12 January 2008

Analysing Britney Spears

Recent events in the life of Britney Spears provide a telling illustration of how far disrespect for the autonomy of the individual has gone in modern society. But these events are supposed to be a reflection on Britney Spears herself, and to “mark a new low” in her “wayward life”.

After effectively holding her two children hostage at her Los Angeles home, she was forcibly taken by police to hospital having been strapped to a stretcher. As the 26-year-old was kept under "involuntary psychiatric hold", a judge suspended her right to see her sons Sean Preston, two, and 15-month-old Jayden James. (Daily Mail)

The Daily Mail asked a panel of experts to write an open letter to the star giving their views, again illustrating that in modern society everyone is supposed to know better than the person themselves what is good for them. One of the contributors to the open letters is Oliver James, a clinical psychologist, writer and TV documentary maker.

James wants to tell Britney Spears that she should not put her difficulties down to youthfulness and the magnitude of her success. “In themselves, these do not drive people crazy.” He does not mention the possibility that being deprived of the freedom to look after, or even see, her young children, and then being incarcerated against her will in a psychiatric ward, so that doctors can decide whether or not they wish to set her free, might in themselves be enough to drive a person crazy.

I do not myself have any opinion about whether there are any grounds for regarding her as “crazy”, but it seems to me that in modern society a failure to accept meekly that you have no control over the most important factors in your own life is sufficient to justify being described in that way.

Oliver James also wishes to inform her that her own opinions about her life are valueless, and that her parents are to blame.

Having interviewed more than 50 famous people for a TV project, I want you to know that only two out of those 50 did not suffer severe maltreatment as children. Again, as adults, only a handful of them did not suffer from symptoms of depression or personality disorder — "me me me" narcissism — compensating for feelings of helplessness and insignificance dating back to childhood.
You told a journalist: "I was never pushed, I never had to be. It all came from me." But I would ask you to think again: because I have never encountered a case where this was actually true. Showbiz prodigies like you often felt invisible to their parents, especially as babies, and they lack identity as a result. Being recognised in the street makes them feel important and noticed. However much you may wish to protect your divorced, devout Baptist parents, they will have made love conditional on success.
Glittering prizes became conflated with love. This is what made you — but not your siblings — vulnerable to the Affluenza virus of placing a high value on money and fame. You were infected with it from before you can remember and, sadly, it has now driven you crazy. But please do not despair. With the right therapy, I am sure your life will come together again.

Oliver James, like the other ‘experts’ quoted in the Daily Mail, pronounces his opinions on the diagnosis of individuals, even those they have never met or communicated with, with remarkably dogmatic assurance. Nearly 60 years ago I was amazed at the presumptuous and unrealistic diagnoses that were made of me, but in those days this sort of thing went on covertly and anonymously. James feels able to assert that 48 people he interviewed received “severe maltreatment” as children — meaning, of course, from parents rather than from agents of the educational or social systems. He also implies that, because this is (supposedly) true of most of the 50 people he interviewed, there is a strong presumption that the same is true of Britney Spears — regardless of the facts of her individual case, including her denial that it is so.