Almost two weeks ago, the world heard Britney Spears tell her story. A story of abuse, exploitation, gaslighting, emotional trauma, resilience, and power. She finally put her own voice to a narrative that did not belong to her. In her own words, she just wanted her life back. Over 20 minutes, with mind-blowing first-hand examples of the hardships she’s endured under a 13-year conservatorship controlled by her father, Britney stood up for Britney.
These days, we are more aware of the cost of silence. We understand experiences better. We are telling a variety of stories. And still marginalized voices are struggling to be heard. In Britney’s case, wealth, fame, and even whiteness could not shield her from the abuse she endured, and the control of a man, her own father. We now realize that listening and centering voices that are typically silenced is critical. The disability community has come out to fervently support Britney and point out that her case is an instrumental one in getting people to see how unjust and inhumane conservatorships can be. The mental health community has been clarifying diagnoses and emphasizing the power of sharing mental health struggles, and that those struggling can lead full, autonomous lives. As someone who suffers from depression, I’m used to the simultaneous push to destigmatize the illness coupled with the everyday barriers and difficulties caused by it. We are having different discussions now, but we are not there yet. Mental health experts are tying the history of institutionalizing and controlling women through reproductive decisions. Britney Spears is enduring this very cruelty today. Her example crosses so many intersections, and the fact remains that we need to listen to people tell their own stories.
I wanted to write a piece about Britney, but it turned into a piece about trauma. It’s trauma that captivates people’s attention. It’s been collective trauma that has pushed us through this pandemic – whether or not you think it’s over, everyone has noticed the grief surrounding us. It was trauma that characterized Britney’s well documented meltdown 13 years ago in front of the same media that is trying to apologize in this era of accountability. So it’s impossible to divorce trauma from Britney’s story, even before hearing it in her voice. After all, the #FreeBritney movement prepared us. The Framing Britney Spears documentary showed us. But to hear Britney Spears stand up for her right to live a normal life made so many people feel her pain. We all had to believe her. But what can we make of this?
This past Saturday, The New Yorker published a damning, detailed investigative report on the case, titled Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Nightmare, by Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino. It left almost no question unanswered and placed the blame squarely on Jamie Spears, the rest of her family, and what seems like a bloated, doggedly shameless team of lawyers and handlers. The same group we just heard Britney herself accuse of criminal activity through her conservatorship. The piece is both shocking and unsurprising, equal parts gut wrenching and infuriating.
The investigative report confirmed even the most bizarre #FreeBritney rumours, with people close to Britney describing a toxic and hostile Jamie Spears, seemingly motivated purely by money and control, along with Lynne, a mother who didn’t do much to stop it. It was critical for the those who had seized power from Britney to discredit the accusations of the #FreeBritney movement, further undermining Britney’s overall autonomy.
Trauma and storytelling often go hand in hand in the journey toward self-liberation and healing. Mental health professionals talk about managing trauma responses and helping clients grapple with the emotions of what they experienced through telling their truth. We now have access to information from medical professionals and trauma survivors. I know firsthand how much of a relief it can be to simply be told my feelings are valid when recounting trauma to a mental health professional. I also understand how damaging and dangerous invalidation can be. Trauma can affect the nervous system, decision- making, interpersonal relationships, self -esteem and more.
“I’m traumatized. I’m not happy, I can’t sleep, I’m so angry, It’s insane.”
Despite well documented information for years around the severity of the conservatorship, nothing was more impactful than Britney Spears telling her own story. Many people in the #FreeBritney movement were not surprised by what she said, but were uniform in how shocking the depths of control were and how unhappy Britney is as a result of it.
Samantha Stark, the director of the Framing Britney Spears documentary, told Entertainment Weekly, “I've spent, now, a year kind of breathing Britney Spears without ever meeting her or knowing her. Hearing her actually speak and say all this felt so powerful, because now we can't deny what came out of her mouth or how she feels. And it's been a year of struggling with wondering how she feels.”
“It’s embarrassing and demoralising what I’ve been through. I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I’m not lying. I just want my life back.”
Jamie Spears being Britney’s father is one of the main reasons people were able to look away, downplay, or outright disbelieve Britney was being mistreated while under the conservatorship. Despite well documented information and common knowledge of how toxic family dynamics can actually be, some people still believe the outdated notion that the family is a place of protection, peace, and good intentions. People that are fortunate enough to be raised in a healthy home can attest to that, but placing that stereotype on everyone can be really dangerous. And more horrifyingly in Britney’s case, Jamie Spears has a documented history of abuse in the very household Britney grew up in. In her book, Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World, Lynne Spears, Britney’s mother wrote about Jamie’s alcoholism, verbal abuse, and abandonment.
The New Yorker piece dispels any notion that Britney Spears has a family that is equipped to protect her best interests. What they have done is show the world that money and control are central, and Britney’s wishes are not. It even confirms suspicions that the #FreeBritney movement had around her Instagram, or rather their decoding of it. Members of her team confirmed to The New Yorker that while the posts are written by Britney, they must be approved by her team, and she is not supposed to directly critique the conservatorship.
“Not only did my family not do a goddamn thing, my dad was all for it.”
Britney fans have been harshly critiquing Britney’s younger sister, Jamie Lynn, for her complicity and silence, even accusing her of benefiting from Britney’s suffering under the conservatorship, with receipts. She ended up making a video on her Instagram stories that did not help her case as a loving sister, both distancing and centering herself saying, in part, “I think it’s extremely clear since the day I was born I’ve only loved, adored, and supported my sister… I have nothing to gain or lose... This situation does not affect me” but then takes credit for suggesting Britney be able to choose her own lawyer.
This doesn’t sound like clear, unequivocal support. And why would we believe anything Britney’s family is saying when we just heard her say her family did nothing?
Kevin Federline is trying to make it seem like he’s on Britney’s side, given his outspokenness about how terrible Britney’s father has been, and the way he protected his and Britney’s son Sean Preston when Jamie physically attacked him, leading to a restraining order in 2019. In response to Britney’s conservatorship hearing, Kevin’s lawyer, Mark Vincent Kaplan told Entertainment Tonight:
“He wants her to be a happy person because that would make her a happy mother and obviously I think one of the takeaways we could all [hear] from her comments is that she is under a tremendous amount of pressure. And people under pressure sometimes don't make the same decisions that they would if they were completely left to their own free will. If she is able to handle herself in a way that does not jeopardize herself or her children should they be in her custody, Kevin is very comfortable with the conservatorship being dissolved.”
This statement seems to imply that Kevin is supportive, and is meant to drive home that Kevin’s wish is for Britney to be happy and healthy, yet he is reserving the right to request an evaluation before her conservatorship ends. But we heard Britney herself talk about how invasive and ridiculous these evaluations can be, and the uncomfortable situations she’s been put in by therapists and lawyers through the process. Also, Kevin and his lawyers have worked with Britney’s team throughout the years to control many aspects of the conservatorship, and the New Yorker piece reveals those details too. It was a clash with Kevin’s security team picking up her young sons in January 2008 after a supervised visit that triggered a 72-hour mental evaluation that stripped Britney of her (already limited at that time) visitation rights. Britney was confronted by legal authorities and strapped to a gurney. Her infamous ex-manager Sam Lufti describes the incident to the New Yorker as traumatizing and overblown, and we all remember the invasive paparazzi pictures. Other people who were in Britney’s camp at the time tell Farrow and Tolentino that she never put her children in danger, and missed them tremendously. The trauma she has endured dealing with the custody issues alone would break most people.
So to see Kevin speak through his lawyer in vague generalities about Britney’s happiness is not comforting, but we will have to wait and see how his role in her freedom develops as this continues to unfold.
“I want to have the real deal. I want to be able to get married and have a baby”
One of the most painful parts of Britney’s words on June 23rd concerned her being prevented from removing her IUD against her will under the conservatorship. Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have heard about Jamie controlling Britney’s reproductive choices, but the confirmation from Britney herself was jarring. I remember thinking the most perverse part of the conservatorship was around this issue, not the money, but both implicate the unearned and horrific ways Jamie has yielded his power for them to work in tandem. Without the money, he would not have control. There have been pervasive rumours for years that Jamie has interfered at least once but perhaps twice in Britney’s decision to have more children. That he can have input on how his daughter can make her family is unacceptable and cruel.
“But I just feel like you do something wrong, and you learn from it, you move on. But it’s, like, I’m having to pay for it for a really long time.” – Britney: For the Record Documentary, MTV
It is clear that this conservatorship is rife with problems, and has impeded Britney’s life in a negative way. Some still argue that without it, she would be lost, and that it’s irresponsible to make assumptions without knowing the specific details of her mental health diagnosis (TMZ and others have claimed she is bipolar, but this has yet to be confirmed and those records are sealed). Nevertheless, it’s disturbing that there would be any extra onus on Britney to disclose more at this point. Because this case is embroiled in so much legal red tape, it’s difficult to predict an outcome. And so much of it comes down to the rules of conservatorships generally - so what about trauma?
What is clear is that Britney has been in pain for over a decade, and was not only often not given the tools to improve, but put under circumstances that would jeopardize anyone’s health. Britney confirmed just how strict the conservatorship has remained, and how she is unable to make both simple and complex decisions on her own, and she highlighted her wish to be able to choose her own lawyers. This has been something she has been fighting for the whole time, that Jamie and her team have prevented, so it’s clear the stakes behind this decision are high and there is more of a chance that her agenda will be pursued if she can dictate her legal counsel. On this, Jonathan Martinis, senior director for Law and Policy at a Center on Disability and Inclusion at Syracuse University, told The New Yorker about the consequences of preventing people under a guardianship from getting their own legal counsel: “The rights at stake in guardianship are analogous to the rights at stake in criminal cases. Britney could have been found holding an axe and a severed head, saying ‘I did it,’ and she still would’ve had the right to an attorney. So, under guardianship, you don’t have the same rights as an axe murderer.”
Yesterday Britney’s longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, resigned from his position. In a letter to the conservatorship obtained by Deadline, Larry wrote that he hasn’t had contact with Britney in two and a half years and is stepping aside because he was recently made aware that she wants to officially retire. She’s done enough for these people, and it’s time for her to have the life that she chooses.
Like Lainey said, Britney made pop culture history when she stood up for herself on June 23rd. She has now opened up about deeply private violations from her own father in her personal and professional life. It shouldn’t have had to come to this. It shouldn’t have had to come to her making a 911 call to report conservatorship abuse the day before the hearing. One of the most famous women in the world is reminding us to listen to survivors directly, and push back against the silencing of any person brave enough to tell their story.