Book Review—Prince Harry’s Spare: Exposing Long Denied Trauma, Emotional Abuse


     I found Spare, the controversial memoir by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, released to the public on January 10, 2023, to hold many important life insights and opportunities for reflection (for social workers and our clients). I also found it to be misunderstood, condescended to, and judged harshly by many reviewers, critics, and readers, including several who hold a powerful media presence.   

     In its most brutal truths, Spare is a memoir about a lonely, isolated, abused, purposeless boy who becomes determined to face his realities in order to mature—in the messy, disorganized, and even conflicting process that occurs when traumas and abuse are faced. Harry exposes his family truths as he sees them to the fullest extent he can, while only hinting at some too painful to fully expose and discuss. From a social work perspective, I see his work as brave, heartfelt, and honest. Harry could well be our client. Or ourselves.

     Yes, Harry was privileged. His access to wealth, education, and opportunities to learn and grow is in sharp contrast to those of most of our clients, an injustice that we as social workers work tirelessly to confront and address. But, parallel to his rarified world, like many of our clients (and perhaps ourselves), Harry had emotional needs that were ignored.

     As I read Spare, I kept hearing the words of a nun and good friend I met through my work with the Sabbath of Domestic Peace coalition, a multicultural, interfaith initiative devoted to educating clergy of all faiths that prayer alone will never stop abuse and battering. My friend wanted all members of our coalition to understand, “The wealthy have souls also and being wealthy offers no insurance policy to protect one from abuse, trauma, and suffering.” Her remedy for a cure from trauma and abuse was John 8:31-32: “The truth will set you free.”

     With this framing in mind, I’d like to address criticism of Spare, while offering psychosocial perspective that is at the core of social work ethics, insights, and practice. To make my points will necessitate some spoilers, but primary concentration will be on themes, rather than specific details.

Critics ask: how can one with such enormous wealth, privilege, and squandered opportunity dare to complain?  

     When one lives with constant trauma and no one to process it with, concentration is not possible, and one yearns for paths to escape, regardless of their dangers. Revealed in Harry’s earliest pages is suffered trauma that began long before his mother’s death. 

     Harry’s childhood was framed by his mother’s misery in an ill-fated marriage where her only usefulness was to produce an heir and “a spare” without life purpose, other than to support the heir. Diana’s constant outreach for help and support was denied, and Charles’s driving obsession was his relationship with Camilla. These years were marked by profound mourning for Harry’s mother and shame about his wasted life.

     After the trauma of their mother’s death when Harry was 12, William 15 (when the brothers had no choice but to meet and comfort their public, rather than face their own grief), William became unavailable to his younger brother (which was due to his own ways of coping and surviving—my interpretation, not Harry’s). And Harry’s descent began. Until he found military service, his life held no purpose.

     With close examination of what Harry shares, the complex challenges of our work become even clearer. The deeply rooted, life affirming connection between parent and child is paramount. There is the terror that to state honestly that a parent is abusive renders a separation that can lead to our death. For this reason, rock solid determination to deny parental abuse, when one dares to speak of it, usually results in deep mistrust, even abandonment by other family members. This is precisely what happened to Harry and Meghan, with the couple begging for some way to remain connected in service while at the same time, with the ugliest of racial slurs abounding. Harry knew how important it was to find a way to protect his wife’s emotional well-being and safeguard his family.

Critics state that Spare is hard to follow, holds inconsistencies and inaccuracies, offers privileged military information, and is often tasteless.  

     As Harry realized what he endured was both trauma and abuse throughout his life (and his mother’s as he recalls it), the outpouring he chronicles is messy and chaotic. This dawning of awareness always is.

     I don’t fault Harry for certain inconsistencies or inaccuracies, such as what Megan wore at their first meeting or the true size of a diamond in a tiara. The memories of those on relentless emotional overload often confuse insignificant details. Further, although some highly personal, unnecessary sharing detracts from the book’s bravery and focus, upon examination they offer testimony to a perpetual lack of guidance and isolation and point to the deepest possible longing for trusted connection.

     I have no background to respond to those critical of Harry’s military sharing. But I can offer that I have worked with those who have served our country in World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Each has said that to live with killing another human being, it is necessary to forget shared humanity. 

Criticism abounds that Harry will regret his honesty, a violation of family trust.

     It has been written and stated that all families have private pain and difficulty, which should remain private. These opinions mark a far different reality from the ones Harry confronts, where he faces not only isolation and rejection, but also grave danger to those he loves. Through Spare, he claims a significant opportunity to speak his truths, not only to heal and mature, but also to inform and to warn.

     Harry’s examples of growing awareness are analogous to what I have seen in my social work practice. Not only does his memoir bravely reveal that as much as Harry loved his mother, and knew how deeply she loved him, the intensity of her love was marked by periods of absence. Further, Charles, who when speaking to Harry does not use his name, but calls him “darling boy,” did not engage in conversations of depth or consequence.

     Although Harry is extremely protective of his special relationship with his grandmother, he sees her priority as safeguarding the monarchy. Harry offers countless examples of how the tabloids encouraged prejudice against him, and horrific racist expressions against his wife, where the Queen and Charles refused to intervene. 

     Harry linked powerful disrespect and malice toward Diana to his mother’s death. With divorce, her police protection was withdrawn (unless she attended a public British event). Did he believe the accounting of what happened to his mother in the Paris tunnel where she (the mother of a future king) died without British police protection? No. Did he and William ask that the investigation be reopened? Yes, to no avail. Does he hint at sinister palace relationships that may go further than merely planting false stories? Yes.

Critics see Meghan as actress, seductress, manipulator, and fraud.

     Meghan and Harry undoubtedly fell in love. They met after other women Harry cared for could not cope with the restraints of royalty. Though William and Kate lived in the same palace complex, Harry was excluded from their lives. Desperately lonely and on a downward spiral, he is beyond grateful to Meghan for offering him a mature life, where truths must be faced and decisions made based on these truths. 

     Meghan is more overtly assertive than Kate, a woman who by all accounts has two consistently loving, devoted parents and has accomplished her goals far differently from her sister-in-law. Meghan, used to openly speaking her mind, has worked hard for everything she independently accomplished prior to meeting Harry. Do I believe she tried to adjust and secure respectful footing and expression as a royal? Absolutely. Do I believe she was given necessary direction and support? No. Do I believe that her emotional downslide was an act? Absolutely not. 

Critics define the couple as selfish, self-serving, money hungry, and exhibitionistic. They warn that the couple’s marriage will eventually implode.

     An important challenge for young marriages is for loyalties to shift from family of origin to chosen partner, a shift Harry discusses. Although kings and queens can no longer act as if royalty connotes a state above others, separating from a royal family is not only a break with family. It is a break from heritage and country, where Harry’s loyalties are deeply rooted.

     Every marriage is a private, complex, intimate dance whose truths (regardless of what a couple tries to project) are only their own. Undoubtedly, there is a fierce connection between Meghan and Harry, and undoubtedly, there are and will be many difficulties to overcome. But despite obstacles, Harry and Meghan are gifted with many positives, none more important than parenthood, which offers a chance to heal from trauma and abuse by loving a child.

     Overlooked in the criticism that the true purpose of Spare is to enhance wealth is the enormous cost of protection for their family. Overlooked also is the couple’s generous commitment to philanthropy. Considering all, can some of the condescension be motivated by envy of the couple’s success or jealousy of their devotion? Or both? Can chosen words reveal more about the longings of critics than about Harry and Meghan?   

Critics ask how Harry could expose so much, yet say he is loyal to the monarchy.

     A full read of Spare leaves little doubt that if recalled to military service for the Commonwealth, Harry will not hesitate to risk his life to serve his country. But Harry lived and saw (painfully!) that the primary purpose of what his grandfather described as The Firm is to enhance power and protect endurance, regardless of cost to others. A strong motivation for Spare is the belief that, for public devotion to the monarchy to continue, much within and surrounding the royal family must change.

     The necessity to face when change is necessary—for our clients, for ourselves, and in the systems that impact us—is implicit in social work. Spare offers many opportunities to examine and reflect on life truths, regardless of how brutal and ugly, and use insights as motivation for life affirming change. The necessity for this quality of thoughtful, responsible action, even when deeply unsettling, is a hallmark of our proud and historic profession.

Reviewed by SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, DCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD, private and pro bono clinical social work practice, Philadelphia, PA.

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