Semi-retired pop star Britney Spears is almost as famous for her 13+-year conservatorship—during which all personal, professional, and medical decisions were under legal control of her father—as for her music. So as a longtime reporter on her case, I was eager to read her autobiography, pointedly titled The Woman in Me. Since she was once deemed too “mentally ill” to run her own life, it’s a civil- and disability-rights landmark that the Grammy-winning performer is finally willing and able to share her side of the story. And it isn’t pretty.
Like many celebrity memoirs, Spears’ chronicles her career arc and key events in her personal life that are already well known, along with intimate details that are not. Framed in the media as a bombshell-laden “tell-all,” the book is her stated attempt to gain closure on a painful past. But it also represents a first: the testimony of one of the few Americans ever released from a long-term guardianship. It is also a rarity: documentation of psychiatric abuse on a prominent, mainstream platform. (Published in late October, the book became an instant bestseller and Hollywood is now jockeying for the film rights.) Indeed, her stories of being stripped of her rights and forced to swallow psych drugs under others’ watchful eyes—among other outrages—offer a window into a type of systemic abuse that’s normally off the radar. But the impact of the book goes beyond that.
Speaking as MIA’s former Family Resources editor, though, I believe this perceptive and emotionally powerful volume’s most important role may be in explicating the toxic family dynamics that kindled both Britney’s dreams to escape her origins and a lifetime of emotional struggles. Her story confirms the pernicious and long-term effects of intergenerational trauma, alcoholism, and divorce on everyone in a family, especially “the identified patient.” Though not intended as such, it is a cautionary tale about parenting.
A family affair
Throughout the book, Spears shares what it felt like to live through what we’d now call multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that have continued to play out well into her young adulthood and middle age, reflected in her relationships first with her family of origin and then in the family she created with her second husband. (Spoilers ahead.)
Her story opens with a vignette that encapsulates a childhood spent on eggshells: young Britney spending time alone in the woods near her home in semi-rural Kentwood, Louisiana, singing her heart out. She’s studiously avoiding the constant fighting inside that home between mom Lynne, whom she portrays alternately as a harridan and a doormat, and dad Jamie, an alcoholic—miserable and mean when drunk—who would sometimes disappear for days. Jamie drove her older brother Bryan mercilessly, as his father, June, had driven him; Britney’s father scared her and made her feel she was “bad.”
Her father had demons: After his brother died as an infant, the elder Spears committed his grieving mother, Britney’s grandmother Emma Jean, to an institution, where she was forced to take lithium. A few years later, Emma Jean violently took her own life. Britney’s own parents separated before her 1981 birth, then reconciled and later produced her sister Jamie Lynn (resulting in a bout of postpartum hemorrhaging from which Britney feared her mother might die). Another trauma: Her brother narrowly escaped death in an ATV accident. There was instability, too: Her father’s drinking stopped and restarted; his various careers saw the family sometimes poor, sometimes well off. (He and Lynne divorced in 2002 but reunited in 2010 and recently called it quits for good.)
Throughout all this, Britney found an outlet in singing and dancing, winning competitions. She had big dreams:
“I wanted to be a star…I had simpler dreams too, dreams that seemed even harder to achieve and that felt too ambitious to say out loud: I want my dad to stop drinking. I want my mom to stop yelling. I want everyone to be okay. With my family, anything could go wrong at any time…only while performing was I truly invincible.”
And from the age of 8, Britney found work in professional theater, television, and music, chaperoned from city to city by her mother or a family friend. Already precocious, she began smoking and having sex at 14. By this point, her mother was treating her like an adult pal, taking her on getaways to drink cocktails at bars.
By the time she was 17, Britney had achieved breakthrough success as a recording artist and, now parentified, was bringing in more money to the family coffers than the adults. She soon built her mom a mansion, then bought her own at 19, and eventually shared a place with boyband star Justin Timberlake, whose more stable family she considered “home.” She was devastated when Justin, whom she wanted to marry someday, allegedly coerced her into medically aborting an unplanned pregnancy at home with no doctor or anesthesia.
Through it all, she was “almost too nice”: “I had always tried so hard to please,” she writes, “to please my parents, to please audiences, to please everyone. I must have learned that helplessness from my mom…how she just took it.”
When she couldn’t please, she self-isolated. Spears shares a series of telling incidents about a kind of paralysis that overtook her in 2002 after Timberlake broke up with her and she returned home to Louisiana to heal (“I could barely speak for months”). It didn’t help that, she says, her mother and sister ignored her, and she was booed in public. Taking time off to heal after completing another tour, she hid out in her luxe New York City apartment, feeling like she couldn’t face anyone. But when Jamie and her handlers insisted she invite Diane Sawyer into her home for an interview on the Timberlake split, she felt she had to participate. It was hostile, portraying her as the villain. She writes, almost prophetically, “I felt myself turning, almost like a werewolf, into a Bad Person.”
Marriage and motherhood
Months later, touring again but tired of working and longing to form her own family, Britney fell for backup dancer Kevin Federline because he “liked me the way I was.” They wed, and she looked forward to a more peaceful and stable life, of building “a cozy home.” (Unbeknownst to her, he already had a child and a still-pregnant ex.) Giving birth to two sons in two years, she felt a love for them she’d never known. She writes, “My most special moments in life were taking naps with my children. That’s the closest I’ve ever felt to God.”
But she also, she admits, became “weird”: overprotective (at first, she wouldn’t let Lynne hold the baby) and obnoxiously perfectionist. By then, the marriage was failing. Kevin was absent, pursuing a rap music career; Britney writes that he sometimes flatly refused to see her. Tearful, anxious, exhausted, she describes learning to parent alone at home, always aggressively pursued by cameras and reporters questioning her mothering skills.
After she and Federline parted ways, she fell deeper into “severe post-partum depression.” “I had no freedom and yet also no security,” she writes. A custody battle ensued as Kevin kept baby Jayden and toddler Sean Preston from her for weeks at a time. According to Spears, the separation (“I was simply out of my mind with grief”) and fear of losing her kids altogether led her to refuse to return them to their father as scheduled. Soon “a SWAT team” barged in and ferried her into the psychiatric system for an involuntary hold.
Sadness turned to rage: Not long after being released, she famously shaved her head, calling it “my way of saying to the world: Fuck you.” She continues: “…I’d been the good girl for years…. And I was tired of it.” A “wild” period of partying and risk-taking followed, during which she admits she misused the ADHD stimulant Adderall to feel better.
During this frenetic period of acting out, Spears states that she needed and wanted support. Instead, she got an ambush. Beckoned to her beach house by her mother, Britney soon heard the whir of police choppers overhead. She was sectioned again and informed that conservatorship papers had been filed stating she had “dementia.” Soon, she became the permanent ward of the father she’d always feared, and of a lawyer appropriately named Andrew Wallet.
Inside the conservatorship
Spears’ 2021 live court testimony about the conservatorship’s abuses is now a matter of public record. But reading new details about the almost sadistic extent of the control imposed on her, I more deeply understand and feel her outrage. Early on, she recalls, Jamie sat her down and chillingly declared: “I just want to let you know…I call the shots. You sit right there in that chair and I’ll tell you what goes on.” He added, “I’m Britney Spears now.”
She was, she writes, treated “as if I were a criminal or a predator.” Deemed too disabled to manage her own affairs, she notes the irony of being forced to work and serve as the breadwinner for both her family of origin and her family with Federline. Yet she says she had no say in her grueling schedule of performances and appearances, no matter how exhausted she was.
She also had no access to her own money. Her weekly “allowance” was considerably less than her father’s salary. And she quickly concluded that Jamie “saw me as put on the earth for no other reason than to help their cash flow.” Later in the book, she notes the extent to which he and her former business manager profited from her “Circus” tour, both becoming multi-millionaires. (In her 2021 testimony, she compared the arrangement to “human trafficking.”)
It didn’t help that her mother had published and promoted a tell-all memoir early on, which Britney viewed as profiting off her pain.
The Woman in Me also reveals the full extent of Spears’ father’s and co-conservators’ infantilization of her over those 13 years, during which she felt like “a sort of child-robot…stripped of my womanhood.” She writes: “Security guards handed me prepackaged envelopes of meds and watched me take them. They put parental controls on my iPhone. Everything was scrutinized and controlled. Everything.”
Indeed: She could not drive her car. Told she was “fat,” she was placed on a strictly enforced diet; she was forbidden not only alcohol but also coffee. Dates had to undergo background checks and be briefed on Britney’s sexual history. She was forbidden to stop using birth control and to marry. Even her bathroom breaks were monitored (“I’m not kidding!”). And her family and colleagues went along with it. “I started to feel like I was in a cult,” she writes.
Here, we finally learn why she went along with the conservatorship for so long. At first, she figured, “If I play along, surely they’ll see how good I am and they will let me go.” They didn’t. And she quickly realized that asserting herself wouldn’t work: “After being held down on a gurney, I knew they could restrain my body any time they want.” Cooperation, she learned, was the key to gaining access to what mattered most: access to her children.
Still, she pushed back in small ways, such as delivering rote stage performances and (unsuccessfully) smuggling in burner phones. Her frustration reached a boiling point in 2018, when she fully grasped that the level of professional success she had accomplished, by definition, meant she was both sane and strong: “[M]y little heart said, ‘I’m not going to stand for this,’” she writes. So instead of performing at the debut of an upcoming Las Vegas show she didn’t want to do, she walked off the stage and into a waiting car. Soon thereafter, in a rehearsal, she balked at a bit of choreography. From her father’s perspective she was clearly getting out of hand, and there would be consequences.
He had already coerced her into “rehab” numerous times, we learn; once after he discovered Britney was taking over-the-counter energy supplements. And, though she was already forbidden to drink, and he had drinking problems of his own, he made her attend AA meetings several times a week.
But after she challenged that dance move, Jamie and her therapist accused her of uncooperative work habits and stopping her daily medication (which she points out was impossible because she was watched taking it). She was then forced to take an extensive “cognitive test” which, she was told, she failed. That meant, Jamie told her, she would now be moving into a psychiatric facility to undergo a custom designed, intensive treatment plan. Britney was to announce she was taking a break to tend to her father (who had in fact been seriously ill) and her own mental health. The news media reported it as true.
In some of the book’s most disturbing passages, we learn that the involuntary program, which lasted four months, was anything but therapeutic. She was yanked off the usual “meds”—possibly putting her into withdrawal—and forced onto lithium and, later, the antipsychotic Seroquel. She had no privacy, watched while she bathed and dressed. She was denied fresh air and required to sit in a chair all day seven days a week, talking to psychiatrists. (Her description of aching to move in that chair suggests the new drugs may have caused akathisia: “I felt anxious in my feet and in my heart and in my brain. I could never burn off that energy.”) And the exit goalposts kept moving: “If I became flustered, it was taken as evidence that I wasn’t improving,” she writes. “If I got upset and asserted myself, I was out of control and crazy.”
To add insult to injury, she says her family didn’t visit. They and her court-appointed lawyer refused to help her gain release. It sounds more metaphorical than paranoid when she writes more than once that “I thought they were trying to kill me.”
To Britney, it felt Kafkaesque: punishment for a crime she didn’t know she’d committed. To me, it sounds like torture (a U.N. human rights violation). But when she finally returned home, she says her parents gaslighted her by acting “like nothing had happened. Like I hadn’t just endured an almost unbearable trauma in that place.”
Rather than cowing her, the cruelty steeled her resolve to end the conservatorship. She notes that when a nurse at the psych facility had shown her videos of the #FreeBritney movement, she felt supported enough to believe she someday could.
The rest is history—after two more years of growing estrangement from her family and trying to get her court-appointed lawyer to assist her, Britney called 911 and “reported my father for conservatorship abuse.” The next day, she testified about it before a judge and won the right to choose her own lawyer: a former prosecutor who helped her remove her father as guardian and then end the arrangement altogether. She was freed on November 12, 2021—just shy of her 40th birthday.
The remainder of the book is mostly upbeat, describing the joy of doing everyday things on her terms again, with a goal of figuring out who she is and what she wants going forward. Spears skims over major events in her life since it ended, though. She mentions her marriage to and pregnancy loss with her longtime boyfriend, Hesam Asghari—but not their impending divorce. She also omits her ongoing legal battles with father Jamie. (She’s alleged financial misconduct. Filings show he’s also tried to compel her to pay his legal bills from the conservatorship and, according to her lawyer, he’s been using the court system to harass her.) She also sidesteps her tense relationship with her teenaged sons, who reportedly seldom see her.
Given the Spears family history, such domestic drama could almost be predicted. Indeed, she writes, “I don’t think my family understands the real damage that they did.” One relic she describes is disabling migraine headaches. According to her book, though, what matters most is that she’s writing the narrative: “It’s been a while since I felt truly present in my own life, in my own power, in my womanhood. But I’m here now.”
The bigger picture
The Woman in Me was not released in a vacuum, legally or culturally. While there was much press and public sympathy expressed upon her 2021 court testimony and a documentary revealing the extent of its corruption (including spyware planted on her phone and in her home), society has learned little from her ordeal about the problems with the larger guardianship system.
On one hand, Spears’ case, along with years of work by disability rights advocates, led to the passage in September 2022 of California’s Probate Conservatorship Reform and Supported Decision-Making Act. On the other hand, a new, regressive program of CARE Courts has been implemented in the state. Targeted at unhoused individuals, the system not only allows just about anyone to refer someone else for involuntary psychiatric treatment but makes it easier to place them in a conservatorship if they do not comply.
Nor have we changed negative attitudes towards people with mental illness labels, including Spears. Prior to and since the book’s release, the news and social media have reverted to salacious and judgmental coverage of her, scrutinizing and documenting her every move and framing anything quirky or negative as confirmation of instability.
But how easy can it be for a traumatized former conservatee, rusty in leading a “normal” routine, to put a life back together? According to press reports, she appears to be trying to reconcile with her mother. A recent photo of Britney at her 42nd birthday party, curled on her side, head cradled on Lynne’s shoulder like she’s 4, speaks volumes about that task. I wish her luck.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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