There comes a time when reading critically acclaimed works of highbrow literary fiction–you know the type–where you close the book in exasperation, thinking to yourself, “How much more suffering must I be forced to read this person endure? Haven’t they been through enough?”
On Tuesday, I had that same experience, the feeling of sadness mixed with horror and disgust. But the book I was reading was Britney Spears’ memoir.
Far from a typical, juicy tell-all of a mega pop icon, Spears’ much-anticipated The Woman in Me reads more like a Gothic horror novel, full of endless pain, suffering, and trauma. By the end Spears emerges as a resilient heroine, but it’s by no means an uplifting story and it’s hard to find an inspirational message from its pages.
“Tragedy runs in my family,” Spears writes in some of the book’s first pages, going on to describe how her namesake, her father’s mother, Jean, died by suicide in her 30s after enduring a loveless marriage to an abusive husband, Spears’ grandfather. But it’s clear that what runs through the Spears lineage is more like generational trauma, a never-ending cycle of hurt people hurting people that has left Spears, at 41, picking up the ashes of what was once a celebrated life and career.
“I feel like I’ve been underwater for so long, only rarely swimming up to the surface to gasp for air and a little food,” she writes, “...I’ve been taking it a day at a time and trying to be thankful for the little things.”
Spears wrote the book, she says, so that her fans and the world will understand her life story, as she sees it, in her own words. Thus, her memoir is less of the victory lap typical of other celebrity memoirs and more of a confession, of someone attempting to set the record straight about what they experienced.
For so long, the public has been fed one story of Spears. When she first came on the scene, we were told she was a virginal, fun-loving teenager. Her family was loving (did anyone else obsess over her 2000 memoir written with her mother about their perfect relationship, or just me?), and her joy and zest for life was infectious. For young millennial girls, she was the slightly rebellious role model who made us feel bold enough to show a little skin, knowing full well that we were good girls at heart.
This image, it seems, was a lie, one that made me feel sadder than I expected. Spears writes that both her parents came into their marriage with deep-rooted trauma, and whatever happiness they had initially upon their relationship soon ended. By the time she came along, her father Jamie was struggling with alcoholism, the family had no money, and her parents’ marriage was strained. From a young age, Spears felt dual longings to both hide and be seen. In public, she loved soaking in recognition and praise by dancing and singing on stage, at home, she was known for squirreling away in cabinets to be alone.
“With my family, anything could go wrong at any time,” she writes. “I had no power there. Only while performing, I was invincible.”
Pursuing a career in the entertainment industry became for Spears an escape, both financially (she supported her family for years) and emotionally. But her path has few bright spots. She describes flickers of joy–her time on the Mickey Mouse Club, her creative excitement making her first album at 15, connecting with young fans–but they are few and far between.
Mostly she describes her life as a series of traumatic events, from which she is endlessly trying to escape. For Spears, every moment of happiness leads to a moment of sorrow. She escaped her home life by becoming famous, but once she did, became trapped by fame itself. She made her first, self-titled album her way, but immediately faced backlash from critics. She seems to have taken every word of criticism against her personally, writing that she truly didn’t understand why pop culture commentators were so cruel to her, calling her a slut and a bad example. She fell in love with Justin Timberlake, but the relationship ended with an abortion she didn’t want and a heartbreak that it truly seems she never recovered from. She writes that it wasn’t just losing Timberlake. His family, she says, was the only loving, accepting family she had experienced to that point.
“It’s insane how much I loved him, and for me it was unfortunate,” she says simply.
Spears’ mental health got worse and worse. It seems she was incredibly depressed, and had few people she could rely on. When she met her now former husband, Kevin Federline, what struck her the most was how he would just sit and hold her.
“It wasn’t about lust, it was intimate,” she writes. “He would hold me as long as I wanted to be held. Had anyone in my life ever done that before? If so, I couldn't remember when.”
The description of Federline is so nakedly desperate for love and affection, so unbearably sad, that it almost made me uncomfortable to read. And as we all know, things only got worse! Federline got Spears pregnant twice in rapid succession, then abandoned her after he became infatuated with fame. Losing her husband drove Spears into a deep depression that, ultimately, led to her well-publicized 2007 “meltdown.”
It somehow gets even worse. I don’t need to rehash here, we all know the story. Spears spent the next 13 years in a conservatorship, being controlled by the same father she alleges terrorized her as a child. After spending the first half of her life desperately trying to escape her abusive and dysfunctional family, she ended up right back where she started, an adult under the complete control of her parents. The back half of the book describes this period in excruciating detail, from the hopelessness Spears felt to the anger and sadness that crushed her daily. At times, she writes, she felt like a “Ghost Child,” whose sole purpose existed to make other people’s, mainly her immediate family’s, lives better.
“I became a robot…a sort of child-robot,” she writes, adding, “If they’d let me live my life, I know I would’ve followed my heart and come out of this the right way and worked it out.”
We will never know what Spears could have become if she had been allowed to handle her trauma and pain following her divorce with dignity. But she does have that opportunity now.
Free to speak her mind for the first time in years, Spears says she is optimistic about the future. But there’s little lightness here. Spears has had an extremely hard life, one that we, the American public, have debated for sport for more than two decades now.
For Spears, a happy ending means small things, like learning how to find happiness again.
“I know what makes me happy and brings me joy,” she writes in the book’s final pages. “I try to meditate on those places and thoughts that enable me to experience it.”
In many ways, Britney Spears' memoir feels like a goodbye, at least to the pop-star persona we all equate with Spears. She writes that she is asked constantly when she will perform again, but she’s not sure if she will. And who could blame her? Maybe the greatest gift this book could be for Spears is showing us we all need to back off and allow her to heal in private. Hasn’t she been through enough?
“There’s been a lot of speculation about how I’m doing,” she writes. “I know my fans care. I am free now. I’m just being myself and trying to heal.”
This article was originally published on Glamour US.