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Britney Spears’s Story Will Never Make Sense

One of the most disturbing parts of Britney Spears’s story has long been the way people talk about her. As soon as the pop star was released from the legal guardianship of her father in November 2021, ending a 13-year ordeal that she has described as torture, some onlookers asked whether one of the most successful women on Earth could handle living as an adult. In barroom chitchat, meandering podcasts, and online comment sections, you can now find people claiming that freeing Britney—allowing her to, for example, choose how she spends her money or what she eats for dinner—was a mistake. They cite alleged evidence of erratic behavior such as the recent video that the 41-year-old Spears posted of herself dancing sexily with prop knives.

Usually such skeptics speak in a conspiratorial tone, indicating that they think of themselves as radical truth-tellers defying the pink-uniformed groupthink of the #FreeBritney movement. But Spears’s new memoir makes clear that this shaming and second-guessing, using the language of care and concern, is deeply conventional. She portrays herself—including with the title The Woman in Me—as battling the media expectation that she remain trapped in girlhood, virginal and helpless. But she also writes with mystification about the scale of her story, the extraordinary drama and unfairness of it. A reader may come away feeling that her struggle is older, more primal, than our cultural era. People seem to want her to be a scapegoat for all manner of human failings, and, in fact, they seem to want to punish her.

Readers expecting a breezy celebrity memoir will be shocked by the grim opening pages. Describing her childhood in rural Louisiana, Spears’s declarative sentences have the ominousness of the Old Testament, and her themes are Southern Gothic. “Tragedy runs in my family,” Spears writes, before describing her paternal grandfather, June, as an abusive man who committed two of his wives to mental hospitals. One of those wives killed herself on the grave of her infant child. June’s harshness, Spears feels, made her own father, Jamie, a cruel and demanding alcoholic.

Singing beckoned as an escape from her tense home life, but the stage provided no refuge from others’ judgment and control. In early adolescence she was cast on The Mickey Mouse Club; another Mouseketeer, Justin Timberlake, would become both her peer in teen stardom and her serious boyfriend from 1999 to 2002. In the book and in media coverage of late, Timberlake has been cast, almost too neatly, as an example of the gendered double standards of early-2000s pop culture. His public expressions of lust were cheered while hers were condemned. The book’s description of him pressuring her into a secret abortion at home suggests that the affable, gentlemanly reputation he’s long enjoyed was hollow.

But looking back, Spears almost appears less bothered by Timberlake’s treatment of her than by the media’s obsession with their romance. Her most intimate experiences were never her own; she mattered too much, to too many people. “As a child, I’d always had a guilty conscience, a lot of shame, a sense that my family thought I was just plain bad,” she writes in a section about being vilified after her breakup with Timberlake. “I knew the truth of our relationship was nothing like how it was being portrayed, but I still imagined that if I was suffering, I must have deserved it.”

As Spears matured, a cycle of scrutiny and rebellion accelerated, though the rebellions—such as Spears having kids with a “bad boy,” the backup dancer Kevin Federline, and attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella—come off as tame in the book’s telling. (“Pathetic, really. An umbrella.”) She revisits the circumstances that led to the conservatorship, including the famous incident when she, in the midst of custody dispute, locked herself with her younger son in a bathroom. But the underlying mysteries of her long legal saga remain vexing, both to the reader and to Spears herself. The public perception has long been that outlandish drug use or a terrible mental-health crisis must have justified her captivity. Spears admits only to popping Adderall—a very quotidian, if very dangerous, substance to abuse. “I know I had been acting wild but there was nothing I’d done that justified their treating me like I was a bank robber,” she writes. “Nothing that justified upending my entire life.”

Spears’s accounting of her years in the conservatorship is glum and maddening, rendered in a frank, can-you-believe-this-shit tone (“Pretty quickly, I called the weird-ass lawyer the court had appointed for me and asked him for help. Incredibly, he was all I really had.”). How could the people around her do what they did? Forced into a grueling performance schedule while being restricted to a $2,000-a-week allowance and a harsh diet, Spears says she found no commiseration from family members or legal counselors, many of whom were being paid handsomely by her efforts. She tried to play their games, acting the good girl in hopes of eventual release, but to no avail. She began to fear that the desired endgame for her handlers was her profitable and tidy death.

No satisfying explanation could ever exist for what Spears went through, and the book’s clear and measured prose—reportedly shaped by a ghostwriter—inevitably will make the reader wonder what’s left out. But the illogic of the story on the page does fit with the absurd weight Spears carried in the public consciousness. At the dawn of the internet age, Spears at first seemed the perfect everygirl, singing through a sweet smile. But with every passing month, she revealed herself as, instead, a human being with flaws and appetites. This was a reality that the machine around her could not abide. Spears’s famous hoisting of a python at the 2001 VMAs (a stunt that, she now writes, was legitimately frightening) is the enduring image of her career for a good reason: She was our era’s Eve, bearing the snake of sin on her shoulders. Her successors today—such as the self-directed and savvy Taylor Swift—clearly internalized that the public narrative, forged in blaring headlines and quiet conversations alike, can have terrible power.

Spears’s narrative has, in recent years, finally turned: She theorizes that members of the #FreeBritney movement “subconsciously” caught onto her pain and frustration a few years ago, and says that their support was integral to her finally speaking out in court against her father. For them, she is deeply grateful. But she hardly feels that the world has stopped exploiting her. Late in the book, she expresses discomfort with the recent wave of documentaries about her plight. “There was so much guessing about what I must have thought or felt,” she writes.

The Woman in Me clarifies how she’s felt—angry, horrified, confused—but perhaps more important, it seeks to close a long and dark chapter. Spears now wants to “get my spiritual life in order, to pay attention to the little things, and slow down,” she writes. Yet the discussion spinning around her, dissecting and judging and creating mythological storylines for the masses to get invested in, has hardly decelerated. Even before its release, the memoir was strip-mined for gossip items. “I don’t like the headlines I am reading,” Spears wrote on Instagram a few days ago. The post was a reminder that she is not a mere character on our screens, but a mortal woman who is alive and perceiving, and so perhaps we should all watch our mouths.

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