Ignore the protestations of some authors: the purpose of memoir is rarely to contribute to the public good. Score-settling, giving vent to unresolved grievances, a cathartic airing of personal truths, or simply an opportunity to cash in on an eventful life—all drive the autobiographer. But thoughtful readers often do spot something more: a snapshot of social history, perhaps, or a fascinating psychological case study.
So it is the case with Prince Harry’s Spare. As the dust begins to settle on its pages and television studios stand down security guards, we can begin to ask what we learned from the fortnight of blanket media coverage the Duke of Sussex garnered. There is, of course, the tragic personal story of childhood grief, along with a tale of immense privilege combined with petty gripes and sibling rivalries. But what is the “something more” to intrigue future social historians? What is it in our culture that Harry has unwittingly shined a light upon?
Intentionally or not, in Spare—and the media appearances that accompanied its launch—Harry makes his therapy sessions public. Readers and audience members alike are cast as counselors, ordered to listen but not to pass judgment, at least not upon our protagonist prince. With his memoir, Harry draws attention to the role of therapy today.
In Britain, the royal family has remained tight-lipped about Harry’s revelations. Lurid details of fights, drug-taking, lost virginity, crying bridesmaids, and a frost-bitten penis have all been met with silence. The strategy of “never complain, never explain” has, it seems, outlived Harry’s grandmother, whose now famous three-word response to Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview, “recollections may vary,” has been oft-repeated. But unofficially, journalists cite unnamed “sources” that might hint at royal feelings.
As the pre-release publicity for Harry’s book grew to a crescendo, one British newspaper article noted the slim chances of a family reconciliation, reporting that “a source close to the royal family said the King, Camilla [his wife] and [Prince] William believe the situation will remain unchanged while the Duke of Sussex remains effectively ‘kidnapped by a cult of psychotherapy and Meghan.’”
Evidence for Harry’s “kidnapping” comes from three directions. First is the sheer number, as well as the highly personal nature, of his public revelations and his evangelical belief in the need for complete openness. Second is his language. Phrases like “awareness,” “my truth,” “lived experience,” “my struggles,” and “my journey” trip off Harry’s tongue in a way that seems distinctly odd to English ears. Third, we have the prince’s own narrative. In Spare, Harry writes at length about his extensive experiences with a range of therapeutic approaches; he even credits the therapists who helped him in the book’s acknowledgements. Harry recalls that, after an alleged fight with his brother, the first person he contacted was his therapist. Even a psychiatrist and advocate of therapy considers this “puzzling” and “bizarre” behavior. Harry was married by this point. Why didn’t he turn to his wife for support?
The “kidnapping” headline was followed days later by a report that Harry’s sister-in-law, Princess Kate, remarked in a public appearance that conventional “talking therapy” does not work for some people. Though she said this to just one young person at a mental-health support center, many interpreted the comment as applying to Harry’s recent outpourings.
Apparently, William raised questions about therapy behind closed doors. Spare details the moment William suggested to Harry that he had been “brainwashed” by a therapist and offered to come along to one of his counselling sessions with him, presumably to check that all was in order. Harry turned him down and suggested the pair instead attend a joint therapy session: “It would be good for us. Good for you.”
Until now, therapy has largely existed in a realm beyond not just criticism but even discussion. Received opinion has it that mental health is fragile, that therapy is beneficial for everyone and essential for some, and that if a bit is good, then more is better. As a result, record numbers of Brits now regularly see a therapist. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has 58,000 members, equating to one mental-health professional for every 1,160 U.K. citizens. A full 71 percent of these registered counselors report that demand for their services has increased since 2020 and the Covid pandemic.
Perhaps ironically, William and Kate have done much to normalize therapy and the broader discussion about mental health in Britain. The pair established, and continue to front, the charity Heads Together, which aims “to help people feel much more comfortable with their everyday mental wellbeing.” Back in 2017, William became a poster boy for men’s mental health after speaking publicly about his struggles following the death of his mother. At the same time, he publicly criticized the notion of keeping a “stiff upper lip,” arguing that living up to this idea can damage your health. In 2019, Meghan, by then Duchess of Sussex, was simply following where her brother-in-law led when she gave a teary television interview claiming to have tried and failed to adopt the “British sensibility of a stiff upper lip.”
In today’s “check your privilege” world, it is hard for a straight white man to find a platform that allows him to speak with any degree of moral authority. It is even harder for an unimaginably wealthy prince, destined by birth to be monarch and head of state, to appear relatable to members of the public. Through discussing their mental health struggles, both William and Harry landed upon an issue that unlocked sympathy and status in a cultural climate where suffering is elevated above all other virtues and a victim merits applause, without question.
We don’t know what they thought behind closed doors, but in public, the queen’s posh, privileged grandchildren have, for almost a decade, promoted the idea that complete openness about mental-health struggles is the only way to lead a healthy life. Harry’s book and media appearances have led not just royal family “sources” but also some commentators to question this trend. People have begun to ask whether counselling that encourages people to dwell on traumatic childhood experiences is always positive, and whether it is possible to have too much therapy or become overly-reliant on a therapist. This debate is long overdue.
Harry and Meghan’s supporters, of course, have driven a backlash to the criticisms of therapy. One columnist complains that “therapy has been weaponized against” the prince; another argues that “men everywhere should take a page out of Harry’s book.” In Britain, we are being corralled into picking sides in a culture war. We must be #TeamHarry or #TeamWilliam. We must either lambast the brainwashing cult or bare our souls in the name of openness.
A more sophisticated discussion would acknowledge unfashionable mental-health conditions: psychosis, schizophrenia, and depression so crippling it is impossible to imagine continuing to live. We talk incessantly of ending the stigma of mental-health problems, yet what this mostly amounts to in practice is that reasonably normal, healthy people feel obliged to share feelings of vulnerability at every opportunity. Therapy is all the rage among the wealthy, worried well. Meantime, the desperately ill quietly add their names to ever-growing waiting lists, if they seek treatment at all. We should be talking about better expert psychiatric care for the seriously mentally ill, while sparing ourselves elite hectoring to divulge our every thought.
Making such distinctions would allow us to draw a clear line between therapy (the counselling of a client or patient) and therapy culture: a social imperative to promote emotional openness in schools, universities, films, popular fiction, and on social media. While therapy may be beneficial for individuals who need it, therapy culture degrades us all. Sadly, as Harry demonstrates, the two have become blurred.
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