“Ma’am, I’m not here to be anyone’s slave.” — Britney Spears to LA County Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny
After 13 years, Britney Spears has exposed the gaslighting she’s endured at the hands of a cabal of lawyers, therapists and family members who have created careers and income off her psychiatric subjugation. She did it in open court in a rambling, almost stream-of-consciousness statement that left very few stones unturned. And each stone that was turned over revealed a small, skittish creature under it, running from the light — her dad, her mom, her lawyer, her therapists. Britney’s predicament seemed hard to believe. And yet, there it is, in plain sight, right in front of us.
“So basically this conservatorship is doing me way more harm than good,” Britney said in her closing statement. “I — I deserve to have a life. I’ve worked my whole life. I deserve to have a two- to three-year break and just, you know, do what I want to do. But . . . I hear all these no’s. No, no, no. And then all of a sudden I get — I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone. And I’m tired of feeling alone. I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does by having a child, a family, any of those things. And more so. And that’s all I wanted to say to you. And thank you so much for letting me speak to you today.”
Is Britney crazy? Maybe a little. “I actually know I do need a little therapy,” she told the judge in a moment of understated humor. But does she need to endure forced rehab, forced IUDs, forced separation from friends, or forced lithium? There’s something else going on here.
That something else, of course, is money and control. Britney’s net worth is somewhere between $40 million and $60 million, which is quite low compared to pop star standards. Taylor Swift’s net worth is about $350 million, Beyoncé’s is about $450 million and Rihanna, for God’s sake, has a net worth of almost $600 million (she must have a terrific agent). Even Jessica “Tuna of the Sea” Simpson has a higher net worth than Britney. Still, $50 million can go a long way. Britney’s lawyer, who apparently failed to inform her that she had the right to petition for an end to the conservatorship, has been paid more than $3 million over the course of their relationship. So, yeah, if you’re wondering what the Britney thing is all about, remember what Deep Throat told Woodward: “Follow the money.”
But Britney’s predicament made me think of two darker, deeper forces at work.
The first was the classic Oscar-winning movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Jack Nicholson famously plays a charming, benevolent outlaw, Randle McMurphy, who thinks he’s outwitted the man by faking crazy and opting for a psychiatric hospital instead of jail. Too late, McMurphy realizes he’s not getting out. The more he protests his predicament, and declares his sanity, the more insane he appears. Nurse Ratched gaslights him with a cool and deeply cruel pleasure. Even someone as energetic and ingenious as McMurphy can’t escape his context, i.e. if you’re in an insane asylum, you must be insane. The result is predictably catastrophic.
Our poor Britney found herself in a similar context. If the court has ordered a conservatorship that has generated a web of lawyers and therapists all focused on her “well-being,” Britney must be damaged. Even an innocuous 20-something display like shaving her head was gaslighted into “proof” of her mental instability.
The second thought that came to mind was the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which psychologist Philip Zimbardo recruited students to role-play guards and inmates in a fictitious prison. They took to their roles like Britney takes to performing. Within 48 hours, the guards were abusing the inmates psychologically and otherwise, while some of the inmates slid into subservience. The experiment was deeply flawed (Zimbardo did some coaching of the participants, as it turned out), but it revealed a truth about human behavior. Given the right context, we might find ourselves doing things to our fellow humans we never imagined we could do.
The Stanford experiment’s parallels with Britney are obvious. If otherwise well-intentioned people are placed in a context like a conservatorship, they begin to act in ways that comport with the context. As those behaviors are rewarded with money and control, they are compounded. I’m sure that for long periods of time, even Britney thought she deserved her situation, such is the power of context. And, to be sure, the media and the public played supporting roles in the subjugation of Britney, reacting with shock or dismay when we saw the paparazzi pictures, or laughing it off as crazy celebrity behavior — not the behavior of someone in captivity.
I’ve been surprised by how much the Britney saga has affected me this week. I’ve never been a fan of her music; she was just there all the time, a constant presence. I think it was the humanity of the situation that claimed my attention — the notion that this 39-year-old woman stood up in open court and poured her heart out. And in doing so, made us all aware of our complicity. The takeaway is obvious — context is important, but it’s not the only determinant of truth. And everybody, even celebrities, has a right to dignity and self-determination.
So #FreeBritney for crying out loud!