In every celebrity tell-all, there are the usual thrills when the star recounts who slept with who, who was a real behind-the-scenes bitch, or what they wasted their money on. All of this is present in The Woman in Me, Britney Spears’ new memoir about her career and her careening from the top, to public breakdown, to being trapped under the boot of a brutal conservatorship, and back on her way up again. All of this is expected; this is what we all signed up for (this and a reason to line up outside of Justin Timberlake’s next concert with torches and pitchforks).
What wasn’t expected is how often Britney talks about death.
In the midst of life, we are in death. That’s how the catchy Gregorian chant goes. It’s got a beat and we can dance to it. Britney’s dance starts even before she’s born; her paternal grandmother Jean’s story includes involuntary hospitalization for mental illness, the death of an infant, and ends with the woman who gave Britney her middle name dying by suicide at the graveside of her own departed child.
This harrowing start shapes Britney’s family decades before she’s born. Her father, Jamie, a recovering alcoholic who would become her conservator, emerges from this trauma to pass it on to his own children. Through his efforts, the princess of pop relives those same family tragedies. When Britney is separated from her own children, involuntarily hospitalized, and prescribed lithium, she sees herself in her unlucky progenitrix. These cycles grind her down as they have women in and out of her family for centuries.
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In another tragic downbeat that bounces Britney to another verse of the dirge, her favorite aunt, Sandra Bridges Covington, dies of ovarian cancer in 2007. This death partially precipitates Britney’s mental break in 2008; the heavily-photographed incident in which the singer shaved her own head and acted erratically toward her ever-present paparazzi. Here, too, her life is defined by a grief overshadowed by the attention paid to her reaction to it. Here, too, Britney is the unwilling main character of a specifically feminist tragedy.
Fans who followed the #FreeBritney saga may recall that Ms. Spears’ conservatorship prevented her from removing an intrauterine device in her late thirties when she expressed a desire to have another child. This, too, is chronicled in “The Woman in Me,” a book that becomes more and more feminist as the person living through these traumatic public cycles gains wisdom and grasps for agency. Here, again, death pursues her. Though Spears was freed of her physical and financial guardianship and eventually allowed to control her own reproductive health, her dreams of a third child were not to be. She miscarried.
The memoir is oddly bookended by two fetal deaths: this last, and an early abortion undertaken at the behest of the man who inseminated her, recording artist Justin Timberlake. In each instance, Britney is not really free to choose. She is, throughout the memoir, the owner of a highly profitable and scrutinized body. She is, throughout the memoir, prevented from expressing that ownership in any meaningful way. Britney Spears is alive from the moment she hits the stage: a teen girl with preternatural sexual powers, the inheritor of madness and suicide, the object of desire and scorn and projection as only the living female body can be.
Britney Spears is dead all over the page: a grown woman who is prevented from growing life in her body when she chooses to, the cash-cow controlled by her father, a pop music has-been defined by more than a decade of artistically moribund replication of her former glory for neither her own expression nor her own gain. Twenty years later, the world’s most powerful celebrity in 2002 is little more than the walking dead.
The deepest period of her living death is described in one of the final chapters of her memoir. Hospitalized again by her father and against her own will, Spears falls into deep despair. She is separated from her children and dogs, forcibly estranged from her partner, forbidden to make changes to her public performances or even her set list, unvisited by her family, not allowed to have a cell phone, cut off entirely from the outside world. In this extreme isolation, before the #FreeBritney movement reached her, Spears admits darkly but forthrightly that she thought her family might plan to have her killed. A friend confides that they had nightmares about Britney’s suicide in treatment becoming breaking news. Starkly removed from life, Spears feels the nearness of death.
Throughout “The Woman in Me,” Spears exposes a frightful naïveté, an inability to defend or speak for herself, an acceptance of the order imposed on her by the people who stand to benefit from her work. Beginning as she did as a child in show business, this passivity is understandable. However, adulthood fails to emancipate her in any meaningful way. Her life, on the pages of tabloids and now finally in her own words, has hardly, if ever, been her own.
Confronting death throughout the pages of this memoir seems simpler than surviving the kind of life she’s barely been allowed to live. Compared to all that, death might seem like a friend.
It is a testament to Britney’s enduring innocence that nowhere in her book does she call on her friend by name.