In the prologue, Britney reflects on when she was a little girl in Kentwood, Louisiana. She would escape the constant screaming matches between her father and mother by walking through the woods to a neighbor's rock garden: "I would lie down on those rocks and look up at the sky, feeling the warmth from below and above, thinking: I can make my own way in life. I can make my dreams come true."
We all know how that turned out.
Britney now qualifies as one of the biggest pop stars in history, having started out in The Mickey Mouse Club in 1992 before rocketing to worldwide fame in 1999 after her first studio album, ...Baby One More Time, which became not only the best-selling debut album of all time, but made her the first woman to debut with a number-one single and album simultaneously. She would go on to have six number-one albums on the Billboard 200, selling 150 million records worldwide.
But even with these accomplishments, she's just as well known for the headlines that trailed her throughout the early ’00s. Bizarre behavior led Los Angeles courts to allow her father, Jamie Spears (also known as Beelzebub or Lucifer), to become her co-conservator — along with a lawyer — in 2008. The conservatorship was meant to last a year, but was extended indefinitely before the start of 2009. Jamie was in control not only of Britney's estate and income, but of her entire person, exacting Machiavellian control over whom she could date or be friends with, what she ate (for two years, nothing but chicken and canned vegetables), what medication she took, when she could work, when she could sleep, when she could leave the house and even how long she could spend in the bathroom.
At the beginning of 2019, fans noticed that Britney's Instagram posts didn't sound like her. Their fears were confirmed when, in April of that year, anonymous members of her former team went on the podcast Britney's Gram and confirmed that the singer was being held against her will at a facility. The Free Britney movement, which started the same year as the conservatorship, picked up steam, with protesters from around the world calling for her release.
Britney wasn't freed from the conservatorship until after she gave public testimony in June 2021, calling the situation "abusive" and suggesting that her family should be in jail. Throughout the 24-minute statement, her voice was trembling. "I've lied and told the whole world I'm okay and I'm happy," she said. "It's a lie. I thought just maybe if I said that enough, maybe I might become happy, because I've been in denial. I've been in shock. I am traumatized. You know, fake it till you make it. But now I'm telling you the truth, okay? I'm not happy. I can't sleep. I'm so angry it's insane. And I'm depressed. I cry every day. ... I just want my life back."
She got a new lawyer, and the conservatorship ended in November 2021, after thirteen years.
When Britney released her best-selling, highly anticipated memoir in October, fans were eager to read her story in her own words (with help from ghostwriters, of course). This is the first time that the Princess of Pop has been able, on her own terms, to correct salacious rumors and try to heal the deep, emotional wounds inflicted by family, friends, the industry and the press.
Meanwhile, tabloids got to work. Hundreds of articles highlighted the biggest bombshells — or, more accurately, the most disturbing snippets: Britney and Justin had an abortion, Britney had a tryst with Colin Farrell, Britney slept with Wade Robson, Britney's drug of choice was Adderall.
It was as though we were back in 2007 all over again, when Britney was keeping these same tabloids in business and her most vocal supporter was Chris Crocker, sobbing, "Leave Britney alone!"
Spears recognizes that people may judge her by those headlines. On November 8, she wrote on Instagram: "My book has a lot of sad stories and drama in it ... I'm sure some are aware of that but just know there are tons of other beautiful and good stories in #TheWomanInMe but that's not what the media decides to pick up all the time !!! It is what it is ... so going forward just know that was me then ... that's the past and this is me now !!!"
The memoir's biggest bombshell isn't about an abortion or what drove her to shave her head, though. The Woman in Me's most stunning revelation is that she was able to survive thirteen-plus years of horrifying abuse. Sure, the memoir is chock-full of gossip — how she ended up in that car with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, how Madonna got her studying Kabbalah — but it is also a striking account of resilience. It details a child, teen and then woman and mother experiencing severe, isolating trauma, and how that affected her state of mind, choices and direction in life. After reading the book, anyone who has been a victim of deep trauma, particularly women, will see a little bit of themselves in Britney Spears — and be inspired to keep moving forward.
Here are three takeaways from The Woman in Me:
Britney had just given birth to two sons in succession, and was drowning in what she now identifies as postpartum depression. Her soon-to-be ex-husband and ex-backup dancer, Kevin Federline, was using his newfound fame to make what would become an absolutely terrible album. And "with Kevin away so much, no one was around to see me spiral — except every paparazzo in America," she writes.
She admits that she did attempt to get out of her depression by socializing and going out while her children were with babysitters or capable family members — much like many mothers in their early twenties do. They just weren't with one of the most photographed people of the time, Paris Hilton, whom Britney calls "one of the people who was kindest to me when I really needed kindness." Britney insists that they didn't do hard drugs, but they did spend late nights drinking. That led to headlines calling her an incapable mother.
Federline used that to his advantage during their ensuing divorce, and started fighting for full custody of their sons. Shortly after that, Britney's aunt, whom she saw as a mother figure, died from breast cancer. And then Federline didn't allow Britney to see or speak to her boys for weeks on end. She went to his house to plead for them, but he wouldn't let her in, as paparazzi watched. Humiliated, she was followed by the photographers, so she went into a hair salon and shaved her head; it was her way, she writes, of saying "Fuck you."
"Nobody seemed to understand that I was simply out of my mind with grief," Britney reflects. "My children had been taken away from me."
After Federline refused to let her see her sons another time, Britney and her cousin were chased by photographers. At a gas station, they surrounded the car, asking about the children. Britney recalls one man in particular who had "so much ugliness in his voice — such a lack of humanity."
So she "snapped," grabbed an umbrella and smashed it against his car. The photographer later said that while it was a bad night for her, it was great for him — he got the "money shot."
Her panned "Gimme More" VMAs slot added to her depression, as "in the days and weeks that followed, the newspapers made fun of my body and my performance," she recalls.
The most harrowing moment came in January 2008. When Federline allowed Britney to see her sons, she feared she wouldn't be allowed to see them again. Suffering a panic attack, she went into the bathroom with her youngest and locked the door. A SWAT team came to collect him. A few months after that, her parents arranged for a SWAT team to come collect her, and Britney was taken to a hospital for evaluation.
That's when the conservatorship came up. "My father presented the conservatorship as a great stepping stone on the road to my 'comeback,'" Britney writes. "Just months earlier I'd released the best album of my career [Blackout], but fine. What I heard in what my father said was: 'She's great now! She's working for us! It's a perfect solution for our family.'"
But it was worse than that. She writes that on the first day of the conservatorship, her dad not only told her "I call the shots," but said, "I'm Britney Spears now."
In 2008, Britney won more than twenty awards for Blackout — "the album I made while I was supposedly so incapacitated that I had to be controlled by my family," she notes. And although the conservatorship began because of her alleged inability to do anything, Britney was booked for How I Met Your Mother within the first few weeks.
Britney never saw some of her close friends again. "If you're asking why I went along with it," she writes, "there's one very good reason. I did it for my kids. Because if I played by the rules, I was reunited with my boys."
Meanwhile, her family was able to travel to destinations paid for by Britney and — if you follow the singer on Instagram, you know this is a big deal — get coffee with each other.
Britney was not allowed to drive, drink coffee, eat dessert, be with friends, make her own schedule...and the list goes on.
History has seen its fair share of awful fathers, and Jamie Spears is the latest addition to the ranks of execrable patriarchs...if not the Devil himself.
Like most victims of trauma, Britney attempts to make sense of his Jamie's actions; she acknowledges that his father, June, had abused him and was an alcoholic. The generational throughline is made even clearer when she notes that June had forced Jamie's mother, Jean (also Britney's middle name), into an asylum after she suffered depression when their infant son died. There, Jean was put on Lithium, the same drug that was forced on Britney sixty years later. Eight years after her baby's death, Jean shot herself on his grave.
Jamie was also an alcoholic, which exacerbated both money struggles and mood swings. Britney says he was abusive to her mom, brother and sister. "I was particularly scared to get in the car with my dad because he would talk to himself while he was driving. I couldn't understand the words he was saying. He seemed to be in his own world," she writes of her childhood. "I knew even then that my father had reasons for wanting to lose himself in drinking. ... At the time, though, I had no idea why he was so hard on us, why nothing we did seemed to be quite good enough for him. The saddest part to me was that what I always wanted was a dad who would love me as I was."
While her father would later stress that the conservatorship was necessary because she didn't have the mental capacity to look after herself, Britney's work supported the salaries of hundreds of people, including Jamie, who became a multimillionaire in the process.
This may seem obvious, but it's easy to forget that in the wake of '90s grunge, the pop stars of the early ’00s were seen as phony corporate inventions rather than artists. But for Britney, "singing was spiritual," she writes.
"When I sing, I own who I am. I can communicate purely. ... You're able to say things that are much more profound. Singing takes me to a mystical place where language doesn't matter anymore, where anything is possible."
But the media paid more attention to her body than her singing, and, at the beginning of her career, would even report on the status of her virginity. "It's nobody's business at all. And it took the focus off me as a musician and performer," Britney writes. "I worked so hard on my music and on my stage shows. But all some reporters could think of to ask me was whether or not my breasts were real (they were, actually!) and whether or not my hymen was intact."
Like many artists, Britney identifies as "almost disturbingly empathic," she writes. "I feel like my emotions are always syncing up with those around me."
Anyone who is an artist also knows that the act of creating is a means of fully embracing life. This makes it even sadder that, under the conservatorship, Britney was unable to make song or choreography changes to her Las Vegas residency act — keeping her stagnant for four years. "I had always felt music in my bones and my blood; they stole that from me," she writes.
During that time, she was also only allowed to travel beyond her workplace and home twice, to explore the city.
When Britney was finally freed from the conservatorship, Elton John invited her to collaborate on "Hold Me Closer," a remix of "Tiny Dancer," a song she'd listened to on rides to dance class as a girl. The song, released in August 2022, became her first number-one single in ten years, as well as her longest-charting ever. "And on my own terms," she writes, "fully in control."
Britney may not be focused on her music career today, but she hasn't given up on her art. "I keep getting asked if I'm going to put on shows again. I confess that I'm struggling with that question," she writes. "I'm enjoying dancing and singing the way I used to when I was younger and not trying to do it for my family's benefit, not trying to get something, but doing it for me and for my genuine love of it."
And while she writes that she was most angry that the conservatorship took her faith, her art has returned that to her, too.
"I do it for myself now," Britney concludes. "I feel God more when I'm alone."