Opinion | The Despair at the Heart of Britney Spears’s Memoir

Spears describes the way she felt physically and emotionally trapped by the paparazzi and writes that during the messy process of divorcing her husband at the time, Kevin Federline, he was preventing her from seeing their sons: “After not getting to see the boys for weeks and weeks, completely beside myself with grief, I went to plead to see them.” The paparazzi followed her constantly, and out of her mind with that grief, at one point in 2007 she decided to shave her head. It was a way of fighting back against the judgment of her family, the photographers who hounded her and the culture that demanded she look the same forever.

Later that year, Spears performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, a performance for which she was pilloried. This week, my newsroom colleague Amanda Hess wrote that at the time, she thought the performance was “disastrous.” After reading “The Woman in Me,” she reassessed:

The postpartum period is much like adolescence, with its startling physical changes and its extreme public scrutiny. Of course Britney Spears was exhausted — she had two babies. Of course she was unrehearsed — she had two babies. When I watched the performance again recently, it played like found footage in a horror movie. I saw a new mother being forced to do a sexy dance for America, and for the quality of her performance to inform whether she got to keep her children.

By 2008, the conservatorship was in place. Spears talks about her anger about the double standards that allowed it to happen: Male celebrities weren’t stripped of their agency in the same way. “It makes me feel sick,” she writes. “Think of how many male artists gambled all their money away, how many had substance abuse or mental health issues. No one tried to take away their control over their body and money.”

Spears describes the way everything about her life was controlled by her father: what she ate and drank, the medications she took, where she performed and when. She says she was institutionalized against her will for months and allowed to see her kids for only an hour a week, at most. During that period, she says, she was “abruptly” taken off Prozac, which she had been on for years and put on lithium. “It wasn’t lost on me that lithium was the drug my grandmother Jean, who later committed suicide, had been put on in Mandeville,” Spears writes.

But Spears survived it. In 2021 she was finally released from the conservatorship. She writes that she is no longer speaking to anyone in her family and seems to be trying to break the cycle of trauma and abuse that preceded her battle. But unfortunately, the public scrutiny of her behavior remains. Fans gin up conspiracy theories based on her brief interactions with paparazzi. She can’t even get a speeding ticket without the body-cam footage ending up online.

She ends “The Woman in Me” on a positive note and has posted about her desire to move on from the events depicted in the book. The question that hovers over her memoir is whether we will let her.