Do you know what it’s like to be estranged from someone you once loved dearly? Or publicly denounced by someone you once considered a trusted friend or beloved family member?
Not so fun. As too many of us know, this kind of relationship meltdown can be painful —especially when the hope of reconciliation persists. Nearly a quarter of us are estranged from at least one family member, according to a recent HarrisX poll conducted for the Deseret News. Maybe that’s one reason that some of us have been engrossed with what’s been happening with Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the House of Windsor.
There are bad reasons, of course, to be consumed in happenings at Buckingham Palace —from a voyeuristic fascination with tabloid-style drama to unhealthy fixations on celebrity culture. And in so many ways, the experience of the royal family is exceptional and unrelatable for those of us just trying to make ends meet. After all, we’re talking about real-life princes and princesses here — a family whose collective net worth has been estimated at $28 billion.
In other ways, though, the duke and duchess of Sussex are living out universal struggles as they grapple with the residual effects of past trauma (especially the untimely death of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana) and how to respond to tensions bubbling over in their most important family relationships.
The possibility of reconciliation always exists. But Harry and Meghan have very publicly made a different choice — one with momentous consequences for the future of their most precious relationships.
For those out of the loop, Prince Harry recently completed what The Washington Post called “a full broadside against Buckingham Palace” through interviews to promote his new book, which followed a Netflix series and an earlier interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The allegations raised range from the serious to the silly, such as Kate Middleton being reluctant to share lip gloss with Meghan and insinuations that Meghan gave better hugs. Previously, Harry and Meghan suggested that racism was influencing the royal family, which had been especially troubling to the queen. Among the more incendiary accusations recently is that members of the family have been “actively feeding negative stories to the press” and that they were effectively forced out of their roles as members of the royal family. (This, alongside some embarrassing details of a brotherly squabble from past years that left Harry on the floor after his elder brother William, the future king, “came at me.”)
More than sharing simple objective facts, Prince Harry has chosen what Patti Davis calls “words that cut deep, that leave a scar”— for instance, calling William an “arch nemesis.” As The Atlantic writer Helen Lewis describes it, Harry’s anger “ooze(s) out of every page” — with the publicity push reflecting the “true quality of a family quarrel, reheating decades-old grievances, and marked by an unquenchable thirst for the last word.”
In the wake of so much “toe-curling detail,” a British broadcaster and friend of the duke for 20 years, Tom Bradby, asked Harry “why he was revealing the most intense, most intimate moments of his life and laying so much of the blame at his family’s door” and why he was “burning his bridges and had deployed a flamethrower against the royal family.”
Harry’s pushback was rapid and curious: “None of anything that I’ve written is ever intended to hurt my family.” Rather, he insists his aim was simply to “give a full picture of the situation.”
However noble the couple’s true intent may be, the hurt for their loved ones in the bull’s-eye is real.
There’s a long and painful history of public denunciation of family being framed as an act of noble truth telling. At its far extreme, memoirs such as Ji-li Jiang’s “Red Scarf Girl” detail how denunciation of family members was a building block of the brutal cultural revolution in China. Closer to home, a cottage industry of podcasts and influencers essentially dedicated to denunciation has sprung up — including those on a mission to dress down a particular faith, an individual or a corporation, like Sea World.
Within the popular narrative of our day, these public denunciations are portrayed as courageous attempts to stand up to hegemonic injustice. Any resistance that arises to these brave truth-tellers is likewise framed in a predictable way. As Harry explains the pushback he’s received, “if you speak truth to power, that’s how they respond.”
In all this, Harry and Meghan are embodying a cultural trend to reject institutions and historic authority — with associated costs for our relationships. Harry told Anderson Cooper that he’s currently not in communication with his brother via text, and that he hasn’t spoken to his dad in “quite a while.”
You have to feel for the newly crowned King Charles III, who had to stand between his red-faced boys during past fights and told them at Prince Philip’s funeral last year, “Please boys, don’t make my final years a misery.”
So much for that.
A better path
Compared with the dopamine spike that comes from lashing out publicly, the work of reconciliation is messy, private and sometimes back-breakingly slow. But it’s worth it — especially compared with chronic anger, which hurts a lot.
Thankfully, we really don’t have to live this way. Take it from Patti Davis, the daughter of President Ronald Reagan, who followed a course similar to Harry years earlier when she “flung open the gates of our troubled family life” in her own tell-all autobiography—something for which she apologized to the former president right before he died.
Davis recounts her justification at the time: “I wanted to tell the truth, I wanted to set the record straight. Naïvely, I thought if I put my own feelings and my own truth out there for the world to read, my family might also come to understand me better.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd describes this as an increasingly popular fantasy, that we will “find closure in disclosure.”
After acknowledging the obvious — that none of us respond well to being “embarrassed and exposed in public” — Davis reminds people that far beyond “your truth” there are “other people who inhabit our story (who) have their truths as well.”
But whatever the full truth of the matter is in Harry’s case, it’s no longer the issue, because only one side of the story is getting promoted with millions in revenue. Denunciation sells, after all.
Even so, Harry has expressed a desire for healing — telling Cooper “I look forward to us being able to find peace.” If and when that happens, Davis notes, “they’ll have to walk a long distance across a battlefield that he has now expanded.”
After being asked what she would say to her younger self if she could, Davis said, “That’s easy. I’d have said, ‘Be quiet.’ ... Not forever. But until I could stand back and look at things through a wider lens. Until I understood that words have consequences, and they last a really long time.”
She added, “Not everything needs to be shared.”
Had Harry and his wife followed that advice, they wouldn’t have gotten as much money or attention. But they surely would have had a lot more personal peace and continuing bonds with people who know them the best. When times get hard, those lasting connections are really nice to have.
So when you’re feeling the allure of denunciation, stop and remember the potentially rich rewards of reconciliation. And unless real abuse is taking place, let’s not give up on each other quite so quickly.
Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and a former board member of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”