When Britney Spears lost it in 2007, shaving her head and waving a baseball bat at anyone who approached her, I confess that my initial reaction was “get in! Now THAT’s what I call a protest!” A decade before the eruption of #metoo, there was a woman truly raging, in an industry that tends to reduce female anger to getting a bit feisty about your ex while wearing a push-up bra. The head shaving felt satisfyingly symbolic – see how swiftly the feminine mystique can be dispensed with! I loved her for that. It reminded me of Donita Sparks throwing her sanitary protection into an unappreciative Reading crowd, uttering the immortal line “eat my used tampon, fuckers!” Only that was L7, so you kind of expected it. This, though, was Britney!
After that I fully expected Spears to re-emerge, Alanis Morrisette-like, with a ton of songs dissing everyone in the music industry who’d ever exploited her. Instead, she shrank, with her father Jamie being assigned the role of her conservator, managing her wealth and personal decisions, in 2008. She grew her hair back, re-embraced the art of femininity and got back to business, gyrating and thrusting as before. Like many, I found it strange for her to be working so hard and so publicly if she was too ill to be in control of her own life. This week, after 12 years, Spears filed to have her father permanently removed from his role (though others may assume some control).
What gets me is the optics of the thing – the clipping of wings, the silencing of protest, the return to paternal authority. It’s like something out of Showalter’s The Female Malady, or one of those works of feminist fiction – Wide Sargasso Sea, The Yellow Wallpaper – in which a husband drives his wife insane by defining and treating her as such. It’s reminiscent of twentieth-century stories of fathers seeking to “manage” their socially embarrassing daughters by having them institutionalised or even lobotomised (the most famous example being John F Kennedy’s sister Rosemary). It’s a million stories, as Showalter documents, of psychiatric diagnoses being used as “punishment for intellectual ambition, domestic defiance, and sexual autonomy”. It looks like a woman being punished – and driven to the edge – for stepping out of line.
What I’m suggesting might sound anachronistic. Mental illness diagnoses may once have been weaponised, but there’s a general feeling that this died a death with deinstitutionalisation in the late twentieth century. We are clever now, psychiatry is clever, and when individuals have control of their own lives taken from them, it is only because they are truly ill. The trouble is, I bet that’s what fathers of lobotomised daughters and husbands of neurasthenic wives told themselves, too. How do you check the purity of your own motivations when judging the depths of another’s delusions?
However much outside observers speculate on Spears’ state of mind – she looked a bit weird in that video, her pupils are all funny, was that Instagram message a secret sign? etc. – you don’t have to decide she looks well to suspect there is something wrong in how she is being treated. Sick or healthy, it’s very hard to see how she might ever get out of it. There are few things that are harder to prove than sanity once you’re deemed to have fallen on the wrong side of it (see the Rosenhan experiment, which, for all its possible flaws, still rings true). And then there’s that feedback loop between treating someone as though they are “abnormal” and them behaving “abnormally”.
This process is captured beautifully in Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel reimagines the life of the first Mrs Rochester (aka Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre). In Rhys’s telling, Rochester is a weak, frightened man, unable to cope with the different culture of his Caribbean wife and easily swayed by rumours about her “insane” family background. Antoinette – Bertha’s name before he takes it from her – finds she cannot please him, resorting to increasingly desperate measures. One night she asks him if he hates her:
‘“I do not hate you, I am most distressed about you, I am distraught,” I said. But this was untrue, I was not distraught, it was the first time I had felt calm or self-possessed for many a long day.’
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, lines like this can hit you full in the gut, because they are so familiar. That moment when you know you’ve been outmanoeuvred by a man’s performance of sadness at your supposed insanity:
“We won’t talk about it now,” I said. “Rest tonight.”
“But we must talk about it.” Her voice was high and shrill.
“Only if you promise to be reasonable.”
You read it, and you want to scream in his face (only you’d end up in the attic, too). Reasonable, my arse.
I first read Wide Sargasso Sea as an A level set text in 1992. It was four years since I’d completed an eight-month stay in what was euphemistically called an adolescent unit. This was ostensibly for anorexia, but anything you did in that place could be construed as mad and usually was. I could write reams about that place – don’t worry, I’ll try not to – but one particularly delightful part of the daily routine was the handover, when night staff handed over to day staff, and vice versa. For reasons I will never grasp, this had to be done with everyone, patients and staff, gathered together in a room so that everyone could hear what was being reported about everyone else.
“Victoria spent a long part of Tuesday evening staring at the TV room curtains … On Wednesday afternoon, Victoria seemed very fixated on Madge in Neighbours … On Thursday morning, Victoria insisted on eating her cereal with a soup spoon despite an availability of dessert spoons … We are increasingly concerned about Victoria’s fixation on Madge and would like to alert staff in case this should extend to Scott and Charlene.”
This is literally how it would go. The curtain thing in particular has stuck in my mind (hey, maybe I am fixated?). I wanted to complain that I wasn’t staring at the curtains, only that would have constituted denial. In order to demonstrate a healthy grasp of reality, you had to accept that anything anyone else said about you was true.
It’s incredibly hard to convey what this does to you, knowing your every move is being over-analysed and noted down in order to be broadcast to everyone around you (a bit like being famous, I guess, which makes Spears’ situation all the more agonising). It makes you desperate to “act normal” but telling yourself to act normal is like telling yourself not to think of an elephant. It makes you do the opposite. It’s like Catch 22 (another cultural artefact I’ve neither seen nor read, but nonetheless have opinions about).
This is why Wide Sargasso Sea affected me so much and remains one of my favourite books. Antoinette made me think of me. And now she makes me think of Britney. And the worst of it is, it never goes away.
As Charlotte Perkins Gillman illustrates so terrifyingly in The Yellow Wallpaper, patriarchy doesn’t just tell women they’re mad, but can make them so. It deprives them of bodily autonomy, intellectual stimulation, community, a basic feeling of safety. I still have a “contract” I had to sign, aged 12, listing the privileges I had to “earn back” as part of my treatment for anorexia. I’m glad I still have it, otherwise I’d think I’d imagined denying girls books – books! – was still a thing in 1987. It becomes impossible to distinguish between symptoms of an illness and responses to its treatment. I am doubtful, for instance, as to whether I would have made meals last four hours had I been granted anything else to do other than stare at walls. Yet timing meals is something that stayed with me for years.
In Why Women Are Blamed For Everything, Dr Jessica Taylor draws parallels between the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder and those formerly used for hysteria:
“They are essentially the same diagnosis. They are both targeting women and girls. They are both built around gender role stereotypes. They both oppress traumatised and abused women. Where hysteria (or ‘wandering womb syndrome’) was said to be caused by women’s hormones and biology, BPD is said to be a disordered personality. Both are innate, internal causes which need to be medicated, treated and dealt with.”
I increasingly see the mention of BPD in reports on anorexia and bulimia, with the implication that this makes sufferers less manageable during treatment. It makes me feel little progress has been made in recognising trauma. As Judith Herman writes, trauma survivors “often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory and fragmented manner which undermines their credibility”. They don’t sell themselves well. They starve, binge, shave their heads, wave baseball bats. Meanwhile, self-styled guardians, calm as Rochester, maintain “[their] prerogative to name and define reality”. They get their conservatorships.
By the time I was aged thirty, I had a PhD and a full-time job, had been with my partner for five years and was thinking of starting a family. This didn’t stop a male family member from turning up unannounced at my partner’s place of work to berate him about how unstable I “really” was, even though I was “good at hiding it”. I had tried to persuade him not to, but that had been construed as me not being in touch with reality. This impasse was only resolved months later, at which point it was agreed that I wasn’t particularly ill, but that this meant I’d been making people think I was ill, which was in itself a mad thing to do. I’ve never really challenged this. There reaches a point where you have to go along with other people’s narratives – “yeah, soz for pretending to be mad, don’t know what got into me” – because you can’t be arsed to bring any more accusations your way by protesting. You try to speak and hear every word going through the “madness” filter before it reaches anyone else (“her voice was high and shrill”, as Rochester puts it. Isn’t it always? That’s how people talk when they’re scared).
So what can you do? Say what they want you to say. Grow your hair. Do your dance. The whole thing is profoundly patriarchal, when you think about it. Therefore you try not to think about it too much, otherwise you’d prove them right by genuinely losing your mind.