Britney Spears’ feverishly anticipated memoir The Woman in Me, released Oct. 24, is an unapologetic rebuke of decades of rumors. Through snapshot writing – brief and vivid descriptions of moments in time that speak for themselves – Spears shares a disturbing account of her exploitation by the media and entertainment industry, as well as by her family and romantic partners. Her explosive rise to fame is almost treated as ancillary, drowned out by the severe personal trauma that culminated in a 13-year conservatorship in which her father had full control over her financial and medical affairs.
Although a judge did not terminate the conservatorship until Nov. 12, 2021, doubt in its validity existed as early as 2009 with the launch of FreeBritney.net. The #FreeBritney movement gained traction on social media in the years leading up to the court decision.
Now free to tell her own story and hire a ghostwriter of her own choosing – journalist Sam Lansky – Spears acknowledged in April the “healing and therapeutic” process of working on the memoir via Instagram, a platform the star uses extensively. In another post on Oct. 20, she wrote, “although some might be offended, it has given me closure on all things for a better future.” After deactivating her account for less than 24 hours, she posted a more cryptic message on Oct. 22: a cake frosted with the words “See you in Hell.”
Beginning with her early childhood in Louisiana, which Spears presents as a bright time tarnished by tragedy, she is empathetic towards her dysfunctional family and emphasizes the abuse her brother suffered, even in her own memoir. Spears sees her younger self as a cutesy Southern girl and pop princess, expressing heartbreaking confusion on why the media viewed her as “dangerous.”
“I was a little girl with big dreams. I wanted to be a star like Madonna, Dolly Parton, or Whitney Houston,” she writes. “I had simpler dreams, too, dreams that seemed even harder to achieve and that felt too ambitious to say out loud: I want my dad to stop drinking. I want my mom to stop yelling. I want everyone to be okay.”
Spears’ deeper introspection is masked at times by a juvenile tone, perhaps an attempt to combine her memories of girlhood with her past voice, or a product of a journey as an optimist who couldn’t trust those closest to her. This contributes to a sense that ‘The Woman in Me’ only scratches the surface of her experiences. However, given her highly public life, Spears’ decision not to write a juicy celebrity tell-all is likely purposeful. Perhaps by reclaiming her internal monologue, she can heal the toll the media has taken on her mental health, an idea explored in the latter half of her memoir.
That said, she is remarkably honest with the pitfalls of such a glitzy career. Spears revealed she began drinking “toddies” with her mother at 13, and started smoking and lost her virginity by 14. Perhaps the most appetizing bits for the tabloids are her descriptions of a sex-filled two weeks with actor Colin Farrell and an affinity for Adderall. Despite these memories, she is adamant that she is not an alcoholic or drug addict and only smoked weed once. The message is clear: Spears is a rebel who likes to have fun, but she never needed rehab.
Spears also discusses her past romantic partners with exceptionally well-communicated anger and sadness – particularly Justin Timberlake, whom she started dating at 17 years old. A gut-wrenching passage where Timberlake pressured her into an at-home abortion, then played guitar in an attempt to calm her down while she was in excruciating pain, stands out. Spears bravely maintains the depths of her love for these men, writing with seemingly infallible optimism.
Spears uses these relationships to contextualize the issues of entertainment media coverage, which vilified her as the cause of each break-up, as well as her label’s efforts to control this narrative. She emphasizes her struggle to portray herself simultaneously as a sex icon and an “eternal virgin.”
In regards to accusations from interviewers that she was morally corrupting her young, female fans, she writes, “I never said I was a role model. All I wanted to do was sing and dance.”
While she doesn’t necessarily synthesize her experiences into broader social criticism, she certainly invites the reader to consider the role of gender, youth and beauty in how society endorses or rejects exploitation. These themes are developed in the second half of the book, which delves into the psychological abuse she suffered in her conservatorship.
Spears was denied access to a third-party lawyer, needed approval to see her two sons, couldn’t choose her own meals or get her IUD removed. This loss of bodily and mental autonomy was compacted by a rigorous performance schedule that generated millions for her father, of which she was given an allowance of $2,000 per week. The star reached a breaking point during a forced stint in rehab, in a passage almost reminiscent of "The Yellow Wallpaper."
“It was death to my creativity as an artist,” she writes. “I was in a cult and my father was the cult leader.”
Unobstructed by the cobwebs of past media consumption (constant interviews about Spears’ weight, unwanted paparazzi shots, criticisms from parents and teachers that a shiny teenage pop star was some corruptive force), her confessional of undocumented suffering is truly powerful, leaving a bitter taste in the reader’s mouth.
Spears’ furious memoir is not a literary masterpiece, nor a feminist manifesto. It’s not meant to be either. Instead, it’s a credit to the superstar’s artistic vision and a triumph in that it shares a raw emotional journey in the face of overwhelming doubt and disbelief.