Britney Spears greets fans at a ceremony honoring her with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on November 17, 2003. (Vince Bucci via Getty Images)

Who Wronged Britney Spears?

She blames her family, the legal system, pop culture, and paparazzi. But what if she was just sick?

For anyone who was alive in 2007, her memoir The Woman in Me is a catharsis. We finally get to read, in Britney Spears’ own words, just what the hell happened all those years ago, when the pop star appeared to have lost her mind.

For the #FreeBritney movement, the autobiography reads like vindication. In the book, Spears credits her die-hard fans specifically for turning the tide of public opinion about the conservatorship, which they framed as a ploy by her conservators—especially by her father, Jamie Spears—to seize total control of the cash cow. In November 2021, five months after Spears delivered a searing, 23-minute-long public testimony detailing the anguish the legal arrangement had caused her, it finally came to an end.

Since then, Spears has stayed out of the limelight, except on Instagram, where she posts videos, often captioned with nonsensical musings, in which she dances barefoot in her living room. In September, a jig she performed with a pair of large kitchen knives launched a thousand memes and left some wondering about Spears’ mental health. 

Despite the bizarre videos, the narrative persists that Spears is just fine, she was always just fine, and her family and the state of California should never be forgiven for stripping her of her freedom for 13 years. But as Spears herself writes of that time in the early aughts: “I know now that I was displaying just about every symptom of perinatal depression: sadness, anxiety, fatigue.” 

In other words, it probably was mental illness. 

It makes sense. Spears’ oldest son, Sean Preston, was only three months old when, at the age of 24, she got pregnant with her second son, Jayden James. The back-to-back pregnancies were hard on her body; her hormones were all over the place. Meanwhile, her marriage to Kevin Federline was unraveling. “Again and again in my life I’ve seen fame and money ruin people, and I saw it happen with Kevin in slow motion,” writes Spears. Jayden was still a newborn when Spears filed for divorce in November 2006.

On her own with two babies, Spears became obsessed with shielding her sons from the paparazzi. “Enemy combatants,” she calls them, and they seemed to multiply in number after each birth. Simply traveling to and from the recording studio “felt like being part of a military operation.” Spears was terrified.

Reeling from her breakup, and with Paris Hilton on her arm, Spears went through her “party stage.” She didn’t have a drinking problem, she assures us, but she admits to abusing Adderall, the amphetamine typically prescribed to treat ADHD. She says it worked like an antidepressant. 

It is precisely halfway through the book when Spears writes about her drug use. If The Woman in Me were a novel, this would be the part where the protagonist becomes what’s called an “unreliable narrator.”

Amphetamines are powerful drugs. In mentally stable individuals, they can induce careless, erratic behavior. In a young woman suffering from “severe postpartum depression,” it can cause manic, perhaps even psychotic, episodes—that is, periods of delusion, impulsiveness, paranoia, euphoria, and irritation. Recalling the media coverage of that time—the shaved head, the pink wigs, the faux-British accent, the rage—it’s difficult not to conclude that Spears was as unwell as we had feared.

But coming to this conclusion requires reading between the lines. Spears admits she spiraled, that she got “weird” and felt “confused.” But The Woman in Me is ultimately her attempt to convince us that her behavior was never so crazy as to warrant what followed—the 13-year-long conservatorship, which put her father, Jamie Spears, in complete control of her life, including what she ate and whom she dated. 

In the end, one wonders if her father’s intervention might have saved the pop star’s life.

Sam Lutfi and Britney Spears leaving Petco November 17, 2007, in Los Angeles, California. (Chris Wolf via Getty Images)

Spears writes that she started hanging out with some shady characters in 2007, to distract her from her family’s constant scrutiny. Her mom, Lynne, was always trying to make Spears feel like she was “bad or guilty of something,” she writes. Her parents didn’t seem to think she “was worth much.”

I don’t think Spears is being dishonest here. But I suspect Jamie and Lynne’s scrutiny of their daughter had more to do with their concern about her mental state than with her moral fiber. An irrational person is impossible to reason with. Attempts to do so can come across as antagonistic and hostile, when in reality it is just frustration and fear.

I know this firsthand. Five years before Spears’ very public meltdown, I had my own spiral with amphetamines. Depressed and anxious, I binged on speed and became psychotic. I had to be hospitalized four times over the course of a year, my worried-sick family calling the shots. Between trips to the psych ward, I’d rapidly cycle from indignant to remorseful to euphoric. My frustrated mother felt helpless.

In one telling section of the book, Spears writes of a night shortly after she got out of the hospital and began dating a paparazzo, Adnan Ghalib. They tore all over town with the press in constant pursuit. She describes a day they were driving near a cliff, when suddenly she “decided to pull a 360.” They nearly careered over the edge. “I felt so alive,” Spears writes. Ah, the euphoria of psychosis.

Spears writes that if she had just been left alone, she knows she would have come out the other side, eventually. But reading her book, it’s clear there were times when she was a danger to herself and to others. And she writes more than once that she wondered if her family were actually “trying to kill” her. As imperfect as they are—and Spears’ book gives numerous examples of their errors—I don’t think they were ever homicidal, nor do I think it was rational for Spears to fear that they were.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, whom I hold responsible for the postmodern hellscape we find ourselves in, theorized that the state’s efforts to improve the health of its populations are not inspired by benevolence but rather by a desire to keep the workers working. To Foucault, even reason itself was ultimately about power; the state, he contended, justifies its own conception of reality by removing from society whomever it deems insane. “Reason,” he once said, “is what gives itself the right and the means to set aside madness.”

Spears fans, and anyone else whose life perspective hinges upon tidy narratives about money-grubbing white men and the innocent women they exploit, will take the pop star at every outrageous word. Their belief systems require it. Otherwise, they’d have to acknowledge the gray area of this murky spectacle and consider the possibility that perhaps they’d gotten it all wrong. That perhaps Spears isn’t a victim of state overreach but instead a success story of state intervention. That maybe her family really does care about her well-being. 

At the end of the day, objective reality exists. People living in delusion cannot safely coexist with rational members of society. Sometimes family, friends, and yes, even the state need to step in. I shudder to think where I’d be if I’d refused rehabilitation and remained a stubborn, misunderstood victim. Nothing about the process was fun, but it did restore me to sanity.

All of this is not to say that the conservatorship needed to last for as long as it did, nor in the manner that it did. Aspects of the legal arrangement were downright Orwellian. “I became a robot,” she writes. “I had been so infantilized that I was losing pieces of what made me feel like myself.” Talk about dehumanizing.

And yet, Spears is still alive. In December, she’ll turn 42. She hasn’t irreparably harmed herself or anyone else. That’s certainly something the #FreeBritney brigade should celebrate.

Supporters of the #FreeBritney movement rally in support of musician Britney Spears for a conservatorship court hearing outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles, California, on November 12, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon via Getty Images)

Since its release on October 24, The Woman in Me has reportedly sold nearly 2.5 million copies worldwide. It’s been reported that many A-listers, including Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Reese Witherspoon, are vying for production rights. Apart from a few callous remarks about Spears’ questionable mental health, Hollywood appears to be pretty united in its stance that Britney is only a victim, and her family is only evil. 

Time will tell if any of them will give Britney the nuanced treatment she deserves. I am not optimistic. 

Ben Appel is a writer living in New York. His memoir, with Bombardier Books, is forthcoming. 

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