Think you know everything there is to know about Britney’s book, The Woman In Me, after everything you’ve read about it online? Think again.
Early this year I made a plan for tackling the release of Prince Harry’s book, Spare. I had it lined up in my Audible app, ready to listen (at 1.5x speed, so I could get through it as fast as possible), and then write up a piece titled: ‘I Read Prince Harry’s Book So You Don’t Have To’.
Instead, I got no more than 10 minutes in and realised how wrong I was. I still wrote the story, but instead I titled it ‘I Read Prince Harry’s Book So You Wouldn’t Have to… But Now I Really Think You Should’. His book is phenomenal and tragic, and so little that I have read about it does it justice. Whatever you’ve heard about that book, you really ought to read it for yourself.
Well you’d think I would have learned my lesson.
Instead, during all the hype about Britney Spears’ new tell-all, The Woman in Me, and the plethora of stories that it has already generated, I tried to make a pre-conceived plan as to how I could tackle it. Again I had the audio version loaded, and figured I’d do a running commentary of what it’s like listening to the book. I imagined it as a series of thoughts, almost as though I was live-tweeting an event: ‘Here’s Every Thought I Had While Listening to Britney’s Book’.
For the first few chapters, I scribble down some notes: ‘Is Britney not narrating this story?!? Booo’ ‘Oh, it’s Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain’s Michelle, not Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams that is)’ ‘Wow, Britney’s not holding back, starting out swinging by writing: “When I was growing up, my mother and father fought constantly. He was an alcoholic. I was usually scared.”’. ‘My Lord. What an utterly tragic upbringing her father had. When he was 13 his mother shot herself at the grave of her infant son. This passage made my heart hurt’. ‘She was working at nine?!’ ‘How ironic that her first kiss would be with Justin Timberlake (as kids, when they were on The Mickey Mouse Club in a game of spin the bottle) while a Janet Jackson song played’.
But fairly quickly, my scribbling slowed down. And by Chapter 12 I gave up writing notes entirely. I was too stunned. I was no longer multi-tasking while listening – I was sitting on my floor, with my mouth open in shock. I’d planned on getting an early night. Instead, I was sat there, glued to her story.
I’d read a few snippets about this chapter, revealing that Britney writes about having an abortion. It was Justin Timberlake’s baby, and while she’d always thought they’d have children together – just not this soon – he said he wasn’t ready to be a father. Another article stated that she talks about the abortion happening at home, rather than in the presence of a doctor or medical professional.
But none of those articles had prepared me for hearing that chapter.
The lead up to it tells a remarkably sad story about a young woman for whom two things are very much true: growing up she so desperately wanted to be seen (and loved, particularly by her parents), but, at the same time, she also wanted to completely disappear and hide from view. She talks of being known for her disappearing acts, where she’d hide away from everyone – part of her loved the thrill that people would have to come looking for her, but another part of her loved hiding because she wanted to disappear into the dark recesses of her hiding spots and stay there forever.
I can’t condense those 11 chapters telling the story of her childhood into a neat paragraph, that does her story justice. Honestly? I do think you should read it and feel that for yourself. Because then, when you go into chapter 12, you arrive there (if you have a heart), feeling for this little girl who so desperately wants to be shown unconditional love.
Instead, she got Justin fucking Timberlake.
Britney was beyond being in love with Justin. She was infatuated. She was living with him in a palatial home in Orlando, Florida, and her recollections painted a picture of a very, very happy time in her life. But again, two things were true: she was giddy in-love with Justin, but, she was also, sadly, aware that Justin wasn’t being faithful.
She writes about hearing from numerous sources about his infidelities, but, how she kept that heartache to herself. “Especially because I was so infatuated and so in love, I let it go, even though the tabloids seemed determined to rub my face in it,” she writes. “I let it go, but clearly he slept around, it was one of those things where you know, but you just don’t say anything.”
She admits that in the midst of that, she went out dancing with choreographer Wade Robson, and that during that night out they “made out”. She wasn’t proud of it, but she told Justin. “I was loyal to Justin for years, I only had eyes for him, with that one exception that one night, which I admitted to him,” she writes.
They chalked it up to being young and making mistakes and moved forward with their relationship – which is when Britney discovered she was pregnant. Again, she’d always thought she’d have Justin’s children, just not quite this early in life. Justin didn’t have the same approach.
“If he didn’t want to become a father, I didn’t feel I had much of a choice,” she writes. “I agreed not to have the baby.”
She ponders whether it was the right thing to do or not.
“If it had of been left up to me, alone, I never would have done it,” she writes.
Then – somehow – the story gets even worse.
“We also decided on something that in retrospect, wound up being, in my view, wrong,” she writes. “And that was I should not go to a doctor or to a hospital to have the abortion. It was important that no one find out about the pregnancy or the abortion, which meant doing everything at home. We didn’t even tell my family.”
The rest of the chapter is utterly traumatic – she details the extreme pain she was in, the fear she was feeling, and that amongst it all – whilst she was lying on the bathroom floor, clutching the toilet in pain – Justin never offered to call a doctor. Instead he got out his guitar to try to improve the situation by playing some acoustic music. He played the guitar while his girlfriend thought she might be dying.
It’s harrowing to read.
And – for not the first time since the book had began – I thought again, that it is really no wonder that Britney chose not to narrate her own story. I can’t imagine having to read aloud this trauma for the world to hear.
While the timeline isn’t too clear, it was shortly after the abortion that Justin broke up with her – by text message, no less. It was a move that left her completely in shock. She says she was in a trance, unable to speak, for months and that the grief was “suffocating”.
But while she still couldn’t speak, she somehow ended up singing and performing, finishing her tour. Her “team” had her staying busy – while what she clearly needed was some time out.
From there, her book captures her (perhaps inevitable) slow spiral downwards towards her very public breakdown. It charters the continual heartbreaks and betrayals that left her already wounded heart, shattered. The descriptions of the severe social anxiety she felt (which was hardly surprising when she tells how she was booed nearly everywhere she went after Justin released his album, Justified, and Britney was painted the villain of their young relationship).
And all the time, we know the worst is yet to come.
Yes, Justin behaved appallingly, and I’ll never get over the image of him strumming his guitar while his girlfriend writhed on the bathroom floor, thinking she was about to die from a home abortion that he was the driver of. But, while I hope he – and everyone who surrounded them at that time, and those who reported on Britney in such a misogynistic, grotesque fashion – gets more than a rap over the knuckles, I’m also conscious of the fact that Justin was young and stupid at the time. His youth certainly doesn’t forgive his actions. But, I’d argue that the greatest betrayals against Britney were those committed by her family – those who had an obligation to care for and protect her, who instead exploited Britney for their own financial gain when she was at her most vulnerable. And, who continued to do so for more than a decade later, keeping Britney a prisoner in a cell or her own personal hell.
But while The Woman in Me charters such harrowing waters, it is certainly not a torturous read. It’s full of girlish fun and delight. Yes, it’s a tale of intergenerational trauma, greed and betrayal, it’s also a tale of faith and finding your voice.
You may think you know everything about the book from what you’ve read online, but none of it compares to reading The Woman in Me – or hearing it yourself. It’s honestly well worth the read, or listen (personally, I’d recommend listening to the audio book because, my lord, Michelle Williams is brilliant and it’s worth it even just to hear her incredible impersonation of Justin Timberlake).
Britney has spent so long without having a voice, it’s a gift to bear witness to her story. Hers is a true cautionary tale – and one that I hope we’ll take heed of and reexamine the way we treat young women (and men!) and anyone who is thrust into the spotlight.