Prince Harry, who has long craved privacy, made headlines yet again this week. During an interview with American actor Dax Shepard, for his Armchair Expert podcast, the Duke of Sussex compared his life to being in The Truman Show.
He spoke of wanting to “break the cycle” of “genetic pain” passed from parent to child and how, as a result, he had no choice but to escape to America with his wife and child. Interestingly, he added that he owes his decision to have therapy to a conversation with Meghan, which helped “burst the bubble”.
This struck me as odd, as I interviewed Harry at length shortly before he got engaged to Meghan in 2017, for the biography I was writing. Our conversation turned to his depression and panic attacks, and I asked if Meghan had encouraged him to get help.
“Absolutely not,” he replied. “She had nothing to do with it.” It was, he said, his brother Prince William who had convinced him his mental health needed attention. “At first I didn’t listen,” he added. “The time wasn’t right and like many others, I don’t like to do what my older brother says.” In the end, though, he took his advice and added how grateful he was for the help.
William, of course, was brought up by the same parents, with the same worries that Harry mentions to Shepard – one of which was that he wouldn’t be able to trust a woman enough to have a successful marriage.
It is on this issue that the lives of the two brothers have so obviously diverged. While Harry lashes out from his home in California, making woke podcasts and giving interviews to Oprah with his wife by his side, William has always been able to see the bigger picture – and set about a very practical pursuit of happiness from a young age. And despite the line Harry now seems desperate to draw between their choices, both brothers have sought to avoid repeating the destructive pattern they saw so clearly in their own parents.
It’s not surprising. Neither Diana nor Charles were given enough love and stability in their formative years. Diana was badly affected by her parents’ acrimonious divorce. Charles had deep scars of his own, partly from his rather cold upbringing. When they split in 1992, 10-year-old William became the man of the house. Diana described him as her “closest confidant and soulmate” – a terrible burden to place on a child.
Harry, who wears his heart on his sleeve, is a different character. He adored his mother because she could be great fun and gave him lots of hugs.
Nonetheless, their dysfunctional background meant that neither prince had much of a clue what a normal, happy family life looked like.
That may be why William rejected many of the options placed before him as a young man, determined to explore life’s other possibilities. With willpower and courage, the rather shy heir chose to study at the University of St Andrews, partly because it was far away from his family. He insisted on staying in student accommodation – rather than the smart flat with staff that his aides suggested – where he met Kate Middleton. Together they did simple things like grocery shopping, having a drink in the pub and eating fish and chips while sitting on the pavement. An ordinary person would find it difficult to understand how important this was for William and how it helped him feel liberated.
William desperately wanted to avoid the sort of painful divorce his parents went through and it took him seven years of battling between emotion and stiff upper lip to trust Kate enough to ask her to marry him. It was obvious how important his choice had been when, during their engagement interview, he said he had waited so long to give her time “to back out if she needed to before it all got too much”, adding significantly: “I have wanted to try to learn from lessons in the past.” He felt that Kate might in the end still have turned him down.
During that long period of courtship, William allowed himself to become close to the Middletons. They took him back to basics and provided a model he could work towards – learning how a settled and caring household works. William found he loved being part of a warm family unit and it was a healing experience for him to see how well Kate’s parents got on. He enjoyed going on holiday with them, watching television with supper on his lap and it’s even been claimed that he called Michael Middleton ‘Dad.’ Harry, of course, got on with Kate too and said she was the older sister he had always wanted.
Many men marry someone who reminds them of their mother, but William wasn’t tempted to find someone who was as magnetic as Diana, preferring straightforward Kate. No one should underestimate the soul-seeking he went through to prove that, by making thoughtful choices, one can stop history from repeating itself.
William and Kate’s marriage, in April 2011, drew a firm line under everything that his parents’ union had represented without rejecting either of them. Instead, he draws his mother’s influence into his life in a positive way through his obvious joy in having children and his deep involvement in George, Charlotte and Louis’s lives.
George was born in July 2013 and on the steps of the Lindo Wing, Kate revealed that William had already changed his first nappy. It is inconceivable that any previous heir to the throne would even have contemplated such a thing and it was William’s first step to being a hands-on father. He takes his turn to do the school run, spends weekends in Norfolk and obviously loves the rough and tumble with his children, who you can see adore him. It is beyond doubt that as his genetic destiny looms larger, his little family will remain top priority.
Harry has a different personality, more Spencer than Windsor, and has responded to his upbringing in a different way – not least because he is the ‘spare’. Diana encouraged him to be naughty and not get caught. He started drinking in 1997, aged 12, when he, William and their mother were holidaying on a boat owned by Mohamed Al Fayed – Harry going ashore whenever he could and returning drunk on the local tipple. It became a way for him to escape. He also told me he’d chosen to join the “bad boys” at Eton and added smoking and drugs to his intake.
Most teenagers start seeing their parents as imperfect, but Harry lost his mother before that could happen. Now in his thirties, and in therapy speak, he blames Prince Charles for the “genetic pain” he feels. Many think it is about time he stops playing the victim card.
Of course, like all those who have had turbulent upbringings, there is nothing wrong with trying to “break the cycle of pain and suffering” – and, as William has demonstrated, there are many non self-destructive ways to do this, including just getting on with parenting your own children. Instead, Harry seems to hang on tightly to his family’s mistakes.
I hope he can find a way to let two-year-old Archie and his soon-to-be-born daughter meet the Royal family. Children can build wonderful bonds with relatives of different generations – as Harry himself, once close to the late Duke of Edinburgh, knows.
Indeed, there is always the chance that when Archie grows up he might rail against the decisions of his own father – about missed opportunities and how his name has been used to promote commercial goods and charities for his parents’ financial gain.
In Shepard’s podcast, Harry accepts that he had a privileged childhood but points out that people can “start in one place and change over time.”
In his California mansion, with its 16 bathrooms, a swimming pool and acres of land, he remains privileged. But have the other changes he has tried so hard to make – distancing himself from his family, adopting therapy speak, becoming a spokesperson rather than a working Royal – really made him happier than the cautious brother he has left behind? It may be that only the next spin of their genetic cycle will tell.