As a mother of sons, Venetia Sherson isn’t shocked that the world’s most famous princes competed fiercely and even fought. But spilling family secrets to the world as Harry has done in that book released today? That’s a different story.
At my younger son’s wedding, his brother – the best man – told an anecdote about the brothers growing up. He prefaced the story by referencing Section 10B of the Crimes Act 1961, noting that no proceedings could be taken after the expiration of 10 years from the commission of the offence.
The incidents, he said, had occurred when both boys were still living at home. They included one count of common assault, namely with a cricket bat when a clear run out was disputed; one count of unlawful imprisonment in which he tied his brother to a staircase, and multiple accounts of threatening grievous bodily harm, including one in which his brother locked himself in the toilet to escape harm.
The revelations were news to me. I thought we lived in perfect harmony. We had only two rules in the house: no balls inside and no hitting. It seems at least one was ignored. Fortunately, those incidents have long faded in the mists of time. The brothers – now men with their own families – remain great mates.
I was reminded of this in reading some of the ubiquitous coverage of the revelations in Prince Harry’s book, Spare, released this week. Harry, who had already unleashed a torrent of vitriol about his family life, including allegations of racism, subterfuge, and disloyalty, claims his older brother William, was once so engulfed in a rage of “red mist” during an argument that he grabbed and punched Harry, breaking his necklace and knocking him backwards into a dog’s bowl, which hurt his back.
In another incident three years ago, he claims William yelled and screamed at him during a tense crisis summit at Sandringham called by the late Queen Elizabeth to discuss Harry’s intention to quit royal life and flee to California with his American wife, the former Meghan Markle.
Harry also recalls William and his then girlfriend (now wife) Kate Middleton encouraged him to wear a Nazi uniform to a costume party when he was 20, an incident for which he was roundly caned by the British tabloid press. William dressed as a lion.
Harry talks about the competition between him and his brother growing up. In an interview on Good Morning America one of several television appearances to promote his book, he tells host Michael Strahan, “There has always been this competition between us, weirdly.”
Weirdly, I don’t find this weird at all. Many kids remember rivalry as they competed against their siblings for superiority in sports, school or for the affection a parent. At the aforementioned wedding, my elder son said, “You name it, we (my brother and I) competed in it – backyard cricket, backyard soccer, living room soccer (the no balls inside rule was also broken), golf, mini golf, rugby league, running, tennis…”
My own memory of growing up with two sisters and a single parent was of similar rivalry on stage, horseback and for boyfriends, and included claims about who was most spoiled by our English nanny. Me, apparently. No grudge is held, weirdly.
I am curious about, but not obsessed by the Harry/Meghan royal rupture. But I am saddened by the rift between the brothers now laid out for all to see. I was brought up to believe that family business was private business – unless, of course, it involved deprivation, physical, mental or sexual abuse. Publication of private experiences politicises the personal. Incidents dramatised in print, without a counter view, can do tremendous harm and make reconciliation difficult.
Some argue writers are entitled to their own “truth” with no responsibility to others, including loved or unloved family members. Memoirist Susan Cheever was criticised for her book (Home Before Dark, 1984) written about her father, John Cheever, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and novelist who wrestled with demons that affected his family, but she argued that everyone has the right to their own story even when it intersects with others. William Faulkner, regarded as one of the most significant writers of all time, said in a 1956 interview in The Paris Review: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.” He was trying to justify the betrayal of one’s own mother for art.
Others, including me, believe there are limits, and that memoir poses risks and potential damage in writing about family, especially when children are involved or there is vulnerability such as mental health or addiction issues. Those people weigh the benefits of salacious revelations against responsibilities to those who may be harmed. “There is something inherently hostile in writing about another person,” writes American writer Alison Bechdel in her essay, How I told My Mother about My Memoir.
In my career as a journalist, I have written many stories about my family, some poignant, some highly personal. I wrote about the experience of discovering I had a three-year-old grandchild, previously unknown; I have written a book about my son and daughter-in-law’s experience of surrogacy (Amazing Grace, 2021) and my husband’s experience of prostate cancer. I have also written extensively about my late mother, an actor in a previous life. Each story was run past the family members before publication with the right to veto or amend a misremembered detail.
Of course, memoir is a powerful genre and can teach us all about the lived experience. Many memoirs are sharply honest but insightful. New Zealand writer Adam Dudding’s memoir about his brilliant but eccentric father Robin (My Father’s Island, 2016) revealed intimate details and the effect his father’s unconventional life had on those around him, including his wife and family. But it was written with compassion, and curiosity designed to enlighten not betray.
Intention matters. A memoir written in anger or for revenge will almost certainly do damage. “While literature is an art, it is not a martial art,” writes Pulitzer Prize winning American author Annie Dillard. “[There is] no place to defend yourself in attack, real or imagined, and no place to launch an attack.”
As the self-sharing genre of our reality-hungry times, memoir offers tantalising glimpses of those in the spotlight. People are fascinated by how others live their lives and feel a sense of schadenfreude when flaws and rifts are exposed. Publishers are hungry for salacious details that can be turned into headlines to promote a book. The anecdotes released in advance of Spare’s publication provided plenty of fodder. They are the same anecdotes Harry abhorred when he and Meghan were the subjects.
When Princess Diana was killed in 1997, I had just been appointed editor of the Waikato Times. My overriding memory from the extensive and long-lasting news coverage was the image of two boys walking behind their mother’s coffin. William and Harry experienced one of the most tragic events in any child’s life, together. After that they appeared to have each other’s backs. Will they ever again after today?
Spare (Random House Books) is released today.