“And if they didn’t know why I’d left, maybe they just didn’t know me. At all.
And maybe they never really did.
And to be fair, maybe I didn’t either.
The thought made me feel colder and terribly alone,
But it also fired me up. I thought: I have to tell them.
How can I tell them?
I can’t. It would take too long.
Besides, they’re clearly not in the right frame of mind to listen.
Not now, anyway. Not today.
Here you go.”
This prologue, from the sample for the Kindle edition of Prince Harry’s memoir, entitled Spare, and ghostwritten by the talented writer/memoirist J.R. Moehringer, makes plain Prince Harry’s motivation for thrusting his personal story out into the greater universe.
He needs, most desperately, to explain. And be heard.
As someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family, I can relate. There comes a point when the façade that is being presented to the world simply cannot hold. While I did not grow up a royal, from a very early age, I was acutely aware of the effort made to present our family as far more stable than it actually was. As a child, I was urged by my mother to have a broad smile and perform for guests, whether it was on the piano, or simply sharing what I was doing in school. She measured my worth by these performances, consigning me to a life as an overachiever and perfectionist.
Thankfully, my father possessed a more loving and accepting view of his children. Whenever I failed (and there were plenty of disappointments), he was always there to pick me back up and show me how to try again. Lord knows, his own life was full of “try agains.” While my mother raged, he silently and diligently worked to make things right. When he died, the fragile, patched up foundation of our family structure crumbled.
For a time, I fought against the inevitable. After all, it’s still quite counter-culture to acknowledge family estrangements. Movies and TV shows focus on family reconciliation and forgiveness. Unsurprisingly, we don’t acknowledge that things might not be as rosy as what we portray in our social media posts. The activities of the royal family bring this into sharp focus. Beautifully dressed, always stoic, they often remind me of exotic animals in a zoo. They are trotted out at events for their adoring fans to worship. Births, deaths, and other achievements are presented to the public, because that’s part of the centuries-old bargain struck between the monarchy and its subjects. The family motto? “Don’t complain, don’t explain.”
When I first began studying dysfunctional families, I felt relief in learning that my own behavior and buried emotions were actually quite legitimate when placed in that context. More recently, I’ve read two magnificent works of fiction that clearly (and quite painfully) portray ways that families fall apart. In We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates writes:
“Members of a family who’ve lived together in the heated intensity of family life scarcely know one another.”
In Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt writes:
“Had she and Lars ever been close? Tova is certain they were, once. As children: certainly. As young adults: mostly. …But things started to change after Erik died. Once in a while, one of the Knit-Wits probes Tova, asking what happened between her and Lars, and Tova says nothing, really, and this is the truth. It happened gradually. No blow-out arguments, no fist-shaking or hollering.”
The thing about dysfunctional families, is that the children do not choose that arrangement, rather, they are born into it. Much like being born into the British monarchy. Anyone who has watched The Crown from the beginning has received an education in what family life is like inside those gilded cages. When Harry refers to his family as “the institution,” I can relate. Family secrets are not to be disclosed, regardless of your lineage and relative prominence in your community.
Another thing: Grief wreaks havoc on an already shaky family system. For Prince Harry, that grief surged into his life at the tender age of twelve. Managing it within the confines of the institution was practically impossible, especially in light of the fact that his father had already moved on.
As memoirists, we write, in part, to heal. But what is the point of the story if others cannot relate, learn, or be inspired? I will be interested to see if Prince Harry’s story is well received. If the response is anything like it was to the Netflix series, I suspect we’ll be quite divided. Books by celebrities that are merely “tell-all” have a limited shelf life.
Also, if the prologue is any indication, Prince Harry just wants the world to hear his side of the story. Perhaps he hopes to change how business is done inside the institution. Maybe he wants to bring the whole thing down. I’ve heard him express his hopes for reconciliation. I have my doubts that those particular hopes will be fulfilled.
As for me, I believe the more we can shine light on dysfunctional families and explore ways to reduce the stigma around them, the better off we’ll all be. And if Spare contributes even a little bit to that conversation, I’m there for it.
If you’re interested, my Not Quite a Memoir entitled Crossing 51 will be published in June. You can find more information at my website.
So many of us can relate to being part of a dysfunctional family. What I find interesting is that in your case and in the case of Harry the disparateness between the outside world's perception and the family reality adds an extra layer of tension. I'm sort of bleeding for Harry lately. And I have to wonder: Who advises him? Maybe the memoir should have been written by an older, wiser version of himself.
Love it. Looking forward to buying a copy of your book. When?