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Why I’m So Worked Up About Britney Spears

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britney spears

When I was probably too young, I watched the movie, Frances, with my mother. Starring Jessica Lange, the movie came out in 1982, and tells the story of movie star Frances Farmer and her tragic descent into institutionalization and eventually, horrifically, lobotomy.

Farmer’s greatest threat to her safety and freedom is her mother, who eventually authorizes the ice pick lobotomy. That scene is still difficult to watch. In another harrowing scene, Jessica Lange screams in court after she’s sentenced to a jail term, “Have I got any rights?”

I wonder the same about Britney Spears.

I’m not sure how old I was when I watched Frances. I was ten when it came out, but I might have been older when I sat in the family room of our split-level ranch house in Western, NY, and wept with my mother.

If I was twelve or thirteen, I would have been “cured” from my rare neurological disorder, Dopa Responsive Dystonia, by a specialist in Toronto. He prescribed synthetic dopamine and within a week or two I started walking when before I could barely walk down a hallway without falling or assistance.

My muscles relaxed and no longer spasmed in pain. I could sleep, write, talk, and suddenly pass as able-bodied. I had shifted from the space of visibly disabled to invisibly disabled in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t a change anyone in my family processed out loud. It was all so stunning.

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Much later, in my forties, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, likely side effects of my neurological disorder. I am a person who lives with these chronic conditions, greatly helped by medication, sometimes still in pain, but living my own independent life, as a mother, professor, writer, and single queer person.

Before I began taking medication as a child, I had been in hospitals for testing.

In third grade, I spent a terrifying week at Buffalo Children’s Hospital. My parents were able to visit a few times, but the drive was two hours away, so I didn’t see them very much. I started to think I might get stuck in the hospital. I was afraid my parents wouldn’t be able to find me or that the staff would lose track of me.

I didn’t understand the invasive and scary tests I had that week, and no one really explained to me what was happening. Perhaps my ten-year-old fears were irrational, but later when I watched Frances, I wondered if they were.

After that week in the hospital, I feared institutionalization. At eleven I was in so much pain, that I made a secret plan to kill myself if I didn’t get better. What a thing to do at such a young age. I worried that I would never be able to grow up, get married, have children, or even leave my parent’s house.

I’ve written about some aspects of my disability in my essay collection, 16 Pills, but the #FreeBritney movement, recent reporting on her case, and excellent documentaries like Crip Camp have helped me think more deeply about how hard-won (and still lacking) civil rights are for disabled people.

After Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas prison, I wondered what had really happened to her. Had they taken her meds away? Why had she been left with an object that she could use to hang herself? It’s of course obvious she likely wouldn’t have been stopped if she were white, but how much did ableism compound the racism she encountered? Disabled women of color face even more limitations on their freedoms.

RELATED: Britney Spears To Address Court About Her Conservatorship This Week — What She Has Said So Far

If I’ve learned anything in my research about the lives of disabled women, it’s that autonomy and agency are hard-won and forever subject to revision. To this day, disabled people can still lose their need-based SSI payments if they marry, or their Medicare if they are on non-need-based SSDI payments. These benefits allow disabled people to live independently and on their own terms.

On July 3, 2021, Ronan Farrow and Gia Tolentino published a new investigation into Spears’ conservatorship, which two days earlier the judge upheld despite Spears’ requests to end it and her admissions that she’s had an IUD implanted against her will and was drugged with lithium.

I was struck by this passage near the end of the article:

“There’s this concept of the dignity of risk,” Brennan-Krohn, the A.C.L.U. lawyer said. “Most of us have a very wide range of bad choices we can make that society is O.K. with, but, in a conservatorship, you’re subject to the decision-making rubric of best interest. And it’s possible we’d all be better off if someone was making decisions for us like that, but those are not the values of the society we live in.”

In her remarks this June, Spears gestured, briefly, to the wider world of broken guardianships: “We can sit here all day and say, ‘Oh, conservatorships are here to help people,’ but, ma’am, there’s a thousand conservatorships that are abusive, as well.”

As she said this, the #FreeBritney supporters at the courthouse, their glittery signs laid down on the concrete, let out an impassioned “Yes!”

The dignity of risk …yes, this is the language I’ve been struggling to find. Disabled people are allowed to take risks, make mistakes, lose the money they’ve made, have babies, shave their heads, break down, get better, take their meds, find their own therapists, and refuse to live under the controlling will of their parents.

It’s that simple — but still controversial.

RELATED: Britney Spears *Is* Allowed To Have A Baby & Get Married — Theories About Who May Have Lied & Said She Can't

Carley Moore is the author of the LAMBDA and Firecracker Award-nominated novel, The Not  Wives, the essay collection, 16 Pills. Her second novel, Panpocalypse, is forthcoming in March 2022.  You can find her blogging on Medium or follow her on Instagram @fragmentedsky

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.