The first autobiography in the English language was written by a woman. Margery Kempe who lived from 1376-1438 in Kings Lynn, England and was famed as a mystic. At a time when literacy was unusual it is uncertain if Kempe had an education or could read. She had however learned some texts by heart, and probably had scribes write her life down as she dictated it.
What is even more surprising for a female mystic of the time is that she was not in holy orders. Like many of the women of the time she was married and trod the perilous and life threatening path of motherhood. After the birth of her first child she went through a period which many interpret as Post Partum Psychosis. PPP is a condition is a serious medical condition, and is treated as a medical emergency. It can include hallucination’s and delusions, mania and depression. It is important the specialist’s treat the condition. For Kempe though there was no pshychiatric mother and baby unit, and her PPP appears to have lasted for the best part of a year. Something that would be bound to take it’s toll on anyone.
Kempe continues to have visions, of a religious nature, which includes conversations with Jesus, and attending the cruxafiction and nativity. She also hullucinated smells and sounds, and was given to fits of uncontrollable weeping. To a modern day ear this sounds like a continuation of the post-partum pshycosis, to the meadevil mind it was a sign that Kempe was a mystic, and had a special relationship with God. This however did not stop those who knew Kempe from finding her extreamly annoying, and she was improsoned and threatened with rape and tried for herasey.
Some academics are now arguing that perhaps Kempe’s autobiography is fictional rather than factual. They suggest she was in fact using this story of her life as a way of examining societal trends as the church tried to pull people towards more orthodoxy while in daily life people were exploring different ways of having faith.
If we look at the latest woman to publish an autobiography we can see some parallells between her and Kempe. Listening to Britainy Spears autobiography, The Woman in Me it is clear to see that she was most likely suffering from post-natal depression when her very public meltdowns lead to the conservatorship being placed on her.
A conservatorship is typlically used when someone is having difficulty making decisions. For instance an adult with dementia may start finding it challenging to pay bills, or keep up with rent and mortgage payments, meaning that they are in a precarious position when it comes to the very basics of life. It is therefore totally reasonable that a family member or close friend step in to make sure the person can still continue to live in a healthy and cared for way. An equivilent in Britain would be Power of Attorney.
While a conservatorship is necessary in many situations the length and terms of Spear’s conservatorship, which was overseen by her father Jamie Spears, is unusual. It was a massive infringement on her human rights, her reproductive choices were taken away, echoing an earlier incident when a live-in-partner made her feel forced to have an abortion, and basic choices that we would all expect to be able to make about ourselves once out of childhood were no longer hers to make. Since the release of the autobiography Spear’s ex-team say that the public are not aware of her medical problems, and there is some talk that she may have been diagnosed with bipolar. While bipolar disorder can certainly be sever in it’s presentation it is totally possibly to have bipolar disorder and with the right support and medication live life as a fully independent adult. In essence, Jamie Spears through the application of modern law managed to bring back the insane asylum, but only for one person, and seemingly surrounded by luxury.
What is fascinating is that Jamie’s father, June, treated his own wives the same way. One who was sad after her child died, something that most people would really struggle to cope with emotionally, was committed and put on lithium. She eventually completed suicide. One could take it as an ignorant age which was yet to find compassion for mental health problems, until June Spears second wife was also committed, and it starts to look less like human flaws and more like a form of coercive control. His treatment of his son, although not including taking away his liberty was unduly harsh, and one has to wonder what terrible lessons Jamie Spears learned from this man, his alcoholism certainly hint that it was not anything good.
It wasn’t only the post-natal depression that had probably contributed to Spear’s mental health problems. There was a childhood of poverty, partly due to her father’s alcoholism, and then the pressure of young stardom at a time when women’s bodies were considered public property and America became particularly concerned with the state of Spear’s hyman. It is clear from her autobiography that for most of her life Spears was considered a means to an end by other people, the end most often being money and the power that went with it. Still others, who had no way of directly benefiting from Spears star quality appeared to use her as a vessel in which to pour their fears, and project their worse impulses. Spears essentially became a totem for America’s inability to come to terms either with women and their sexuality.
When Spears became a mother it was still open season on her. This though should not really come as a surprise to anyone. Mothers have always faced a huge amount of scrutiny, from conception onwards from people who do not know them at all feel they have a right to tell them what they are doing wrong, and give their unsolicited opinions, all while women are going through what will probably be the most physically demanding and draining time in their life.
In many ways Spears life, like Kempe’s is a way of examining the attitudes of society which is lurching between orthodox and liberal belief systems, and in her autobiography it appears as though she is finally taking control of herself and her own narrative. So where’s the crime?
The conservatorship, closely mirrored the crime in Britain of coercive control. This is the ways in which victims of domestic abuse are controlled which stop short of violence. Taking someone’s phone, controlling their finances, controlling their body, isolating them from friends and family, stopping them working. Of course like all laws it is not perfect. While law in the countries of the United Kingdom recognises now that domestic abuse exists on a continuum, and that it is better to catch these things early, it can still be frustratingly hard for anyone to prove to coercive control. The newness of the crime, and the difficulties that plague any of the so called “domestic,” crimes from the moment a woman considers reporting, means that there have been very few convictions.
Although the Spears Vs Spears case feels a lot like coercieve controll it isn’t. The conservatorship, although abused by Jamie Spears had still gone through the legal processes in California where Spears lived at the time, and a judge had signed off on it. Legal systems are very slow to admit to a mistake, follow the story of any case where there has been a miscarraige of justice, and you will see there is a long wait in prison for those who are innocent while they try to exonerate themselves. So it seems unlikley that Jamie Spears will be arrested for being in a position which the legal system had appointed him too.
However while Jamie was Conservator it is reported that he buged Britany. He survalied her, and read phone messages, also recording call. This does break the law and the FBI are currently considering if they will bring charges in 2024. It may be that the #FreeBritny movement will see their heroine get her day in court, and there will be many who will think a jailing of Jamie Spears will be natural justice given how he took his daughters freedom from her.
In the meantime while we all wait for the outcome of what is going to happen Britney is left to pick up the pieces of her life, which will probably be all the more challenging as she has through her child stardom and the conservativship missed out on many of the experiences that help us develop as individuals and become more mature. It appear still, that while this story has not yet concluded that Britany is still being used as a vessel for those who project on to her. This time though rather than consuming their fears and mirroring them back, she is consuming people’s hopes. The hope that women can live independently and free from abuse. The hope that those who abuse us do face the consequences of their actions, and the hope that mental health problems will stop being used as a weapon against us, and instead those of us who need it can get the support and kindness they need.