There’s a haunting statement in Britney Spears’ memoir The Woman in Me: “I’m Britney Spears now.”
The words aren’t an album title or a declaration of selfhood. This is what her father tells her when he has her put under conservatorship. James Spears was bankrupt and, Spears writes, an alcoholic. Still, in 2008, he got nearly total control of his daughter’s finances and her body. Spears would remain under his control for 13 years.
Behind Britney Spears’ story lies a painful history of women as chattel—erased by the men who have power over them, who are them in a legal sense. Her story reflects another painful history: How psychiatry sometimes helps men stay in control over women.
Conservatorships are meant to protect those who can’t manage life at a basic level: do the math to pay the bills, or feed and toilet themselves. A few weeks after her conservatorship began, Spears shot an episode of "How I Met Your Mother," and then embarked on a world tour. Not long before, she released a double-platinum album, "Blackout." She would soon do a Las Vegas residency so successful it rewrote the rules of Vegas entertainment.
One assumes choreography involves some counting.
Conservatorship of estate means control of finances. Spears’ father paid himself a small fortune while putting his superstar daughter on a relatively small allowance. The conservatorship of a person takes away bodily freedom. Spears wanted another child. Instead, she got an IUD and continuous monitoring of her weight.
In her memoir, Spears admits 2008 was a bad year. The singer famously shaved her head in a beauty salon. She refused to hand over her infant son Jayden after a brief visit. Spears also smacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella—one headline read “Meltdown.” When male celebrities like Alec Baldwin attack the paparazzi, the media presents the act as entertainment, not a breakdown.
In Spears’ 2008 words: “In the throes of severe postpartum depression [she had had two boys in about two years], abandonment by my husband, the torture of being separated from my two babies, the death of my adored Aunt Sandra, and the constant drumbeat of pressure from the paparazzi.”
These are life situations that would knock down anyone: grief, isolation, and the loss of children. Add the paparazzi who surround her house, follow her car, and hurl insults to get a response.
These are all facts Spears articulates in one powerful sentence. How did no one with medical experience hear this? Who was even listening?
Something jumped out at me in The Woman in Me, something that might not have been obvious to others. Characters, good and bad appear—family, agents, boyfriends. They have names and personalities. Doctors were ghosts, ghosts with power and prescription pads. "Doctor after doctor after doctor, probably twelve doctors a week.” These were obviously not doctors operating under normal patient-doctor circumstances. Who would sign off on such a conservatorship?
Doctors as individuals appeared rarely, briefly, and gave orders rather than listened. One accuses Spears of using over-the-counter energy supplements. James Spears quotes a psychologist as saying his daughter “failed” psychological tests. Yet another faceless doctor tells Spears, “We don’t think you’re doing well in rehearsals.” Who are we?
“The message I kept getting,” Spears writes in her memoir, “was that their minds mattered; my mind was to be ignored.”
Spears’ story is not unique. Medicine in general and psychiatry in particular have swung between helping women and helping control them. Psychologist Jessica Taylor, who wrote Sexy But Psycho: How the Patriarchy Uses Women’s Trauma Against Them, says in an interview, “In my own practice, I saw mental health and psychiatry being used against women and girls on a daily basis.”
Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America, wrote to me: “If a woman is in an abusive situation and is suffering from depression or anxiety, then a psychiatrist is likely to prescribe a pill for that condition. The ‘treatment’ locates the problem inside the woman, and not in the abusive relationship. That is an example of how psychiatry can serve as a tool for husbands and men to control women in their lives.”
Women are prescribed more antidepressants than males and are more likely to get multiple diagnoses. On paper, we appear weaker. Excessive treatment of women goes far back. Historically, women have received most of this country’s electroshock, most of its lobotomies.
The country’s most prolific lobotomist, Walter Freeman, hyped his services with before and after photos. The before is an angry woman, and the after is a woman with a frozen smile.
Phyllis Chesler interviewed psychiatrically diagnosed women for her pioneering 1972 book Women and Madness. Back then, she found women treated for unfeminine behavior, getting sent for electroshock by abusive husbands when they demanded better. Chesler says of her research, “Luckily no father, brother, or husband wanted to psychiatrically imprison me.”
Spears’ treatment at the hands of her father has a legacy. Her abusive grandfather, she writes, put two wives into mental hospitals. Spears’ grandmother Jean was given lithium, and on release she killed herself.
The absence of medical dialogue in The Woman in Me jumped out because I’ve lived it too. At one point in 2008, Spears was diagnosed as bipolar, the condition for which lithium is prescribed.
I am bipolar, have been hospitalized for it, and had terrible experiences. I, too, had life stuff—not biological brain stuff—going on that a quick conversation would have uncovered.
Spears’ 13-year conservatorship came to an end in 2021, with the help of a raucous "Free Britney" movement: signs, T-shirts, protests, and social media support. Spears writes that her doctors “noticed” the movement and finally began questioning her loss of freedom. Apparently, at its worst, medicine listens to tabloids rather than women.
Spears, Britney, The Woman in Me. Simon & Schuster, 2023.
Susanne Paola Antonetta. I’m bipolar. I know what it is to be Britney Spears. The Hill. July 30, 2021.
Aneesa Ahmed. ‘Out of my mind with grief’: Britney Spears details 2008 breakdown in memoir. The Guardian. October 19, 2023.
Taylor, Jessica, Sexy But Psycho: How the Patriarchy Uses Women's Trauma Against Them. Little Brown, 2022.