My copy of Britney Spears’ book, The Woman in Me, arrived on Wednesday. At 11pm that night, I got into bed with the intention of reading 50 or so pages before falling asleep. This did not happen. By 2:30 am, I had gobbled down the entire memoir. It wasn’t difficult; the book is 275 pages with 1.5 spacing, and the writing is direct and uncomplicated.
The content on the other hand … Jesus Christ. Britney’s story is horrifying. The men in her life broke her. I was surprised at how much the details affected me; I’d read the excerpts that came out the week leading up to the book’s release, I’d followed the #FreeBritney movement, I thought I knew all about her conservatorship. But reading it all in one go was upsetting and infuriating.
By the end of Chapter 1, it becomes clear that Britney Jean Spears was doomed from the get. Her paternal grandmother, Emma Jean Spears (she went by Jean), was abused by her husband, June Spears Sr. After Jean suffered the loss of a baby when he was three days old, June sent her to a “by-all-accounts horrible asylum,” where she was put on lithium. Eight years later, at age 31, Jean shot herself at her infant son’s grave.
June, a cop, eventually had ten children with two more wives. He sent Wife #2 to the same asylum as Jean. Britney writes that “no one” had anything good to say about “the first fifty years” of June’s life:
Even in my family, it was said that the Spears men tended to be bad news, especially in terms of how they treated women.
Unfortunately for Britney, her father, Jamie, turned into a mini version of June. Jamie was an “extremely mean” drunk who imposed impossible standards on his kids.
Britney’s maternal grandmother, Lily Portell, was from “an elegant, sophisticated” family in London. During World War II, she met Britney’s grandfather, Barney Bridges, at a dance for American soldiers. When she went back to America with Barney, she realized she’d made a mistake. Suddenly, glamorous Lily was trapped in the “empty” Louisiana countryside. She missed London “until the day she died,” but Barney never once let her visit. He was scared that if she left, she’d never come back. Greeeat. Britney writes that her grandmother was beautiful and she “loved copying her British accent.” Oh damn.
Britney’s parents fought constantly. Her dad was always drunk, and her mom was always screaming at him. Britney escaped through singing and dancing, which led to opportunities on Broadway and Star Search. Eventually, she got cast on The Mickey Mouse Club. After it got cancelled, she went back to regular high school life. Britney loved playing on the basketball team and sneaking cigarettes with the boys, but she also missed performing. So, she recorded a demo and sent it to Jive Records. They signed her at age 15.
The memoir rushes through Britney’s rise to superstardom. She went from performing in malls to getting recognized everywhere she went in a matter of a months. Suddenly, her album had sold ten million copies and she was a regular on TRL. Britney was happy at first, but soon she started getting freaked out when people criticized her for dressing “too sexy” and corrupting America’s youth. She also began noticing older men “leering” at her from the audience at her shows, “like I was some kind of Lolita fantasy.”
Britney says she fell “so in love” with Justin Timberlake “that it was pathetic.” Thanks to Internet excerpts, we know all about the abortion she didn’t want. And that moment with Ginuwine (“Oh yeah, fo shiz, fo shiz!”). Britney says Justin cheated on her with a few different women, but she chose to turn a blind eye. She admits to making out with Wade Robson, but insists it was a one time thing. When Justin began working on his first solo album, Justified, Britney noticed that he was acting “standoffish”:
I think that was because he’d decided to use me as ammunition for his record, and so it made it awkward for him to be around me staring at him with all that affection and devotion.
After Justin dumped her, everything changed. Britney fell into a deep depression, and began feeling “younger” in her mind (this is the first of two times the singer compares her mental regression to Benjamin Button). Now, at this point in the book, I’m screaming, “THERAPY!” Alas, Britney just didn’t have that kind of support system.
By 2003, Britney was a wreck. Justin was slut-shaming her in the media, her confidence was at all all-time low, and she spent all her time hiding in her NYC apartment. One day, Britney’s father and three other men barged into her home unannounced and drilled her with intrusive questions. The next day, they informed her she would sit down for a tell-all interview with Diane Sawyer. Britney felt like she had no choice, and describes the experience as “completely humiliating” and exploitative. She refers to this as her “breaking point”, and writes that she felt herself turning into “a Bad Person.”
In January 2004, Britney got wasted in Vegas and married her childhood friend, Jason Alexander. It was annulled 55 hours later. Her parents were furious, and Britney realized that they were scared of their daughter having “a stronger connection” to someone who wasn’t them: “Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, by this point, I was supporting them financially.” Enter Kevin Federline. Sigh. Britney fell madly in love with him, and he did the same goddamn thing all the other men in her life did: use her for her fame and money.
Britney had her first son, Sean Preston, in September 2005. Three months later, she got pregnant again, and that’s when Kevin abandoned her. He disappeared into the studio to work on his rap album (snort) and refused to see her. Almost exactly a year after Sean’s birth, Britney welcomed Jayden James. By her own admission, Britney had started to become “weird.” She became obsessed with adding white marble everywhere in her home, she wouldn’t let her mother hold Jayden for the first two months of his life, and she began acting very “childlike.” She was also dealing with Princess Diana-levels of paparazzi. Britney says, in retrospect, she was suffering from perinatal depression, but, again, nobody provided her with the help she so desperately needed.
When Jayden was two months old, Britney filed for divorce. Kevin, who had been completely absent in his sons’ lives up until that point, had the gall to ask for full custody. Britney began partying, but she insists it was “never as wild as the press made it out to be.” She got drunk and used Adderall because “it gave me a few hours of feeling less depressed.” Britney admits she began to struggle with her mothering duties around this time. Kevin fed stories to the press that made her seem like a bad mom, and it affected her chances in their custody battle. One day, Kevin didn’t return the babies. He kept them from Britney for several weeks.
In January 2007, Britney’s beloved aunt Sandra died. The next month, beside herself with grief, Britney went to Kevin’s house to see her children. But Kevin wouldn’t let her in. The “humiliating” incident was captured by the paparazzi, and, that night, Britney decided to give them “some material.” She walked into a hair salon and shaved off all her hair. Britney says it was her way of telling the entire world to fuck off. She recalls a friend saying:
“If someone took my baby away from me, I would have done a lot more than get a haircut. I would have burned the city to the ground.”
2007 was rough for Britney. There was the “Gimme More” VMA performance, constant shaming from the press, and tumultuous custody battle. After a visit with her sons in January 2008, Britney was prepping her boys to return to their father’s. Suddenly, she became terrified that if she gave her sons back to Kevin, she would never see them again. She locked herself in the bathroom with Jayden and wept uncontrollably:
Before I knew what was happening, a SWAT team in black suits burst through the door as if I’d hurt someone. The only thing I was guilty of was feeling desperate to keep my own children for a few more hours and get some assurance that I wasn’t going to lose them for good.
Britney was strapped to a gurney and hospitalized. After being released less than seventy-two hours later, a judge determined Kevin would get sole physical and legal custody of Sean and Jayden. Britney says she totally lost it. She began rebelling, abusing Adderall, and being “bad”: “or maybe I wasn’t bad as much as very, very angry.”
Around that time, Britney sensed her parents were trying to get closer to her, which made her uneasy. One day, her mother asked her to come over to her house. When Britney arrived, she was ambushed by “twenty cops” and taken to the hospital. Later, Britney realized that, in the weeks leading up to this latest 5150, her father had conspired to put her under a conservatorship. For Jamie Spears, the conservatorship was all about controlling his daughter’s every move so she could make him as much money as possible. Britney was shocked that the state of California would let someone like Jamie, “an alcoholic, someone who’d declared bankruptcy, who’d failed in business, who’d terrified me as a little girl,” take over her life. At one point, he told her, “I’m Britney Spears now.”
Britney transformed into a zombie who did everything her father said. She was told she wasn’t allowed to get her own lawyer (a lie), and any disobedience could lead to her losing all access to her sons. “My freedom in exchange for naps with my children — it was a trade I was willing to make.” Jamie was a tyrant; he told Britney when to work (constantly), what to eat (no hamburgers or ice cream), what to drink (no booze, despite the fact that he was the alcoholic), what to watch (only an hour of TV a day), when to go to bed (early), and when she went to the bathroom. Britney’s phone had parental controls, and she only got a $2000 a week allowance. She wasn’t even allowed to give an opinion on what songs she could sing during her Vegas residency.
Britney, a self-described “people pleaser,” was constantly gaslit into thinking she was difficult, lazy, and fat. One day, in rehearsals for her Vegas show, she told her dancers she didn’t think she could pull off a difficult move. Her father responded by locking Britney up in a mental institution where she was put on lithium (the same drug her grandfather used to control her grandma Jean).
The experience was traumatizing, but, one day, a nurse (“the only one who was real as hell”) told her about the rising #FreeBritney movement. In June 2021, Britney finally found the strength to reach out for help: she called 911 to report her father for conservatorship abuse.
Since breaking free of her conservatorship that September, Britney’s struggled to readjust to normal life. She feels betrayed by her entire family, she suffers from debilitating migraines, her marriage to Sam Asghari ended in divorce, and she’s reportedly estranged from her sons (those last two aren’t mentioned in the book). Britney is aware that people “don’t understand” why she takes Instagram pictures of herself “naked or in new dresses”, but she says she likes feeling sexy and representing herself exactly the way she wants.
The Woman in Me is a devastating read. Britney was surrounded by money-hungry vultures her whole life. They took everything they could from her, and she simply didn’t have the tools to stop them. Here’s one passage that stuck out to me:
I can see now that you have to be smart enough, vicious enough, deliberate enough to play the game, and I didn’t know the game. I was truly innocent - just clueless. I was a newly single mom of two little boys - I didn’t have the time to fix my hair before I went out into a sea of photographers.
So I was young, and I made a lot of mistakes. But I will say this: I wasn’t manipulative. I was just stupid.
Sigh. I hope that maybe, one day, our girl can find some peace.