America has long reveled in the destruction of young women. Here’s a short and not comprehensive list: Judy Garland was given amphetamines at age 16 on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1938. Frances Farmer was institutionalized against her will in 1942, and Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her ex-manager in 1980 at the age of 20.
Britney Spears was born a year after Stratten’s death. Her new memoir, “The Woman in Me,” suggests that not much progress has been made in not destroying the women we all purport to love.
Let’s start at the end. It’s 2021 and the height of the COVID pandemic, so Britney Spears is appearing virtually in a Los Angeles court. She is pleading for her freedom. A woman who has moved tens of millions of records, sold out global tours, and held a lucrative Las Vegas residency is begging for freedom from her father who has controlled her every move for the past 13 years.
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The call started, and she was full of fear, she writes: “My voice had been used for me, and against me, so many times I was afraid nobody would recognize it now if I spoke freely. What if they called me crazy? What if they said I was lying?”
Most of her speech to the judge wasn’t about the millions that her father — supposedly in her best interests — had leeched from her while she was under a conservatorship. Instead, she asked to be treated like, well, a human. “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does,” said Spears then. “By having a child, a family, any of those things.”
How the biggest female pop star of the post-Madonna era found herself begging for her basic human rights is equal parts old school Faulkner and post-modern Nathaniel West. She was raised in Kenwood, Louisiana by James Spears, a tyrannical alcoholic father who had been brutalized by his father, and whose own mother ended her life at the grave of his infant brother after being institutionalized against her will. (More details about Britney’s parents can be found in Kerry Howley’s excellent 2022 story for New York magazine.)
James had been a local sports legend, and, like many high-school stars, found it hard to make his way after the bright lights dimmed. After an early divorce, James married a local beauty named Lynne who served him with divorce papers in 1980, citing his drinking and his violence, before taking him back and having three children, the oldest being Britney.
One of her early memories is being awakened by her mama screaming at her drunken and incoherent daddy. “Just feed him and go put him to bed, he’s sick,” Britney screamed at her mother. He’d disappear for days at a time, and Spears writes, “To be honest, it was kindness to us when he went away.”
The fact that the same James Spears was given conservatorship over his daughter for 13 years is beyond comprehension. Spears would be the first to say she is not blameless, but most of the folks who caused her life to spin out are dudes. (With the exception of her mother Lynne and sister Jamie-Lynn, who Britney describes as narcissistic sponges. Her disdain for her sister is so deeply felt that she describes her sis as a bitch, italics hers.) There’s Ed McMahon leeringly asking a prepubescent Britney if he could be her boyfriend. Oh, look, there’s first love Justin Timberlake pressuring her to have an abortion — one that she has painfully at home, so no one can pierce the male-created image that Britney at 20 is a virgin. Timberlake breaks up with her, and makes his career with “Justified,” an album that paints him — a skeezy player, according to Spears — as the lovelorn, wronged party. There’s the painfully untalented Kevin Federline, who withholds the fact he already has kids, and then fathers two children with Britney. He then uses his wife as a springboard to a profoundly unsuccessful rap career, and keeps her kids from her. There’s the paparazzi — almost exclusively men – hounding her every move, and then the late-night talk show hosts, again, dudes, making sport of her reaction to becoming a caged bird, shaving her head and hitting a pap’s car with, uh, an umbrella.
Her male interviewers were equally creepy. “Everyone kept making strange comments about my breasts, wanting to know whether or not I’d had plastic surgery.”
Spears writes of these unrighteous men matter-of-factly, avoiding the ad hominem attack, except for an occasional delicious arrow, including a recollection of the eternally white Timberlake meeting one of his rap heroes. “One day, J and I were in New York, going to parts of town that I’d never been to before. Walking our way was a guy wearing a huge blinged-out medallion. He was flanked by two giant security guards. J got all excited and said so loud, ‘Oh yeah. Fo’ siz. Fo’ siz. Ginuwine what’s up homie.”
It was Spears’ happiest moment that led to losing control of her own life. She had Sean, and then Jayden, in a little over a year. After the 2006 birth of her second child, Spears slid into what she now recognizes was postpartum depression. Federline almost immediately took custody of their two children for reasons not fully explained.
Spears says she wasn’t blameless, but with an important caveat: “I am willing to admit that in the throes of severe postpartum depression, abandonment by my husband, the torture of being separated from my two babies…and the constant drumbeat of pressure from paparazzi, I’d begin to think in some ways like a child.”
After a visit with her sons in 2008, the two infant boys were being prepped to return to Federline’s home. Spears panicked, and locked herself in a bathroom with one of the children — and the police were summoned. This led to one of her multiple hospitalizations, all at the behest of the men in her life, with the reasons varying from nervous breakdown, Adderall abuse, and — after her father took control of her life — for taking over-the-counter energy supplements.
She began to give in to the treatments when she was told a lack of cooperation would lead to her losing all access to her children. “After being held down on a gurney, I knew they could restrain my body any time they wanted to,” she writes. “And so, I went along with it. My freedom in exchange for naps with my children — it was a trade I was willing to make.”
Incredibly, Papa Spears decided that his daughter was not well enough to have control over her own life — her father had security guards physically prevent her from eating cheeseburgers — but she was capable of doing world tours and a Vegas residency. “Too sick to choose my own boyfriend and yet somehow healthy enough to appear on sitcoms and morning shows, and to perform for thousands of people in a different part of the world every week.”
Even while performing she was a captive — she recounts that during her Vegas residency, she was prohibited from altering the set list, or even the background music.
A later hospitalization finally broke her. Spears claims she was committed long-term after refusing to agree to more Las Vegas dates. She was prescribed Lithium, a drug forcefully given to her grandmother who now rests under a gravestone that reads, “THY TRIALS ARE OVER, THY REST IS WON.” Spears was allowed only one hour of television while parental controls were put on the then 39-year-old’s phone. A nurse told her about the rising #FreeBritney’ fan movement. In 2021, she got free the only way she knew how: She dialed 911 and reported her father for his abusive conservatorship.
Life isn’t a Disney reboot of “The Mousekeeters,” Britney’s first big break, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Spears’ life since her emancipation hasn’t been a walk on a path of sparkly diamonds. Spears has so far done no interviews for her book, a startling rarity for a well-paid memoir. She recently split from her third husband, and there are whispers that her sons are not talking to her. She deals with frequent migraines that she attributes to her years of struggle with her family. “I don’t think my family understands the real damage that they did.”
That’s an understatement. Britney Spears’ life is again chaotic, but at least her life is her own. And that’s something no man should ever be able take away from her.
And what have we learned? Talk show hosts and paps have expressed regret that they turned the Princess of Pop into a hunted animal, and the object of scorn. We talk about how we all have learned our lesson.
Don’t bet on it.
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