The Best Lesson My Older Brother Taught Me


Growing up, my big brother, Nick, and I played something we called The Punting Game. It started when we lived in Los Angeles, in the early nineties. We’d both wear full football uniforms, complete with helmets. As if to enhance our sibling rivalry, I, four years old at the time, would wear the black-and-silver uniform of the Los Angeles Raiders. Nick, three years and nine months older, and so quite a bit bigger at the time, would wear the blue-and-yellow of the Los Angeles Rams. In my memory, Nick and I would stand on opposite sides of the yard and he would punt a football to me. (According to Nick, my dad was the one doing the punting.) My objective was to catch the ball, evade Nick, and run to the other side of the yard. Nick’s objective was to tackle me. Seems fair enough—until you consider that our yard was not very big, and these punts arced high and hung in the air long enough that I often collected the ball just in time to be flattened. I don’t remember ever getting to punt. I do remember getting tackled—a lot.

This was as it should be: I am the little brother. No little brother is above performing the duties of the younger boy in a two-boy household—not even one born into a family that is personally ordained by God to rule over a kingdom. I’m speaking, of course, about Princes Harry and William. In his recently released memoir, Spare, Prince Harry recalls just how early the little brother-big brother dynamic was etched into his relationship with William. “I was twenty the first time I heard the story of what Pa allegedly said to Mummy the day of my birth,” he writes. “Wonderful! Now you’ve given me an Heir and a Sparemy work is done.” Apocryphal or not, it’s clear that a chasm stood between the two boys that only grew wider as they got older, coloring everything they did—even their royal roughhousing. Harry reveals that the boys engaged in tussles with friends that often concluded with him having to come to William’s rescue. “When the scrap finally ended for good, when we hobbled away together, I always felt such love for him, and I sensed love in return, but also some embarrassment,” he writes. “I was half Willy’s size, half his weight. I was the younger brother: he was supposed to save me, not the other way around.”


Harry spends most of Spare waiting for his brother to save him: from the angry ink and invasive flashbulbs of royal-hungry British tabloids; from the deep, shared grief over the loss of their mother, Diana, in 1997; from a family that neither welcomes nor accepts his American wife, Meghan Markle. But saved he was not. Instead, Harry claims, his brother was responsible for conflict, betrayal, and a growing list of (rather petty) slights: Prince William and Princess Kate mad that Harry and Meghan Markle didn’t get them Easter presents; William upset that Harry would not shave for his wedding; a row between Kate and Meghan about bridesmaids dresses; an argument between the brothers over who would have the sole responsibility of philanthropic work in Africa during which William said, writes Harry, that “Africa was his thing.”

Reading Spare, I couldn’t help but refract its descriptions of brotherhood through my own experience. My brother and I are not best friends, but we have a very solid, healthy relationship as men in our mid-thirties. Why did we make it out of the big brother-little brother dynamic without the scar tissue that seems to pain Harry and William? How do any brothers make it out of that innate heir-spare hierarchy?

No little brother is above performing the duties of the younger boy in a two-boy household.

It is something of a ridiculous question, given the key differences between two princely dudes and two brothers who are actual princes. Nick and I never fought over Africa. As far as I know, no one ever publicly speculated about whether we were circumcised (as the press once did about the princes). And, of course, neither of us was ever going to be king. The only throne we ever debated over was who got to ride shotgun. But, as it was with Harry, there was an element of always following in my brother’s footsteps. His nickname was “Skip,” so I was “Little Skip.” We went to the same schools—though never at the same time, since he was four grades above me—and played the same sports. Truth be told, I never really resented following in his wake. If his shadow loomed large, it also provided me with some cover: teachers and coaches who’d had him seemed almost predestined to like me. Nonetheless, his presence was always hanging there, even in his absence—at least until I went off to college and began blazing a path of my own.

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For Harry, even leaving the nest didn’t save him from the infantilizing brotherly dynamic. In Spare, Harry recalls a memory from April 2006, during the “passing out” ceremony following graduation from his military training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. William was also at Sandhurst, but behind Harry in training because he had spent time getting a degree from St. Andrews. Thus, as Harry marched past, William was forced to salute. “He couldn’t resort to his typical attitude when we were sharing an institution, couldn’t pretend not to know me—or he’d be insubordinate,” writes Harry. “For one brief moment, Spare outranked Heir.” It’s a telling anecdote. Because even though, later in the book, Harry tries to downplay this dynamic—”most of the time Willy and I didn’t have any truck with all that Heir-Spare nonsense”—it’s clear to this little brother that his second-born status is what defines him. It’s the title he chose for his memoir!

Unfortunately, it’s also the only way his brother can see him. Which is perhaps why, in another moment in the book, when William comes over to tell Harry that Meghan is “rude” and “abrasive” and that he must “do something about it,” the two brothers, both in their thirties at the time, resort to the brute score settling of their boyhood. According to Harry, William knocked him off his feet and ripped his necklace. “He seemed put upon that I wasn’t meekly obeying him, that I was being so impertinent as to deny him, or defy him,” Harry writes of the moments before it turned physical. “There was a script here and I had the audacity not to be following it. He was in full Heir mode, and couldn’t fathom why I wasn’t dutifully playing the role of the Spare.”

Photo by COURTESY.

Nick and I are around the same age now as Harry and William were when they had that encounter. I can’t remember the last time we had an argument, let alone laid hands on each other. That could be because I’ve never upset him by dating Meghan Markle, but I assume it’s likely because of something much simpler: respect. “I’d always viewed you as a little brother,” Nick said, when I called him up to talk about this essay. “But then, at some point, it clicked, like, Oh, you’re actually a real person now.” In a weird way, as we’ve gotten older and started to lead our own lives, my brother and I have only become closer, and become more real to one another. When he got married, he asked me to be his best man, something neither Harry nor William did for each other. It felt like another step in us seeing each other as adults, and as men. Reflecting on that made me realize that, sometimes, the most brotherly thing a brother can do is to let you be something other than his brother.

In Spare, William is always trying to keep Harry in his place, constantly reminding him of the royalty’s rules, the big brother turned Big Brother. “The monarchy, always, at all costs, had to be protected,” Harry writes ruefully. The epigraph at the beginning of the book is from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” Reading it and all that follows, it’s hard not to feel like Harry will only and forever be that kid in one of the most indelible images of him, the one that introduced him to the public: 1997, during Princess Diana’s funeral, the tiny boy walking next to his much bigger brother. If there’s a tragedy here, it’s not that William and Harry had a royal falling out as brothers—it’s that they could never be anything but.

FromEsquire US

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