The Haunting of Britney Spears

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So far, as Britney Spears tells it, she has only managed to forgive one estranged family member: June Spears Sr., her long dead grandfather, who looms over nearly every page of her memoir, The Woman in MeToward the book’s end, Spears writes, “I’ve had dreams in which June tells me he knows he hurt my father, who then hurt me. I felt his love and that he’d changed on the other side [of death]. I hope that one day I will be able to feel better about the rest of my family, too.”

June is not the only ghost haunting The Woman in Me, but he’s certainly the most frightening. A police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, June sired 10 children with three wives. Two of those wives, June committed to a mental hospital in nearby Mandeville against their will.

That’s hardly the extent of his violence. “One of my father’s half sisters has said that June sexually abused her starting when she was eleven, until she ran away at sixteen,” Spears writes, while hinting at more general physical abuse. Her grandfather was also a “sports fanatic,” who “made my father exercise long past the point of exhaustion,” something Spears would later encounter at her own father’s hand. To those who have followed Britney’s recent legal battles, and the twists and turns of her conservatorship, June’s bruising personality will sound all too familiar.

“Thinking back on the way my father was raised by June and the way I was brought up by him, I had known from the jump that it would be an actual nightmare to have him in charge.”

After 13 years under her father Jamie Spears’ legal control, Britney finally won her emancipation in November 2021. She has now been free for almost two years, and she is wielding The Woman in Me to wrest back control of her story — from her father, the tabloids, her exes, her extended family, various scandalized elders, random people on the internet; you name it. According to Spears, just about everyone has put in their two cents on Britney, except Britney.

The Woman in Me has plenty of scores to settle, though that’s not its chief concern. It also has more than a few tedious detours through old talent shows and industry auditions, as Spears fondly recounts what she wore and which songs she performed from the age of three onwards. But beyond the gossip and underneath the sequins is one of the most remarkable celebrity memoirs in recent memory.

Spears and her co-writers — she thanks them in the acknowledgments as “my collaborators (you know who you are)” — fill Chapter One with generations of misfortune. “Tragedy runs in my family,” she says, and as The Woman in Me goes along, the tragedies of her ancestors echo throughout her life.

Around the age of three, Spears writes that her “favorite person” was her great-grandmother Lexie Pearce. “Obviously, she disliked her son-in-law June,” Spears writes, “but after her daughter Jean died, she stuck around and took care of my father and his siblings, and then her great-grandchildren, too.”

One day, with young Britney in the car, Lexie drove “into another car, then we got stuck in a hole.” With a sense of foreshadowing, Spears says that Lexie was declared “senile” and punished with the loss of her freedom. She wasn’t allowed to see her great-grandchildren again, including Britney. “It was a huge loss for me,” Spears  recalls. Whether Lexie herself would frame it this way, Spears presents it as mirroring how her own freedom was taken away and how she was forbidden from seeing her children.

Lily was another woman to find herself trapped in that poisoned family tree. Spears’ maternal grandmother was born in London, but fell in love with an American soldier during World War II. Lily moved to America with Spears’ maternal grandfather, Barney, on what she thought was a grand adventure. She had imagined an America that was similar to London, and did not reckon on a dairy farm.

On the journey from New Orleans, Spears writes, Lily “looked out the window of Barney’s car and was troubled by how empty his world seemed. ‘Where are all the lights?’ she kept asking her new husband. I sometimes think about Lily riding through the Louisiana countryside, looking out into the night, realizing that her large, vibrant, music-filled life… was about to become small and hard.”

According to Spears, Lily was never allowed to visit her family back home; her grandfather “didn’t want to let Lily go back to London because he thought that if she went, she wouldn’t come home.” In her pop career, Spears embarked on her own version of Lily’s grand adventure, only to find it was not what she had bargained for. In Lily, Spears sees another “vibrant” woman imprisoned by controlling men.

But of her ancestors, the woman Spears relates the most to is Jean, her paternal grandmother, June’s wife. “I understand why everyone said we look alike,” Spears writes. “Same blond hair. Same smile.”

June was abusive to Jean in more ways than one:

Jean suffered the loss of a baby when he was only three days old. June sent Jean to southeast Louisiana Hospital, a by-all-accounts horrible asylum in Mandeville, where she was put on lithium. In 1966, when she was 31, my grandmother Jean shot herself with a shotgun on her infant son’s grave, just over eight years after his death.

Over 40 years later, Spears would be hospitalized against her will; another historical echo:

“For years I’d been on Prozac, but in the hospital they took me abruptly off it and put me on lithium… I felt my concept of time morph, and I grew disoriented. On lithium, I didn’t know where I was or even who I was sometimes. My brain wasn’t working the way it used to. It wasn’t lost on me that lithium was the drug my grandmother Jean, who later committed suicide, had been put on in Mandeville.”

She ponders these similarities, wondering how, unlike Jean, she “had managed not to kill myself?”

Though by then, the #FreeBritney movement had captured national attention, and after five months of hospital hospitalized she was released. Later still, the conservatorship ended. She suggests it may be a while yet before she makes peace with her dad, Jamie, though she’s begun the process. Of his drinking, she says, “Now I see even more clearly that he was self-medicating after enduring years of abuse at the hands of his father, June.”

The Woman in Me stops short of drawing parallels between Britney and her dad, though the reader may still hear the occasional echo between words. For someone with several rehab stints under her belt, the superstar is oddly incurious about whether she herself self-medicated. She insists many times that she never had issues with alcohol, and though, “by 13 I was drinking with my mom and smoking [cigarettes] with my friends,” she stresses that the way she imbibes is totally different from her father’s addiction.

“When he drank, he grew more depressed and shut down,” she writes. “We became happier, more alive and adventurous.” Even if you’re not a psychiatric professional, you might arch an eyebrow when she says booze makes her “happier, more alive.”

Then there are the uppers. While Spears does admit to abusing Adderall for years, she never delves into her triggers, her doses, or how it made her feel. She’s even more cagey about certain over-the-counter “energy supplements,” framing her need to hide them from her conservators as a natural reaction to their unjustness and never unpacking why a court-appointed therapist would find them so alarming.

Perhaps she’s faced enough hard truths for now. Perhaps, too, she’ll reconnect with her mother and sister, with whom she was once so close, and with enough time and therapy she may even reconcile with her father. Or maybe not. As The Woman in Me makes clear, it’s much easier to forgive the dead.

The Haunting of Britney Spears
Wren Graves

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