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Prince Harry, Spare Thyself
Prince Harry has been taking a beating in the press lately over his new memoir and Netflix show. The online men’s sphere has also long pointed to him as a cautionary example of what happens to the beta male who allows himself to fall prey to excess female influence. They are predicting his marriage will ultimately end in divorce. Additionally, let’s be honest, it’s hard for ordinary people to muster sympathy for royalty.
Yet I can’t help but think that Harry very much has faced difficult challenges in life, ones we may not fully appreciate and would not want to be faced with ourselves.
He was born a prince, but one who was, as the title of his new book puts it, a spare. From the earliest age, he’s known that his older brother William would one day inherit the throne, and that his role was that of an insurance policy and a figure far down the rungs of status in the affairs of the realm. And that his own descendants would suffer a tremendous diminution of status relative to his brothers’, eventually descending to obscurity while William may well have a descendant on the throne for generations.
This legacy of a primogeniture type situation is not one we in America are used to experiencing. It’s hard to even think of a situation to compare it to. Perhaps imagine a multi-billionaire who intends for his oldest son to inherit the family fortune and take the reins of the family business, while the younger son will get a few million to establish himself comfortably in life, but otherwise will be sidelined unless something happens to his brother.
But unlike that second son of the American billionaire, Harry faced the additional challenge of not being able to build a life of his own. As a prince, he could not go into business, for example. Among the American WASP upper crust of the past, it may have at times been considered poor form to engage in trade, but at least one could adopt a gentleman’s profession like the law. That wasn’t an option for Harry, who was basically forced into the traditional second son’s role in the military. He was also forced to play an active part of the royal family’s public duties, where again he served in a subordinate role from which he could never escape.
He was also subjected to constant and intense press surveillance. As few of us reading this are A-list celebrities, we can’t easily relate to how that makes anything resembling a normal life even in personal, ordinary affairs impossible. The British tabloids especially are vicious at a scale beyond that in the US, and often not exactly wedded to the truth told in a fair context.
Famously, his mother died when he was only twelve years old - old enough to know what was happening, but way too young to be able to have the emotional development and personal independence necessary to process it. He can’t, for example, relate to her memory as of a complete person, one with the same sorts of strengths and weaknesses that he sees in his other family members. This also deprived him of his mother during the crucial stage of adolescence.
Then of course there was his parents’ tumultuous marriage and divorce. They had been separated since Harry was around seven, and only officially divorced a year before her death. Harry’s father admitted to having an affair with Camilla in 1994, a woman he later married and who is now Queen. This surely must have created an ambivalent relationship between Harry and his dad.
Harry seems to have made the most of his situation. He served with honor in the military. His role was not ceremonial. He served in combat twice in Afghanistan, first as a forward air controller, then as an Apache helicopter pilot. He later founded the Invictus Games, an international sporting competition for wounded soldiers. As the second son, he did have more freedom to cultivate a flashier, even roguish personality, which caused people to like him, even if he sometimes went too far such as with his infamous Nazi uniform costume.
I can easily understand why this role was not pleasant for him, and why he may have understandably wanted out. Unhappiness seems to be a recurring condition among the super-wealthy and aristocratic classes. Here in the US, for example, the WASPs have had more than their fair share of suicides.
His marriage to Meghan Markle perhaps offered an opportunity to find more personal satisfaction in his life. However, it appears to have led to a turn into even greater unhappiness, and a downward spiral of relational dysfunction. He became increasingly unhappy and at odds with his family, leading to the famous resignation of his status as a senior royal in favor of a new “civilian” life in the United States. The level of controversy and tumult has only increased with this move. He both tries to explain this and adds fuel to the fire in a new memoir released yesterday entitled Spare.
I am not an avid a follower of royal gossip, but let’s be honest, this saga has been impossible to avoid. As Harry has also been used as a case study by the online men’s sphere, I decided to read the book and share my observations and analysis.
The book itself can be divided into essentially two parts. The first 75% is a traditional memoir covering Harry’s life up through the creation of the Invictus Games in 2014. The last 25% is his life after meeting Megan. The first part is basically a standard and in my view uncontroversial memoir. The parts from this that have been gotten press attention are mostly, as to be expected, blown out of proportion. For example, the story of losing his virginity to an older woman behind a pub is only a stray paragraph. It seems included mostly to answer an obvious curiosity the public would have about that aspect of his life. The sections where he supposedly assigns part of the blame William and Kate for his Nazi costume episode, or the revelation of the brothers’ circumcision status may not have been wise to include, but neither is presented maliciously. His portrayals of his family are even nuanced here at times, as he says both positive as well at critical things about them, and acknowledges where life has likewise not treated them fairly. If I were his father and brother, I’d view these as minor, petty matters not worth making an issue of. Matters such as Harry’s description of his frostbitten penis, which some have criticized, are typical memoir fodder, and presented self-deprecatingly.
It’s the part about his life with Meghan, and their very public and bitter break with the royal family, that shows Harry losing control, and which should rightly receive the most criticism. It’s Harry in full victim mode, completely devoid of self-reflection or self-awareness.
The book is set up to show the root of Harry’s unhappiness as the British press and the paparazzi - which he called “paps” - that hound him. He hates their relentlessness and the way they invade his privacy. But in particular he is upset by three things. The first is that they constantly lie about him, and later Meghan too. The second is that his family, and the institution of the monarchy in general, refuse to do anything to stop the press or defend him in the face of these unfair and untrue attacks. He admits they by and large don’t defend themselves either, living by the motto “never complain, never explain.” But, and this gets to the third thing he is angry about, while the more senior royals don’t publicly say anything, their operatives do feed dirt to the tabloids. Harry believes that they sometimes plant negative stories about him in order to make themselves look better in comparison, burnish their own image, or prevent Harry and Meghan’s star power from upstaging them.
I believe Harry is correct that the royal family operatives do intentionally disadvantage him in favor of his brother, Charles, and Queen Elizabeth. For example, was the royal family behind the early leak of the book that front ran Harry’s carefully planned media interviews? Who knows, but it’s certainly conceivable. This too is part of the role of the spare, and the only part that he can’t abide. In fact, he doesn’t even seem fully conscious that this is part of the role. Nevertheless, I can completely understand why he would chafe at this. What’s that old expression? S—t rolls downhill. And Harry is nowhere near the mountaintop.
However, Harry himself clearly has an unhealthy and co-dependent relationship with the press. His father encourages him to adopt a sensible strategy with regard to the papers: don’t read them. His family in effect says that it comes with the territory, and they they have themselves all experienced their fair share of mistreatment at the hands of the press (which Harry acknowledges is true). The rest of his family also understands that being in the press is vital to their job, both in performing the public role the country expects of its royal family, and advancing the social causes they care about. Thus a mature understanding of press relations involves trying to reach the best balance of favorable coverage to hit jobs, and being somewhat philosophical when that is out of balance.
Harry can’t do that. He gives the impression that from an early time he has been obsessed with the papers. He seems to have read and remembered everything they’ve ever said about him. He pays attention to social posts and even tweets as well.
What’s more, he himself is now doing everything that he criticized the press for. How is his memoir any different from the tell all book by his mother’s former butler that he considered treasonous? He too is betraying family secrets and airing dirty laundry. He himself is engaging in the very practices he denounced. His defense of this is that a) his statements are actually true, b) he’s doing it himself and above board, not relying on shadowy operatives, and c) he has no choice but to defend himself and set the record straight because his family stood by and did nothing in the face of abuse that no one should ever be expected to endure.
These ring hollow. To use a royal metaphor, what he’s really doing seems more to me like in the old days when a rival claimant to the throne would retreat to France to raise an army to try to seize it back. In his case, he’s gone to America to raise a financial, media, and cultural army, not to capture the throne for himself, but to damage if not destroy the monarchy. The revenge of the spare is to see that no one else gets to enjoy what he himself has been denied.
He also wasn’t thinking very far in advance, believing that he could use the media rather than being used and abused by it. Yes, his Oprah interviews, Netflix series, and now his book have all gotten massive attention and scored points. But we see already today that the stories about him are once again increasingly negative. He is being portrayed - correctly it seems to me - as a self-centered, unreflective narcissist. The rest of the royals seem to be weathering the storm well at this point, as each “bombshell” harms them less than the previous one. They are now positioned to simply take the high ground and come off looking like winners at Harry’s expense once again. Why in the world he would think that the media that he vilifies for lying about him and being hostile him would become a tool he could use, that they would not simply frame him negatively again? Once again we see his lack of self-awareness. His family’s more sophisticated view of the good and bad of the media would have come in handy for him. But he, alas, rejected it.
The nature of his relationships with Meghan also simply cannot be avoided. He experienced a coup de foudre simply from seeing her picture. And he immediately developed a case of what the manosphere would call “one-itis” - the idea the Meghan was his one and only soulmate:
I realized I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. A fairly staggering revelation for me just then. But this woman’s beauty, and my response to it, wasn’t based merely on symmetry. There was an energy about her, a wild joy and playfulness. There was something in the way she smiled, the way she interacted with Violet, the way she gazed into the camera. Confident. Free. She believed life was one grand adventure, I could see that. What a privilege it would be, I thought, to join her on that journey. I got all of that from her face. Her luminous, angelic face. I’d never had a firm opinion on that burning question: Is there just one person on this earth for each of us? But in that moment I felt there might be only one face for me. This one.
It is, of course, very proper to say nice things about your spouse and refrain from any criticisms of him or her. It’s also natural to go through a star struck phase in a relationship. But Harry seems never to emerged from it. He’s very clearly been heavily influenced by her. It’s curiously not in the book, but, for example, Harry stopped fox hunting because Meghan didn’t like it. He seems to have adopted his climate advocacy from her (although Charles has also long been an environmentalist). He goes to therapy at her insistence, after she issues an ultimatum when he yells at her. Whatever his views of the benefits of therapy - I’m not a therapy hater - it seems to have only fueled his unhappiness and further separated him from his family. William suggests he was being brainwashed there, and he’s probably right to question why therapy is alienating Harry from his own family. Harry and Meghan move to her home turf in California, a foreign country for Harry, and a move which created a profound physical separation between him and his family.
Their relationship gives the impression of one in which she is the initiator, he is a imitator and follower. His description of her above elevates her above him in status. The famous Time magazine cover does likewise.
Note that they are photographed at equal height, although he is much taller. She’s in front, with a “power pose” type posture - legs slightly spread, elbows out, hair spread wide. He’s clinging to her as if she might flee. Images like this never happen by accident. They must have approved them prior to publication, thus intended to send these messages.
Ultimately, relationships where men subordinate themselves to their wife’s directions and lead tend to produce unhappiness in the wife herself. This doesn’t necessarily cause divorce, and I’m hoping for a long and prosperous marriage for them. But if I were Harry I’d be looking to make sure he’s not overly conforming himself to what she wants to be. He doesn’t have to try to lord it over her, but he does need to clearly be his own man.
Regardless of how wonderful their relationships might be, objectively, according to Harry’s own memoir, that relationship has coincided with Harry’s own general unhappiness becoming unbearable to him, and to a breakdown in Harry’s relationship with his family. Again, if you read Spare as two separate books, one pre-Meghan, one post, the difference is stark. Harry would not doubt attribute this to racism, the press, his family, etc. He implicitly positions it as such by talking about the way previous girlfriends were driven away by the same types of pressures. One even later commits suicide. Even so, for some reason, this was far worse with Harry than it was with, say, William, who managed to successfully navigate this. Harry should seek to understand what role he himself played in this.
It’s hard to see where Harry goes from here. His upbringing did not equip him for any endeavors other than being a prince or a soldier. It’s not like he has great coding or other skills he could deploy in business or another productive endeavor. Very few people people - the Kardashians are a big exception - are able to maintain being famous for being famous for a long period of time successfully. Also, William’s son Prince George is already nine. In a short period of time, attention will start shifting to him and his generation instead of Harry’s.
If I were him, I’d give thought to ending his jihad, and pursuing reconciliation with his family. I did note that this book did not include racism accusations against his own family that had been implied in previous media appearances. That’s a good sign. He also needs to find a genuinely productive endeavor to replace his previous military service and/or become more focused in the causes he and Meghan want to champion.
If I were to take lessons for us from this situation, what would they be? Although their lives are quite alien to our own by virtues of their unique roles and status, I’d suggest a few things:
Avoid becoming co-dependent with your adversaries as Harry did with the press.
Control your media consumption, especially your social media consumption. Don’t let it control you. As I noted in newsletter #29, when I sense myself getting worked up by them, I take breaks from social media or even the regular news.
Be wary of airing your family’s dirty laundry in public.
Be wary of getting into an escalation cycle that estranges you from family members or other key relationships.
Fight against one-itis in relationships and try to avoid becoming subsumed in your partner.
I should also note that Harry describes consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs in the book. He comes across in it as having a problem. So be wary of that as well.
Finally, Harry, though still potentially in line to be the head of the Church of England, evinces no evidence of faith. His solutions to life’s problems are very California. To the extent he has a religious orientation, it’s New Age. This deprives him of a powerful anchor in transcendent truth, and a way to process suffering, loss, and the human condition. I would, of course, advocate that one be a Christian instead, because it is not only a religion, but also true.
Although Harry is a prince, he’s still a human being. And because the human condition is the same in all times and in all places, we can be subject to the same forces and emotions as him, even if in radically different contexts.
Again, I feel Harry really has had a difficult life in many ways. The role of a “spare” is not one to envy. Even in recognizing where he’s gotten swept out to sea, I think we should keep in mind the basic reality of his privileged but also highly constrained and pressured existence. I very much hope that neither he nor his marriage self-destruct. But the media sharks are still circling, waiting to devour him. Beware.
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