Halfway Through Prince Harry’s Spare, Here’s What I’m Thinking About
So many thoughts on what, and how, he shares about his family, his feelings, his truth.
Hello! WHAT A WEEK. Simultaneously listening to and reading Spare has made for quite the intense experience of Prince Harry’s new memoir. I’ll admit, the further I get, the more proud I am to be on #TeamReadtheBook. The context is everything.
I am about halfway through Spare and resisting the urge to binge it as quickly as I can. There is so much here! I want to take my time and digest it all.
Scroll down for so many thoughts on the first half of Spare, along with links to other pieces I am reading. But first, you’ll find a recap of my companion podcast, our discussion threads, and the upcoming SMT Book Club meet-ups (so excited!). These additional features are open to paid subscribers; thank you so much for your support — it makes my work possible.
If you haven’t already, please consider upgrading for $5 a month. If you can’t afford it, please make sure you sign up for free subscription first and then send me an email at Hello@SoManyThoughts.com.
🎧 Audio Thoughts — A Spare Companion Podcast
Thank you for the incredible response to this experiment of mine, an in-real-time podcast. I hope it feels like we are reading Spare together! If you haven’t had a chance to tune in yet, give it a listen. Every couple dozen chapters, I pause to reflect on what Harry has shared. Here’s a quick recap:
Episode 1 covers the prologue through Harry’s time at Ludgrove (Part 1, Chapters 1 to 15). I discuss the structure and tone of the book, the memories Harry shares from his mother’s funeral, and much more.
Episode 2 tracks from Harry’s Eton years to his early days in the British Army (Part 1, Chapters 16 to 58). There was a lot to discuss in this section — from Harry’s deep disdain for the media to how his public reputation affected him.
Episode 3 looks at the first half of Part 2, from Harry’s scrubbed deployment to Iraq to the end of his relationship with Chelsy Davy (Part 2, Chapters 1 to 39). In addition to some breathtaking writing about military life and combat, I had one of my biggest realizations about Harry and the book so far. Listen to the end of this episode to hear it!
Episode 4 — new this weekend! — gets into, yes, all the todger talk (I’ve got a great theory for that), that night in Las Vegas, his second stint in Afghanistan, and the surprising view he had of Will and Kate’s wedding.
Note: If you want to listen the moment I release an episode, either add the feed to your favorite podcast app (instructions on how to do that are here) or books this page.
🧵 SMT Discussion Threads
You all have THOUGHTS and I love you for it! I’ve started comment threads on the first two parts of the book and the discussion so far has been fantastic.
Part 1 is here, with discussion about how Harry's grief affected him for so long, how so many of Spare's headline grabbing revelations read differently in full context and the complicated dynamics of the royal family.
Part 2 is here, and gets into how Harry feels about past romantic partners, the importance of marriage to the royals and how central war is to Harry's identity.
Part 3 is coming soon!
📚 SMT Book Club Meet-Ups
Behind the scenes, I’ve been hard at work organizing a few dozen (!) SMT Book Club meet-ups. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to host either in-person or digital hangs. In the next few days, I’ll send out instructions for how paid subscribers can join a meet-up.
So Many Thoughts on the First Half of Spare
My take on the Prologue, Part 1 and Part 2 (through Chapter 64). Spoilers ahead!
#TeamReadtheBook is winning
The uneasiness I felt in the pre-publication leaks has morphed into validation. I knew the book — all 410 pages — would provide so much more context than any of the standalone, screaming headlines. From Harry’s discussion around the number of people he killed in Afghanistan, to why he wasn’t the best man at William’s wedding and his feelings towards Camilla, each of these very sensitive topics are treated with tremendous care.
Also, a special shoutout to #TeamListentotheBook. The additional layer we’re getting as we hear him share his story is <chef’s kiss.> When he sings a few lines from Elton John at his mother’s anniversary concert in 2007? My whole heart!
This is Harry’s side of Harry’s story
I am keeping this refrain in mind with every chapter of Spare: This is Harry’s side of his story. The singular point of view of Spare is very much the point; Harry wants, and has every right, to tell his story. And I very much want to hear it! But I think it’s helpful to remember there are probably many other sides to what he is sharing — none of which take anything away from what Harry is sharing. It’s a “yes, and” situation in my mind. Yes, this is Harry’s truth. And, there is probably more to it.
Harry’s frank admission of how trauma impacted his memory is all the more reason to keep this in mind. “My memory is my memory,” he writes in Chapter 2. “There is just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts. Things like chronology and cause-and-effect are often just fables we tell ourselves about the past.” As a journalist, I was a little taken aback by that framing. As a reader, I appreciated how upfront he was. Harry did himself a tremendous favor there, giving wiggle room to the entire narrative. (Also, his fantastic ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, tweeted that line seemingly as a response to the critics calling out minor inaccuracies sprinkled throughout the book.)
Another thing that struck me — again, with my journalist hat on — is the way some of the material is attributed. A number of times Harry writes about something as it was “reported” in the press. Given his hatred of the media, and the lengths he goes to throughout Spare to discredit the press, his use of it was surprising to me. But I can also understand, given the circumstances, why he might want to call on the extensive coverage of his family to augment his own memories.
A single sentence in Part 1 made me particularly sad, a line in the scene describing his mother’s burial: “It was reported that Mummy’s hands were folded across her chest and between them was placed a photo of me and Willy.” Those first three words — “It was reported” — would suggest he doesn’t know for certain. It’s also the sort of thing that if Harry was still on speaking terms with his family he could have checked with someone.
The tremendous influence of his mother
Princess Diana has an outsize role in all of history, so it’s no surprise that she looms particularly large in her son’s life. Still — it’s hard to describe what it felt like to read his words, and listen to him read them. “Although my mother was a princess, named after a goddess, both those terms always felt weak, inadequate,” Harry writes. Then later: “She was light, pure and radiant light, and how can you really describe light?” Chills.
The ways in which Harry processed her death at age 12 — or didn’t, for a decade — are just gut wrenching. It’s one of many areas in which his willingness to share his feelings so openly took my breath away. I was twice as old as Harry was when I lost my own mother and under very different circumstances (she had been sick for years). I truly cannot fathom the position he was in at such a tender age. And yet, so much of what he wrote rang true to me, too, particularly the inability to accept the finality of your mother’s death. Every time he refers to her “disappearance” instead of her death stopped me in my tracks.
How much Spare shares — and leaves untouched
One of the biggest surprises of Spare is the choices Harry is constantly making of what to discuss in great detail (ie her funeral, burial), what to gloss over (ie his parents’ troubled relationship), and what to keep private entirely (ie so much of his childhood).
No doubt this has to do with what Harry refers to as “The Wall,” both in the book and in an interview with the Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon, which she describes as “a mental block in his brain that divides his life before and after his mother died.” In that conversation, Harry makes it clear that although he shared a lot, there is also a lot — particularly about his brother and father — that didn’t make it in. “I just don’t want the world to know,” he told Gordon.
I wonder, too, if that’s why this first half of the book says so little about the Queen. She pops up, here and there, in quite glowing terms. His deep admiration and love for her is clear. I’m waiting to see if we get more in the second half, but I was expecting her to feature more prominently in the first.
His love for, and the grace he shows, his father
One person Harry does say a lot about is his father. Perhaps this should have been a given (ahem, given how things have gone in the family) but I was surprised at how Harry describes King Charles III. He shows “Pa,” as he calls him, such grace in the face of what seems like quite significant emotional shortcomings.
Harry writes with such gentleness that you almost miss some of what happened, like how Charles didn’t hug Harry (!) after breaking the news of Diana’s death. “He wasn’t great at showing emotions under normal circumstances,” Harry writes, “how could he be expected to show them in such a crisis?” One might expect that’s exactly the time a father should rise to the occasion, but the pass that Harry offers him at that moment speaks volumes to me about the love he has for his father.
With the benefit of decades of hindsight, Harry seems to even better understand his father’s limitations. He writes with tenderness about how Charles was bullied as a boy, says very little about his father’s role in his parents’ divorce, and acknowledges how he tried to step up to the parenting plate in the wake of Diana’s death. “He’d always given an air of being not quite ready for parenthood — the responsibilities, the patience, the time,” Harry writes. “Even he, though a proud man, would’ve admitted as much. But single parenthood? Pa was never made for that.”
The solitary, sparse side of royal life
In Part 1, it hit home that this boy, with his dead mother and his emotionally unavailable father, was alone so much of the time. Processing his trauma while navigating adolescence? I cannot fathom a child going through that.
To be fair, he was on this path with his parents’ choice to enroll him in boarding school (as is customary for that class — he refers to his peers as “abandoned children”) but obviously his mother’s death exacerbated it immensely. The “matrons” at Ludgrove School acted as surrogates in a way. Harry writes about how he “depends on their nightly tuck-ins, still treasured their morning greetings.”
As he reached adulthood, Harry still didn’t have so much as a home base. He stayed in his various father’s residences, from St. James’s Palace to Clarence House to Highgrove, remarking at one point in 2005 that he lived out of a suitcase. Fast forward another eight years, when Harry was 29, and he was still living with his father, eating take out over the sink (and watching Friends, calling himself “a Chandler.” What a detail!)
Do you remember how Meghan, in her interview with Oprah Winfrey, was intent on dispelling the myths of royal life? She said she felt like she was being judged on perception rather than reality. Spare underscores that in so many ways, doesn’t it? It rips up any preconceived notion of how we think prince might live — and replaces it with detailed description of what life was really like.
The lack of hugs :(
In his chat with Stephen Colbert, Harry said he is “hugger” now — what a relief! Because oh my word! Harry’s talk of the lack of hugs or other forms of affection were really something. Just when you think this family is relatable…they are not. “The older generation maintained a nearly zero-tolerance prohibition on all physical contact,” Harry writes. “No hugs, no kisses, no pats. Now and then, maybe a light touching of cheeks…on special occasions.” With the Queen, Harry has even stronger boundaries. While watching her at a concert in 2002, he resists the urge to hug her. “Out of the question,” he writes. “I never had done and couldn’t imagine any circumstance under which such an act might be sanctioned.” Why am I so sad about this!
There is a lot at play here with this reserve. It’s the American-Brit divide, surely; there’s a sizable class element, too. But I think about the physical nature of parenthood, how my kids use me as a climbing gym, how they plead for hugs and cuddles, and I sort of can’t fathom any other way? It makes me appreciate even more how transformative Princess Diana’s warmth was and understand (though don’t agree with!) the way Meghan was received as overstepping with her greetings.
The complicated, but relatable, relationship Harry has with his brother
The long-standing tension between Harry and his older brother, William, was a big part of the messy pre-publication leaks around Spare. Once the initial shock of it wore off — I’ll admit, I hadn’t realized “Willy” and “Harold” were nowhere near as close as the public and press presumed — and I had a chance to really read some of the passages, I felt tremendous sympathy for the two of them.
My feelings are heavily influenced by my own upbringing (as a second daughter who was positively obsessed with her older sister) and my own kids (particularly my middle son, Oliver, who always wants to be around my oldest, Fitzgerald). Being a mother is humbling! Watching my own kids has given me a greater understanding of both what I wanted from my sister and why she wanted space. I really see both sides. After a few tension-filled teenage years, my sister and I are now as close as can be — I have to credit my mom here with helping us through. Harry and Will were on their own, and dealing with the unimaginable heir-spare dynamic, which would magnify all of this tremendously.
At this halfway point in Spare, the interactions Harry describes between him and his brother feel quite one-sided. Which comes as no surprise. As I said earlier, this is Harry’s side of Harry’s story. His relationship with his brother clearly has had a profound impact on him. But I do find myself remembering that William was dealing with the same traumatic life events, the same emotionally unavailable father, and the pressures of royal life — and I feel for him, too.
How willing Harry is to wade into competing emotions
The internet rewards hot takes and choosing sides, but often I feel the most accurate, authentic position is somewhere in the messy middle, complete with competing emotions. With Spare, Harry is doing a tremendous job painting a complicated portrait of his life, one in which he often felt a lot of things all at once.
I read the chapter about Camilla and Charles’s wedding several times to absorb the way the pendulum of emotion swings from happy to sad and back again. Take this portion! So many feelings:
“I did sneak several long peeks at the groom and the bride and each time I thought: Good for you. Though, also: Goodbye. I knew without question that this marriage would take Pa away from us. Not in any real sense, not in any deliberate or malicious way, but nevertheless — away. Willy and I would see less of Pa, I predicted, and that left me with mixed feelings. I didn’t relish losing a second parent, and I had complex feelings about gaining a step-parent who, I believed, had recently sacrificed me on her personal PR altar. But I saw Pa’s smile and it was hard to argue with that, and harder still to deny the cause: Camilla. I wanted so many things, but I was surprised to discover at their wedding that one of the things I wanted most, still, was for my father to be happy. In a funny way I even wanted Camilla to be happy. Maybe she’d be less dangerous if she was happy?”
Harry has learned a lot, and still has work to do
Note: After sending this newsletter, a reader wrote to offer context around the slur Harry used and asked that I use trigger warning on any future mentions. I’ve added that, as well as an asterisk to the word below. I apologize for any offense I have caused. My sincere thanks to the person who reached out about this.
***Trigger warning: Discussion of Prince Harry’s use of a racial slur***
Harry does not shy away from addressing the controversies in his past, including his choice to wear a Nazi costume to a party in 2005. I applaud him for the guidance he sought after (although, worth noting, this only came after considerable public and media pressure). On his visit to speak with a Rabbi, Harry writes, “I’d arrived at his house feeling shame. I now felt something else, a bottomless self-loathing. But that wasn’t the rabbi’s aim. He spoke to me with the quality one often encounters in truly wise people — forgiveness. He assured me that people do stupid things, say stupid things, but it doesn’t need to be their intrinsic nature. I was showing my true nature, he said, by seeking to atone.”
This is another “yes, and” situation for me. YES, Harry did the work to understand what he had done wrong in that instance. AND there are other examples in the book that I felt revealed the work he has left to do. His apology to Ahmed Raza Kahn, a fellow cadet whom he referred to on video as “Our little P*ki friend,” fell short. He offers a lot of excuses as to why he didn’t think it was wrong — “harmless” even — and that he felt really badly after he got caught saying it. But he doesn’t share if he learned why it was, in fact, a racist thing to say.
His story has one clear villain: the media
This is another thing that falls in the category of “we knew that” BUT I’d say I have a much greater understanding now than I did before. Harry returns, time and time and time again, to how the media has disrupted and damaged his life, from his feelings on the paparazzi’s role in his mother’s death to how a press report forced his early return from Afghanistan to the ways the collective hounding scared off several girlfriends. Chelsy Davy, he writes, did not want to sign up for “a lifetime of being stalked” to which Harry adds: “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t want this life either.”
The journalist in me wishes Harry would have taken a paragraph or two to explain the relationship between the palace and the press, how it got to this point and how each benefits from the other. Or even simply distinguish between the types of press, instead of condemning it all in one fell swoop. But the reader in me feels tremendous sympathy and anger on his behalf. He was absolutely a victim of atrocious invasion of privacy.
The prince saves some of his most scathing language for a handful of members of the British press and a pair of photographers. Take what he said about Rebekah Brooks of the now-shuttered News of the World (before he delights over her arrest in the phone-hacking scandal): “She was an infected pustule on the arse of humanity, plus a shit excuse for a journalist.” If some parts feel penned by his ghostwriter, that bit felt all Harry.
About all that todger talk…
Speaking of nether regions…ok, WOW. I was prepared for the frostbitten ~bits~ because of what was leaked ahead of time. But I can’t say I expected the extent to which Harry goes there and then goes several step further.
If I put on my writer hat, especially as someone who has dabbled in first-person essays, there is always a push to go there. It builds trust with readers when you share something they wouldn’t necessarily expect you to share. But the bar, in royal chatter, for what causes a gasp or some pearl clutching is frightfully low. (In fashion, it’s when Kate wore shorts! GASP.) Harry didn’t have to go this far.
So why did he? If you look at when the todger talk comes, it’s quite a heavy point in the narrative. Harry is in between his tours in Afghanistan, around the time he describes his brother’s wedding as almost like a funeral and the press hounding has reached a fever pitch. The frostbitten penis is a bit of welcome levity. It checks so many boxes, from revealing to ridiculous, while being a bit of a distraction. Perfect fodder for the tabloids to squawk about! Also, it gets him out of describing other intimate scenes. (My husband, Matt, dubbed it the OSS — which was a new concept to me. If you want to know more, have a listen to episode 4 of the podcast.)
His raw, intimate portrait of war
As someone who has no direct experience with the military, nor do I come from a military family, I particularly appreciated Harry’s willingness to share his time in Afghanistan. As he was describing the helicopter scenes, it occurred to me that I might not have otherwise sought out this sort of in-depth, personal view of conflict. And how we’re all better for knowing this side? Add to that Harry’s desire to put himself in such a dangerous position, a very important and revealing part of his narrative.
A moment for ghostwriter Moehringer here, who did a fantastic job lacing together descriptions with really profound reflections. Take all the talk of sand when Harry first arrived in Afghanistan. “Everyone and everything at Dwyer was either caked with sand or sprinkled with sand or painted the color of sand,” Harry writes, musing on how it stuck to hair, eyelashes, and necks and made people look “like fillets of fish that’d been breadcrumbed before frying.” Then Moehringer, I presume, helps him step back and take a longer viewer. “You couldn’t stare at that many grains of sand without also thinking about eternity,” he writes. “All that shifting, swirling, whirling sand, you felt it saying something to you about your minuscule niche in the cosmos. Ashes to ashes. Sand to sand.”
Back to reading the book I go! But mostly: There’s so much more in my Spare companion podcast. I hope you’ll have a listen. Catch all the episodes here.
More Spare takes to think about
Anyone else doing a little side Googling as you listen/read Spare? I wanted to share a few links I found interesting (note: some of these contain spoilers about the second half of the book):
Prince Harry’s interview with Byrony Gordon: ‘This is not about trying to collapse the monarchy, this is about trying to save them from themselves’ (The Telegraph, Substack)
Prince Harry’s extended interview with Stephen Colbert (YouTube)
Review: The haunting of Prince Harry (The New Yorker)
Review: Prince Harry prides himself as a feminist, so how far did Spare go at exploring the undeniable sexism experienced by the women in his life? (Glamour UK)
Opinion: Beware the ‘spare’: let’s drop the need for a second-in-line, and let Harry be the last (The Guardian)
On Harry’s ghostwriter: JR Moehringer grew up with a love of The Prince and the Pauper. Now he’s written Prince Harry’s memoir (The Independent)
On the people Harry writes about: Who’s in Prince Harry’s inner circle – and who’s been left out. (The Telegraph)
The New York Times’s reviewer on the hunt for an advance copy: Could Anyone Spare a ‘Spare’? No. (The New York Times)
Looking to put faces to names? Here is more (with pics!) on trusted aides Marko and JLP, some backstory on nanny Tiggy, the Instagram feeds of Chelsy and Cressida, and a look at Teej and Mike’s production company.
Your coverage and thoughts on the book have really complemented my reading so very well - thank you! I echo your thoughts about what it must have been like for Harry to lose his mother so young and try to process that effectively alone. I lost my father when I was four, and that portion of the book really struck me. I also spent so many years (even though I had found him) trying to tell myself that it wasn't real, that he would come back for me...on and on. That kind of trauma has SUCH a profound impact on a person, and his description of it...it's hard for me to look at some of his behavior in a fully critical light. People process how and when they process...and imagine doing it under such a spotlight. Goodness.
I’ve finished the book in a need to gobble it up instantly. The only thing I did side-Google was what in the world a “biro” was. He was given one for Christmas by Princess Margaret and he had one in hand in an Iraq scene. It’s a pen, a brand of pen apparently!