems to be a haunting spectre throughout his life and the death that surrounds her. Prince Harry writes: “She was indescribable—because she was light, pure and radiant light, and how can you really describe light?” Right up to his relationship with Meghan Markle, the Prince talks about holding on to the pain of losing her in a bid to keep her presence alive. In what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder as he describes in the book, he says: “You see…the pain…if that’s what it is…that’s all I have left of her.”
The Shakespearean relationship between the brothers is solidified by how he is referred to as the “spare”. He writes: “I was the shadow, the support, the Plan B. I was brought into the world in case something happened to Willy. I was summoned to provide backup, distraction, diversion and, if necessary, a spare part. Kidney, perhaps. Blood transfusion. Speck of bone marrow. This was all made explicitly clear to me from the start of life’s journey and regularly reinforced thereafter.”
And he admits that his life was like a scene from Hamlet, where he writes that he opened the book of the famous play and it resonated with him: “Lonely prince, obsessed with dead parent, watches remaining parent fall in love with dead parent’s usurper…? I slammed it shut. No, thank you.”
Early on he talks about when King Charles or ‘Pa’ sat down in the dark one night with him and told him that his mother had died. “”They tried, darling boy. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.”[...] He did say it that way, I know that much for sure. She didn’t make it. And then everything seemed to come to a stop.”” Grief plays a large part for a 12-year-old Harry, struggling to understand what had happened to the former Princess of Wales, to the point years later he revisits the scene of her death in Paris, where she was killed in that tragic car crash in 1997.
There is criticism of the decision to urge the two young princes to walk behind Diana’s coffin. The Duke of Sussex writes: “Several adults were aghast. Mummy’s brother, Uncle Charles [Earl Spencer], raised hell. You can’t make these boys walk behind their mother’s coffin! It’s barbaric.”
According to the Prince, Diana carried a photo of her sons on her chest as she was buried in her coffin, which he says broke him and he sobbed uncontrollably, away from the cameras - unlike how the rest of his life is portrayed. Much of his childhood grief was hidden; he played rugby in a bid to match his external pain to his internal, and admits that “I wasn’t a human being” to the media.
He also raises the hearsay about his paternity, where he said his life was turned into a sadistic “joke” for tabloid newspapers as several media outlets over the years brought into question whether Harry was the son of Diana’s alleged ex-lover Major James Hewitt. The royal describes his life as “fancy captivity” and a “fishbowl” on a number of occasions, and squarely puts the blame on the media for much of his troubles. This includes his time serving in the military in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013 where he said the media had put him in dangerous situations, outing his location to the Taliban.
His fragile sense of self and severe anxiety is highlighted through his admission that he struggled to understand his existence, especially as an outsider to the throne. He writes: “If I die in Afghanistan, I thought, at least I’ll never have to see another fake headline, [and] read another shameful lie about myself.” We see death time and time again in this book, from his mother’s passing, his close friend’s death and fellow soldiers around him.
And the ugly relationship breakdown between his parents put him in the middle, where he claimed he had to broach the subject of the other parent as if he was a “career diplomat”. He said Charles had merely “co-existed” with him apart from some fleeting moments, as he claims his father “had trouble communicating, trouble listening, trouble being intimate face-to-face”, and at one point had resorted to writing him a letter to say how proud he was of him instead of saying it to his face.
He does not agree with his mother’s legendary claim that “three people were in her marriage”, as she had forgotten her sons in that equation. Harry claims that both he and his brother sensed the ‘other woman’. His relationship with the now Queen Consort appeared to be a formality he said as he was not the heir.
He acknowledged his father’s upbringing in the notorious Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland, which had left him at the mercy of bullies and with very few friends. Harry writes that he felt obligated to ensure that Charles had a companion such as Camilla, but asserts that she hired spin doctors who were leaking their private conversations.
There is less sympathy for Harry when it comes to his misguided stunt of wearing a Nazi uniform for a costume party or referring to his fellow cadet as a “P***”. And whilst he attempts to sidestep his missteps by blaming the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, he does admit that these were teaching moments for him, saying the Chief Rabbi of Britain told him that he condemned his actions whilst absolving him for his immature behaviour.
The book reveals that the “self-loathing” royal was often misguided, and divulges his frequent drug use as a numbing agent for his anxiety. He appears to be a product of his circumstance without proper counsel after his mother’s death, not finding belonging within his own family and seeking a sense of connection within his friendship groups, soldiers, girlfriends, therapists and household staff.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the “blue-blooded” noble, despite his constant lavish trips abroad, his lack of emotional maturity and living off the royal purse strings. There is a sense of feeling torn that if he was anyone other than a royal, his life would be considered a tragedy. The book certainly accomplishes what Harry sets out to do, which is reveal his version of the “truth”.