“The Woman in Me” reveals plenty about her life in the spotlight, and tempers well-earned bitterness with an enduring, insistent optimism.
It’s either a coincidence or a tribute that Britney Spears’s new memoir, “The Woman in Me,” shares its title with one of Shania Twain’s best-selling albums; she is a Southern girl, after all, and Twain helped write one of her early hits, “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know.” “Woman” offers a familiar story of troubled, vertiginous stardom, written in platinum and flashbulbs. But here it has the cadences and stagecraft of a country song: striving, plucky, littered with almost operatic betrayals and misfortune. It’s also a tale of qualified triumph, albeit with its own star-crossed postscript. (The book, which The New York Times obtained in advance of its authorized release, was not edited in time to include her pending divorce from her third husband, Sam Asghari.)
The phrase “speak your truth” has long passed into eye-rolling cliché, the stuff of self-regarding TikTok confessionals and aspirational Etsy merch. Spears, though, has genuine cause to use it: She is still emerging, famously, from a black hole whose conditions, revealed in recent court hearings, seem outrageous and frankly absurd in the 21st century. For 13 years under a strict conservatorship overseen by her father, Jamie Spears, she could not see her two sons without approval or choose her own meals; she was forbidden to drive a car or drink coffee or remove her IUD. Perhaps most egregiously, she was forced to maintain a rigorous performance schedule — including two Las Vegas residencies that generated tens of millions of dollars, from which she was allowed to access a maximum of $2,000 per week. (Her father and some of his associates, unsurprisingly, drew much higher salaries.)
Most fans and even casual followers of the news know the often-infuriating details of those events by now, or can find them readily available online. They also probably know the broad strokes of Spears’s upbringing in rural Kentwood, La., where she cultivated an early love for singing and dancing that led her, at age 11, to become a regular cast member on the 1990s revival of “The Mickey Mouse Club” alongside a stable of future stars that included Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling. What Spears fills in, in prose that is chatty and confiding and occasionally salty, is the ongoing thrum of family dysfunction and fear — her father was an alcoholic who struggled financially, and her mother, Lynne Spears, often raged over his drinking and habitual disappearances — that drove her to seek refuge in performing.
Confoundingly, Spears reveals that Lynne began supplying her with alcohol at age 13, sharing daiquiris they called “toddies” on road trips to the beach in Biloxi, Miss.; by ninth grade, she had become a regular smoker and lost her virginity. There are other revelations of the kind that send gossip-site algorithms into overdrive: most notably her relationship with Timberlake, with whom she was “pathetically” in love, and the abortion he more or less demanded she get when she became pregnant, even while the fact that they were sexually active was still being assiduously withheld from the press. The book also details a brief entanglement with the actor Colin Farrell, which she fondly portrays as a two-week brawl (“we were all over each other, grappling so passionately it was like we were in a street fight”) and her affinity for Adderall.
There are several overt villains here, a fraught landscape of abusers and opportunists in which Jamie Spears — who could be elusive, erratic and frequently cruel about her weight and her requests for small privileges, like reworking a dance move she felt was unsafe — looms large. A scene where he informs her of his legal takeover of her professional and personal life by saying “I’m Britney Spears now” is chilling. The singer is kinder to Timberlake, but he too emerges as a sort of casual scoundrel — breaking up with her via text message, then breezily recasting her as a cheating vamp and a narrative foil for his breakout solo debut, 2002’s “Justified.”
Anecdotes of invasive, oblivious media, too, are predictably noxious: Ed McMahon on “Star Search,” joking with a 10-year-old Britney about his fitness as a boyfriend; Diane Sawyer berating her in an on-air interview post-Timberlake breakup: “You did something that caused him so much pain. So much suffering. What did you do?” She is asked about her breasts and her diet by more talk show hosts than she can count.
And of course, Spears is continuously assailed for her music, the candied pop monoliths that placed her at the Hot 100 pinnacle of turn-of-the-millennium mass culture. “I was never quite sure what all these critics thought I was supposed to be doing — a Bob Dylan impression?” she writes with palpable frustration. “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?”
Throughout the book, Spears repeatedly portrays her relationship to creativity as a kind of pure soul connection, a private communion with godliness independent of outside forces and opinion. Details on the actual salient process of music-making, though, are scant: a little nugget early on about listening to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” the night before recording “…Baby One More Time”; high praise for the kindness of collaborators like Elton John and the Swedish producer Max Martin.
The mostly linear narrative in “The Woman In Me” tends to treat these moments and many other well-documented highlights of her career as passing or ancillary, a distant cacophony muffled by the much louder noise of her personal struggles. Still, the facts of it are presented so cleanly and candidly that “Woman” seems designed to be read in one sitting. It’s nearly impossible to come out of it without empathy for and real outrage on behalf of Spears, whose admitted bitterness over the dire circumstances of the last decade-plus of her life — she no longer speaks to her family, and says she has no immediate plans to return to recording — is tempered by an enduring, insistent optimism.
She has some reason to expect better outcomes this time. The last several years have seen a sort of collective reckoning with offenses of the recent past — an acknowledgment of the almost gladiator-like glee with which celebrities, particularly female ones, were ritually dismantled and assailed for the size of their thighs or the messy details of their love lives. Some stars, like Sinead O’Connor and Janet Jackson, saw their entire careers derailed by a single notorious moment, and never quite recovered in the public eye. (That Timberlake had a heavy hand in the latter’s downfall as well feels like an unfortunate symmetry.) Today, fat jokes have been carefully excised from the repertoires of most late-night hosts and tabloids, and mental health is generally treated as an open-source conversation, not a punchline.
As freely confessional and often furious as it is, “The Woman in Me” isn’t quite the blazing feminist manifesto that some witnesses to history may have wanted Spears to write, nor the kind of granular, completist portrait-of-an-artist autobiography that others have dutifully supplied in the past. It could be argued, though, that she never stopped telling us who she was — in loopy hand-held videos on Instagram and, naturally, in her vast catalog of songs, with their lyrics about loneliness and emancipation, desire and defiance. It’s only pop, after all, and Britney did more than most to make it bigger and shinier and more bedazzling — a blond supernova dancing at the edge of what feels a lot, from this vantage point, like the last gasp of monoculture. Now maybe we can let her live.