There is something visceral about the revelations in Britney Spears’s memoir, The Woman in Me. Even before the book’s publication on Tuesday, international headlines saw discussion of the singer’s complicated feelings about her abortion after becoming pregnant by Justin Timberlake, the agony of being separated from her two sons, the deep pain she was experiencing around the time she shaved her hair, and much more.
One thing has been clear: this might be a celebrity memoir, but we are not here for light-hearted celebrity gossip. Spears is, finally, ready and able to talk freely and in detail about her past. The tidbits from her book have been more akin to the denouement of a thriller: for years, we couldn’t fully understand what was going on in her life, though it was clear that things were not quite right. And now, finally, we know. We can look back at moments from Spears’s life, which we experienced through the distant and distorting prism of tabloid headlines back in the day, and piece together a more complete picture of what she was going through. And the picture? Reader, it is dark. It is also deeply human.
What made the timing so right? For Spears, the end of the conservatorship that ruled her personal life and finances until November 2021 is presumably what enabled her to share her story. But Spears is one of a number of celebrities who have successfully published memoirs over the past few years. Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died just spent 60 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Elliot Page’s Pageboy was one of the major releases of the summer, spending 12 weeks on that same list.
Pamela Anderson, Kerry Washington, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith have all released their own memoirs in recent memory — and Pinkett Smith’s revelations about her marriage to Smith (they’ve been separated for seven years, long before that Oscars slap) dominated tabloid headlines. And, of course, Prince Harry’s Spare became the fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time (per the revered Guinness World Records) back in January.
We should not be living in the golden age of celebrity memoirs. Celebrities can connect directly with fans on social media and share their thoughts directly, at all hours of the day, should they feel like it. Or they can share those same thoughts with the journalists who remain (I can attest from personal experience) very eager to profile them. And yet, here we are. Celebrity memoirs are selling. They are being read. People cannot get enough. There’s even a podcast solely dedicated to the genre.
The aforementioned books have one thing in common: they dig deep. McCurdy’s memoir proved a poignant exploration of fame at a young age (and, as its title suggests, of painful family dynamics). Page’s memoir documented his journey as a queer, trans person, and his experiences of abuse in Hollywood. Anderson wrote about trauma, and her experiences of sexual and physical assault. Washington wrote about finding out that her parents had used a sperm donor to have her—a fact that had been kept secret from her until she agreed to appear on the PBS show Finding Your Roots. Will Smith wrote about seeing his father beat his mother back when he was a child. Jada Pinkett Smith, two years later, revealed in her own book that she and her husband broke up in 2016 but decided not to divorce.
Over and over, books have shown themselves to be the perfect repositories for secrets or personal experiences that could not be otherwise conveyed. There is room, in a book, to unpack the uncomfortable and make one’s voice heard. There is more nuance to be found on the page than on social media—and the contact with readers is somehow less brutally direct and more authentic.
Even when a ghostwriter is involved, the subject of a memoir typically retains control over what makes it into the final product, and how it is presented. JR Moehringer, the ghostwriter who worked with Harry on Spare, described their work together in a revealing piece for the New Yorker as a lively collaboration – one that wasn’t devoid of disagreement, but in which Harry’s point of view ultimately prevailed.
Moehringer described himself as “exasperated” during one exchange, one of several in which he tried to convince Harry to exclude a particular line. Even after Moehringer understood why Harry wanted to include it, he still didn’t think it would serve the book. The line, as Moehringer saw it, was about Harry himself, but, he wrote, “Strange as it may seem, memoir isn’t about you. It’s not even the story of your life. It’s a story carved from your life, a particular series of events chosen because they have the greatest resonance for the widest range of people.” (Moehringer eventually won this particular fight, but only once he had secured Harry’s consent.)
Even with a ghostwriter to save one from oneself, memoirs put their subjects in the driver’s seat. Some stories can only be told within this kind of controlled environment, with the assurance that one will get the final say. There is a special alchemy between books and secrets – one that, it seems, cannot be replicated elsewhere. As long as that’s the case, I (and many others) will keep reading.