The Britney Spears memoir, a feverishly anticipated and by all accounts final rebuke to the decades of rumours that have surrounded the star, is rarely fun. It’s bleak, relentless and angry, a portrait of a woman no longer in the eye of the storm but surveying, dazed and indignant, the wreckage left in its wake.
Reportedly ghostwritten by an unbilled journalist named Sam Lansky, The Woman in Me doesn’t linger on Spears’s globe-conquering stardom, nor the conveyor belt of pop hits she has to her name, nor that multiple generations of people who can probably point to the exact moment they first saw her on TV and gasped at the sight of an instant icon. Instead, it opens with a family suicide (of Spears’s grandmother) and only gets more dispiriting from there.
There are moments of glitz and glamour; Madonna and Donatella Versace swan in to briefly act as celebrity fairy godmothers, while rumours long baked into Britney lore are finally vindicated, from her belief that her sweaty, sozzled 2007 album Blackout is her magnum opus, to confirmation that her two-week fling with Colin Farrell was as sexually explosive as everyone imagined. For the most part, though, this is a scorched-earth kiss-off to an incredibly dysfunctional family, a book so breathtaking in its rage that you can practically see the spittle on its pages.
The Woman in Me – for which Spears apparently pocketed $15m (£12.2m) – was announced in February 2022, just three months after a Los Angeles judge terminated Spears’s conservatorship, a controversial legal arrangement that kept her under the control of her father Jamie for 13 years. It lends the book a sense of immediacy – Spears’s feelings about both the conservatorship and her family are raw and unfiltered, and there is little sense of reflection, or Spears being given time to process everything that has happened to her. Rather, it is a breathless purge – necessary, perhaps, but undeniably difficult to read.
Spears breezes past her early years in Kentwood, Louisiana, and then in showbiz. She is a Disney star on the variety show The Mickey Mouse Club by page 37, and has released her first single, the inescapable “…Baby One More Time”, by page 49. Somewhere in the middle she meets fellow Disney kid Justin Timberlake and loses her virginity at the age of 14 to one of her older brother’s friends. By 17, she is the biggest star in the world. The …Baby One More Time album goes 14x platinum, while its follow-up, 2000’s Oops!… I Did It Again, becomes the fastest-selling album by a female artist in history. She stars in movies, becomes the face of Pepsi, and is anointed “the princess of pop” following collaborations with the genre’s king and queen, Michael Jackson and Madonna.
Spears seems just as confused by her nascent public image as those of us sat idolising her at home. She is told by her management to publicly say she is a virgin, but is endlessly sexualised by the media, who ask “whether or not my breasts were real (they were, actually) and whether or not my hymen was intact”. She is chastised for being a poor role model for children, but no one informs her what she should be doing differently. “Why did everyone treat me like I was dangerous?” she asks.
She writes approvingly of Timberlake, despite her claims that he cheats on her constantly (“Photographers caught Justin with one of the girls from All Saints in a car,” she writes, in one of the few lines here that squeals with Y2K nostalgia). When they break up, her public image falters. She starts to burn out, abusing the prescription drug Adderall and tiring of the pop star churn. She meets back-up dancer Kevin Federline, has two children with him, and watches as he becomes “enthralled with fame and power”.
Things go sideways. Spears writes about having postpartum depression and being consumed by “a cloud of darkness”, shaving her head (“a way of saying to the world: f*** you”) and attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella (“a desperate move by a desperate person”). But instead of support, her family places her under a conservatorship and she loses custody of her children. She writes dejectedly of how she kept a bowl of her receipts in her office to keep track of her expenses for tax purposes – “even when I was going through a wild spell, the fundamentals of who I was as a person were still there”. When her father takes control of her life, he shoves the bowl off her desk and tells her, terrifyingly: “I’m Britney Spears now.”
Spears doesn’t hold back when it comes to her family. She calls her little sister Jamie Lynn a “total b****” with such force that it’s written in italics, while her mother Lynne is portrayed as a neglectful opportunist. In the throes of Spears’s 2007 mental health crisis, Lynne released a memoir. If one of her own sons were struggling, Spears writes, “the last thing I would do would be to cut my hair into a bob and put on a tasteful pantsuit and … make money off my child’s misfortune.”
Spears seems to remember little of her early fame; anecdotes are often half-told. What she remembers with heartbreaking specificity are smaller, familial slights: the paparazzi pictures of her mother and her brother’s girlfriend getting haircuts and drinking wine together shortly after she is first put under conservatorship; Jamie Lynn performing a remixed version of one of her hits at an awards show, after Spears herself had been barred from performing remixes. It reads like a death by a thousand cuts, a family unit milking their cash cow for all she’s worth, and treating her with a degree of thoughtlessness that borders on cruel.
Saddest of all, though, is how it all impacted her creativity, which burnt with such fire before being dulled by nefarious forces. “I was fearless at that point,” she writes of one of her earliest tours. “Filled with a rush and a drive”. Over the course of the conservatorship, she loses her love of performing, becomes anxious in public, and makes albums she doesn’t care about. “I used to trust people,” she writes. “But after the breakup with Justin and then my divorce, I never really did trust people again.”
The Woman in Me ends triumphantly, with Spears successfully fighting to end her conservatorship following months in which she was held against her will in a mental health facility. She talks of being “reborn” and “finding joy” once again. But these pages also feel sadly hollow, a climax for climax’s sake.
Since her book was written, Spears and her husband Sam Asghari – who she writes about lovingly, if not extensively – have separated, while she is reportedly estranged from her sons, 18-year-old Preston and 17-year-old Jayden. Understandably, that subject is not broached here. But those absences do drive home the tangle in which Spears remains, and the years it will take for her to not only come to terms with her past but to form the building blocks of her future.
If Spears’s memoir leaves readers with anything, though, it’s the knowledge that she deserves some kind of peace. Anyone who has followed Spears over the years – and, due to the sheer force of her cultural ubiquity, that’s probably all of us – will want the very best for her. There is nothing tidy about trauma and recovery, and I hope The Woman in Me has been cathartic for her. It’s certainly not the end of her pain, but it’d be nice if it’s the beginning of a new chapter.
‘The Woman in Me’ is available now, via Simon & Schuster