They say that history repeats itself. For Britney Spears and Camille Claudel, this seems to be true, at least on a thematic level. Born more than a century and nearly 5,000 miles apart, Britney Spears and Camille Claudel share a tragic tale of a struggle for independence and dignity, both apparently exploited by family members who used the potent nexus of medical and legal systems to effectively imprison them.
Camille Claudel was the wife of sculptor Auguste Rodin, widely acknowledged as the “founder of modern sculpture” and known famously for his statue, “The Thinker.” But Claudel was a gifted sculptor in her own rights, as talented, and perhaps more so, than Rodin. Unfortunately for both herself and her potential future admirers, Claudel suffered from a psychological breakdown and destroyed the majority of her work. It has been reported that she “exhibited signs of paranoia and was diagnosed as having schizophrenia.”
And much like Spears, the allegations of mental instability were brought by a family member. In Claudel’s case, her brother. As a result, she lost her agency and was confined to a French mental institution, the Asile de Montdevergues, for over three decades, where she eventually died, just two months shy of her 79th birthday.
Thematically, these two women also share deeper connections, not just with themselves, but with other women throughout history. Whether it was Claudel, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, the first wife of T.S. Elliot, or Mary Ann Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, “a unique and awful combination of misogynistic ideas about women’s minds, concern about ‘moral contagion’, and a lack of real knowledge about mental health led to thousands of women being imprisoned in asylums,” writes journalist JR Thorpe.
And though Spears was never involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, her father used the medical and legal systems to effectively take over his daughter’s life via a conservatorship, thus creating a legalistic institutionalization for the Princess of Pop. Ironically, it is Britney’s virtual imprisonment that is causing her ongoing mental distress and postponing any further therapeutic gains. As Spears herself puts it plainly, “I just want my life back, it’s been 13 years and it’s enough. I really believe that this guardianship is abusive. I’m traumatized, I’m not happy, I can’t sleep, I’m very angry, it’s insane . . .”
This desperate plea for justice is eerily similar to Claudel’s anguished appeal: “I am scared; I don’t know what is going to happen to me. What was the point of working so hard and of being talented, to be rewarded like this? Never a penny, tormented all my life. It is horrible; one cannot imagine it.”
And while Britney’s earlier behaviors were erratic and may have warranted both medical and legal interventions, Mr. Spears’ insistence of complete and unending domination of nearly every aspect of his daughter’s affairs has become abusive, and may have broader historical and sociocultural implications for Western society as a whole. As Joan Meier, a clinical professor of law and the director of National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, points out, there is an unresolved tension between law and psychological therapy, creating unwitting victims:
Law is a blunt instrument and psychology and human behavior are more nuanced, but the law is not equipped to deal with that. Psychology says that this is a part of the cycle of abuse, but this is then held against [survivors] when they seek legal recourse against their abusers. There is a way that women are expected to never complain, and then penalized when they do.
Intimately connected to this unresolved tension is the inherent nature of diagnosing mental health issues. Although psychiatric diagnostics have matured over the years via research, which has yielded a more thorough understanding of the human mind, it is an imprecise system at best, and full of potentially harmful social biases at worst.
This means there are gaps in our understanding of mental health and consequently, our diagnostic labels of mental disorders. Jerome C. Wakefield, Professor of the Conceptual Foundations of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, captures this dynamic in his article The concept of mental disorder: diagnostic implications of the harmful dysfunction analysis, stating, “Although both normal and disordered conditions may warrant treatment, and although psychiatry arguably has other functions beyond the treatment of disorder, still there exists widespread concern that spurious attributions of disorder may be biasing prognosis and treatment selection, creating stigma, and even interfering with normal healing processes.”
A socio-historical perspective paints a dark picture with the unfair and unethical application of mental-health diagnostics to women because this process of medicalization has roots in the prejudices of religion and political thought. Women were often victimized with the pernicious label of hysteria, a term that early on implied a form of spiritual corruption tied to a biblical sense of evil, thus providing it with moral import and the concomitant legal recourse.
Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and French at the University of Washington frames it this way: “It was just an ad hoc argument used in the context of the religious and political struggles of the time. But it marks the beginning of the gradual medicalization of all kinds of behaviors that were defined until then in religious terms.”
This phenomenon of medicalization of mental health has been further informed by the creation of a host of medications aimed at correcting “biochemical balances,” particularly neurotransmitters. And, due to the influence of the profit motives of Big Pharma, data and labels become a strategic weapon used to create a formal medical issue and associated diagnosis via the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
A case in point would be the creation of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), first added to the DSM-5, not coincidentally, when Eli Liily’s patent on Prozac was set to expire as a treatment for depression. Lisa Cosgrove, Professor Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Clinical Psychologist, describes a disturbing picture about the potentially pernicious marriage of pharmaceutical profits and deceptive marketing:
Women were encouraged to diagnose themselves with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (“Think it’s PMS? Think again it could be PMDD”) and to take advantage of a “new” treatment that had been developed: “Sarafem.” Eli Lilly’s ad for Sarafem included the following statement: “PMDD affects millions of women . . . but the good news is that your doctor can treat PMDD with a new treatment called Sarafem.” What women were not told in these ads is that the psychotropic medication produced by Eli Lilly to treat PMDD was Prozac, which was relabeled as Sarafem and manufactured in pink and lavender pills.
Borch-Jacobsen echoes the same point of view, stating, “From my vantage point, much of what biopsychiatry produces today are not so much cures as, once again, new diseases, new ways of making minds and madness,” he says. “Each pill, each molecule creates a new condition—and a new market for pharmaceutical and biotech companies.”
I think I should offer that I am not opposed to using pharmaceuticals in general to treat psychiatric issues, nor to diagnostic labels. Each of these approaches to mental health has beneficial consequences and are sometimes warranted in the noble pursuit of helping people cope and hopefully overcome mental-health challenges.
However, we have to be careful about legally codifying these labels as if they are sacrosanct and imbued with unquestionable validity and unassailable reliability. Allen Frances, MD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Duke University and contributing author to the DSM-5, puts in perspective:
“Mental illness” is terribly misleading because the “mental disorders” we diagnose are no more than descriptions of what clinicians observe people do or say, not at all well established diseases. For example, the term “schizophrenia” just describes a heterogeneous set of experiences and behaviors; it doesn’t at all explain them and eventually there will be hundreds of different causes and dozens of different treatments. “Schizophrenia” is certainly is not one illness.
The reality is that almost anyone at a given time in their life may meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental–health disorder. This does not mean you are permanently incapacitated, incapable of healing and living a full life. The author J.K. Rowling eventually overcame her depression through writing the Harry Potter series, testimony to both the temporality of mental health issues and the power of the artistic process.
But if you are unfortunate to be part of a family system that has been potentially corrupted by a pursuit of money or control, or both, you could be the next Britney Spears, who is now begging for the legal right to have her IUD removed so that she can have another child eventually. Perhaps cynically, one has to ask why Charlie Sheen, Kanye West, or Chris Brown, whose letter from his rehab facility stated: “Mr. Brown became aggressive and acted out physically due to his untreated mental health disorder, severe sleep deprivation, inappropriate self-medicating and untreated PTSD,” were never forced into conservatorship. Just lucky? Maybe.
And though Spears and Claudel are two different women from two different times and continents, the following words form Claudel should serve as a grim warning to what appears to be an unchecked miscarriage of justice: “I have fallen into an abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange. Of the dream that was my life, this is my nightmare.”
It’s time to end the conservatorship of Britney Spears, and end her nightmare.
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