Britney Spears shows how much a woman can bend before she breaks

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While on a road trip in Arizona, a 22-year-old Britney Spears felt aliens, God, or something overcome her.

Britney Spears’ memoir is one of the biggest releases of the year.

Describing the moment in her new memoir, The Woman in Me, Spears says she was driving through the night with a girlfriend, feeling “so spiritually open and raw” off the back of her breakup with Justin Timberlake when the “otherworldly” feeling swept through her – but she was embarrassed to tell her friend about it.

“There have been so many times when I was scared to speak up because I was afraid somebody would think I was crazy,” she writes. “But I’ve learned that lesson now, the hard way … You have to tell your story. You have to raise your voice.”

For 13 years, Spears was restricted from doing just that, as she lived under the restrictive conservatorship led by her father, Jamie Spears. The arrangement, she writes, put him in charge of her finances, controlled how she lived and worked, forced her into treatment facilities, and used her two children as a bargaining chip to convince her to play along.

When the world heard Spears recount these details in court testimony in 2021, she sounded direct and clear-eyed. The same tone weaves through her book (actor Michelle Williams narrates the audiobook version). Even as it dips into the naive, childlike voice she’s always been predisposed to, it’s clarified and sure.

At just 275 pages, The Woman in Me moves at breakneck speed, with short chapters and taut sentences that don’t so much re-tell her life story – that’s been done plenty of times in the 25 years since she first became a pop culture juggernaut – but rather offer her version of events.

In the first 100 pages, she’s already summarised her upbringing and early traumas (namely her paternal grandfather’s abuse of her father, her grandmother’s institutionalisation and suicide, her father’s alcoholism, and watching her mother bleed out on the floor after giving birth). She’s described her years as a child star, her breakout single and album, the relationship and breakup with Justin Timberlake.

She became the biggest and then the most criticised celebrity on earth, dated Colin Farrell and kissed Madonna on stage at the VMAs.

“Before the video came out, not a lot of people knew what I looked like,” she wrote of the time preceding the release of …Baby One More Time.

Three sentences later, she couldn’t leave the house without being recognised. There’s a lot to cover and she doesn’t have time to catch her breath.

Often, Spears moves so quickly past moments that the book leaves just an outline, abandoning conclusions for the reader to draw. She describes a tour set piece: “Every night onstage, I battled a mirror version of myself, which felt like it was probably a metaphor for something.” Probably! At another point, her tour van is held up by “a bunch of guys holding the biggest guns I’d ever seen” while travelling to play shows Mexico City.

Then moves along. Alone at night, during the “darkest chapter of [her] life” – the early days of the conservatorship – she describes reaching out to “transporting music, movies, books–anything to help blot out the horror of this arrangement”, but names none.

She describes, acutely, the way trauma manifests, through generations and over time. A million tiny pricks eventually create an irreparable tear. Digging into those moments of pain and finding specifics for a greedy audience might have been, understandably, too much to bear.

At other times Spears’s detail is striking and unnerving, such as when she recounts the at-home abortion which she says she got at the urging of then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake. Agonised and writhing on her bathroom floor, Spears sobbed. To comfort her, Justin fetched a guitar. “I do, twenty years later, remember the pain of it, and the fear.”

Spears’ experiences are one-of-a-kind, but throughout the book, she frequently zooms out from the specifics of her life to draw parallels to the treatment of women throughout history. “There’s always been more leeway in Hollywood for men than for women,” she writes as Timberlake painted himself as the victim of their breakup in his solo album and press tour. Elsewhere, she compares the regular screenings from doctors to the Salem witch trials.

Often, Spears moves so quickly past moments that the book leaves just an outline, abandoningconclusions for the reader to draw.Credit: Invision

The meme-able double denim gets a mention, and we hear Spears’ side of the moments that have been compiled and re-evaluated in recent years, as documentaries such as the New York TimesFraming Britney Spears encouraged the world to think about the way our culture set her up, only to destroy her.

There’s Ed McMahon asking her if he could be her boyfriend when she was 10 years old, MTV hosts demanding she repent for dancing in a bikini at their awards show and Diane Sawyer insisting Timberlake was a victim of hers in their breakup.

“I was never quite sure what all these critics thought I was supposed to be doing,” she writes. “… I was a teenage girl from the South. I signed my name with a heart. I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?”

The book’s title comes from the lyrics of Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, and is a remarkable capsule of the contradictions that build a human – something that Spears, who was a product and a symbol before she was old enough to vote – was never allowed to be. For years the world and Spears were told she was unfit, unwell, and unsafe. The voice that spills out of The Woman in Me is anything but.

This is a book of how much a woman can bend – and be bent – before she breaks. But it’s also a testament to how she repairs herself, and heads towards survival, to whatever version of normalcy is possible for her, and to freedom.

Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me is published by Simon & Schuster at $49.99.

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