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27 October 2023

Britney Spears’s American horror story

The singer’s memoir of her conservatorship is full of cartoonish villains and medieval misogyny. But this isn’t a fable – it’s real.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The first time Britney Spears saw the snake, she was scared. It was 2001 and she was a 19-year-old backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards, preparing for her now-famous performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” with an albino Burmese python draped over her. The snake was disgusting – “yellow and white, crinkly, gross-looking” – and enormous. “The girl who handed it to me… was very tiny, with blond hair… I remember thinking, you’re letting us two little munchkins handle this huge snake…?” On stage, her image beaming on to television sets around the world, Spears felt vulnerable – even afraid for her life. Presented with the snake, “All I knew was to look down, because if I looked up and caught its eye, it would kill me.” The image is almost too Freudian – of course America’s teen-girl pin-up, burdened with the sexual fantasies of a nation, would be made to walk across a public stage carrying a giant angry snake on her shoulders.

Reading Britney Spears’s memoir, The Woman in Me – an account of how a woman declared the most powerful celebrity in the world by Forbes in 2002, could, less than six years later, be trapped against her will in a “conservatorship” so restrictive that she was not allowed to feed herself, spend her own money or drive her own car – at times feels like being told a dark fairy tale. A young girl, both adored and vilified for her beauty, talent and fame, is preyed upon by the avaricious, imprisoned by her jealous, controlling father and overworked by her cruel, selfish family. Her confinement lasts for 13 years.

Exploited, demonised and stripped of her humanity, Spears describes herself as “a wind-up doll” or “a child-robot”, treated like “an ugly dog” or “a lame horse”. She imagines herself ageing backwards, like Benjamin Button, or trapped underwater (like the little mermaid, she wasn’t allowed to approach the surface). She compares herself to a witch thrown into a pond to see if she’d float or sink. This isn’t a fable – it’s real. Yet with its cartoonish villains and medieval misogyny, Spears’s story functions as a cautionary tale – of the cost of a commodified girlhood, of a vicious and insatiable culture – that has all the beats of a horror film. No, Britney, don’t go to the family beach house! Stay away from Diane Sawyer! Please put down the snake!

As a girl growing up in the smattering of clapboard homes that is Kentwood, Louisiana, Spears would be found dancing on the coffee table, or hidden away inside a cupboard. “Crouched in the cool darkness of a cabinet, I felt so small I could disappear,” she writes. She describes a claustrophobic childhood raised by an alcoholic father, Jamie, and a volatile mother, Lynne: singing and dancing allowed her to be “half outside the world”.

At eight years old, Spears was driven for eight hours by her mother to The Mickey Mouse Club auditions in Atlanta – she didn’t secure a spot, but when she auditioned again, at 11 years old, she became a Disney child star alongside Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling and Justin Timberlake. She remembers herself as “quiet and small”, the “little entertainer… in white tights”, “a little girl with big dreams”, “a little-bitty mouse”, “so small and so sweet”. At 15, she was granted a meeting with the Jive Records executive Clive Calder – she flew to New York in her “little-bitty heels and my cute little dress” and walked into his intimidatingly large office. She seems to have identified with Calder’s teacup terrier, the smallest dog she had ever seen, made even smaller by the grand surroundings. “I felt like I was entering a parallel universe. Everything opened up into a different dimension.”

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She left with a record deal and embarked upon the relentless cycle of recording, shooting, promoting and touring that would define the next decade of her life. When the video for “…Baby One More Time” was released in 1998, when she was 16, she was granted the type of fame bestowed upon only a few women in a generation. The golden, cursed fame of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, in which you become an idol, a fantasy, an ideal – and lose your personhood in the process. The ideal that Britney embodied was the all-American, California-blonde, virginal, girl-next-door teenage dream. An ideal that, by definition, was impossible to sustain. “At what point,” Spears wonders looking back, “did I promise to stay seventeen for the rest of my life?”

[See also: The faux-intellectualism of celebrity memoir]

In executives’ offices, she was surrounded by men in suits looking at her up and down, on stage, she began to notice growing numbers of older men in the audience, all “leering at me like I was some kind of Lolita fantasy”. At first, the backlash was mild – she was too provocatively dressed, she was “inauthentic”. “I was never quite sure what all these critics thought I was supposed to be doing – a Bob Dylan impression?” she writes. “I was a teenage girl from the South. I signed my name with a heart. I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?” Already, the constant exposure was hard to take. “Trying to find ways to protect my heart from criticism and to keep the focus on what was important, I started reading religious books,” Spears writes. “I also started taking Prozac.”

As a child star, Spears grew up in a world that was tightly controlled – as she entered adulthood, she struggled to carve out any autonomy for herself. When, at 19, she became pregnant by her then-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, she was pressured into an at-home abortion so painful she “can’t begin to describe it”. Timberlake broke up with her soon after – releasing the “Cry Me a River” video, in which, Spears explains, a “woman who looks like me cheats on him and he wanders around sad in the rain… Everyone felt very sorry for him. And it shamed me.”

Spears was on the brink of womanhood, but felt like “a ghost child” – exhausted, medicated, traumatised. Still she had to work. Another record, another tour. After she got married and started a family, the paparazzi stalked her for photos of her pregnant or post-partum body. “The magazines seemed to love nothing more than a photo they could run with the headline ‘Britney Spears got HUGE!’… as if gaining weight was something unkind I’d done to them personally, a betrayal.”

When she was pictured driving away from crowds of cameras with her infant son on her lap, or filmed quipping “this is why I need a gun” as photographers circled her and her child, she was labelled “crazy” and “a bad mom”. The infamous head-shave photos were taken when her husband left with their two boys, the paparazzi following her every time she’d go to his house and plead with him to let her see them. “Shaving my head was a way of saying to the world… You want me to be your dream girl? Fuck you,” she writes. For the first time, she was “ugly”, showing the world that she didn’t exist to be looked at. “It felt almost religious. I was living on a level of pure being.”

The Woman in Me is not a complete autobiography – countless albums, tours, friendships, relationships and controversies are skirted over to condense more than 40 years into fewer than 300 pages. The texture of Spears’s life is smoothed over. Like many celebrity memoirs, the prose has the quality of an interview transcript, the inevitable consequence of ghost-writing. (This one was reportedly written up by Time’s Sam Lansky.) But it is a valuable document of how one woman’s sovereignty was stolen from her. We feel the slow, determined encroachment of others, chipping away at her privacy, her independence and her sanity. We see how tabloid narratives and unflattering photographs taken of Spears without her consent enabled her family to make a case for her incapacity. We see how Spears internalised the ideals that had been projected upon her.

In January 2008, Spears was at her lowest point and “taking lots of Adderall” to cope when her parents asked to meet her at their beach house. There she was ambushed by police and taken to hospital against her will. She was placed under the conservatorship that February. “I remain shocked that the state of California would let a man like my father – an alcoholic, someone who’d declared bankruptcy, who’d failed in business, who’d terrified me as a little girl – control me,” she writes. Despite the supposed extent of her mental health problems, she was immediately put to work. “I call the shots,” her father told her. “I’m Britney Spears now.”

For the next 13 years, Spears says she was told what to eat, what medication to take, when she could see her children, how much she should exercise, what her work schedule would be – even when she could and couldn’t use the toilet. For nearly two years, she lived on a diet of chicken and canned vegetables. (“I found it so degrading… here I was, having every calorie recorded so people could continue to get rich off my body.”) She wasn’t allowed to take herself off birth control. Her texts and calls were monitored and her house is alleged to have been bugged without her knowledge, something Jamie Spears denied. Her father paid himself a $6m salary – more than Spears’s own “allowance” – while she toured and performed a long-running residency in Las Vegas. “If I was so sick,” Spears writes, “why did they think it was fine for me to be out there smiling and waving and singing and dancing in a million time zones a week? I’ll tell you one good reason. The Circus Tour grossed more than $130 million.”

[See also: How Friends changed the way we laugh]

Describing these years, Spears veers between sadness, numbness and anger. I like her best when she allows herself to be bitter and vitriolic. Reflecting on her mother’s decision to write and promote a memoir about her daughter’s lowest moments, Spears writes that, were she in her position: “The last thing I would do would be to cut my hair into a bob and put on a tasteful pantsuit and sit down on a morning show set across from Meredith f***ing Vieira and make money off my child’s misfortune.” One trivial detail of her parents’ behaviour eats at her. While she suffered, “they watched Criminal Minds on the couch every f***ing night. Who does that?”

The small things finally encouraged Spears to start saying no. She asked for a summer off, which she was denied. When she refused to publicly announce a second Vegas residency in October 2018, her family forced her into rehab, where she was put on lithium. Several weeks into her stay, one nurse – “the only one who was real as hell” – showed Spears a video of two people talking on TV, wearing T-shirts that read “#FreeBritney”. This was the beginning of the end of the conservatorship: on 22 June 2021, the night before a scheduled court date, Spears called 911 from a police station and reported herself as a victim of conservatorship abuse. The next day, she told a judge, “my dad and anyone involved in this conservatorship… ma’am, they should be in jail”.

For some readers, it will still be hard to comprehend how Spears’s family could have taken control of her life so completely. Most revealing, and most moving, are Spears’s admissions that she was infantilised long before the conservatorship began. Raised as a “people-pleaser”, she was sweet, innocent and deferential by nature: “It wasn’t an act,” she writes. It was, however, an attitude that the entertainment industry capitalised on, brutally punishing her for any diversion from the “good girl” persona. Of her 2007 breakdown, she admits that, having been subjected to overprotection and surveillance for a decade, she had “begun to think in some ways like a child” already. When what was left of her freedom had been taken from her, the regression became more severe. What if she had felt able to stand up for herself earlier? “I don’t at all like to think about that, not whatsoever. I can’t afford to, honestly.”

There’s a famous video of Britney Spears speaking at a press conference for her 2002 film Crossroads. She is asked if Justin Timberlake was “jealous” when he saw her kissing another man in the movie. “Umm no, it’s just a movie,” she says, in a high-school voice tinged with irritation. “It’s pretend. You’re an adult, you should know that.” The clip is now often passed around on social media as the ultimate feminist retort to media sexism. But her inner conflict is visible too. After she says it, Spears opens her mouth in faux-shock at her own aggression – smiling all the while. Here is a 20-year-old woman, struggling to assert herself in the face of press intrusion – upset, angry, then ashamed of her own anger. “You’re an adult.” As she says it, she sounds like a little kid.

The Woman in Me
Britney Spears
Simon & Schuster, 288pp, £25

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[See also: Why Britney Spears will never be free]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts