The world woke up to the dark reality of coercive control upon hearing Britney Spears’ testimony of abuse spanning over a decade, at the hands of her father and many others. She spoke of him controlling her every move, subjecting her to daily imposed restrictions and humiliations. She spoke of her father removing her possessions, cash and means of communication. He controlled her access to her children and ensured she had no fair chance at motherhood. He was aided and abetted by a questionable legal set-up called a Conservatorship, which the court has allowed for 13 years. Britney spoke of enduring threats, being scared, and feeling invisible, unheard. She described being effectively and legally enslaved and coercively abused for more than a decade. Mothers in family court found her heartbreaking testimony eerily familiar.
What most victims of coercive control also have in common with Britney Spears is that, like her, their social media may paint a very different picture. To the outside world, everything looks fine in their relationship. When yet another victim is murdered, the press will circulate a happy, smiling social media picture of the victim and the perpetrator. When local people are interviewed by the press about the tragedy, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll express puzzled disbelief at the tragedy, because he always was polite, or their social media looked happy.
Victims know they won’t be believed and abusers know how to manipulate. They don’t have to work as hard at it though, when the court is helping them. Britney rightly levelled some of the responsibility for her situation towards the court during her 24 minute address (her statement in full is here). “I will be honest with you. I haven’t been back to court in a long time, because I don’t think I was heard on any level when I came to court the last time,” she said.
Britney spoke of her fear of saying no to her own assistants, due to the threat of repercussions. Victims of coercive control in family court who have legal representation are also told they must not speak of the abuse. All victims wonder why their own representation would reinforce this position. They ask “aren’t you supposed to be on my side?” After all, they have hired them.
Britney speaks like she is in a prison, and has been for a long time. Coercive control victims in family court with their abusers also talk like they’ve been doing a stint inside the big house. It is telling that victims use language more often associated with incarceration to refer to their time subjected to intense legal processes. “I’ve been ‘in’ for [insert number between 1-16] years,” they say. Some laugh nervously when they acknowledge it sounds like they have been jailed, until it sinks in. The range, depth and breadth of the impacts on victims dealing with an abuser being able to legally control their victims for decades, must be globally acknowledged. When mothers are using terms of reference like this to accurately describe their experiences as (allegedly) free women, it’s a symbol of a greater tragedy.
Victims in family court, like Britney, also cannot say no to having a coercive controller in their lives. It appears that by controlling Britney’s contact with her children, her father behaved like every other coercive controller out there who has access to children. Victims in family court know only too well this pattern, where an abuser will utilize any leverage they can, even if that happens to be their own children. “Anything that happened to me had to be approved by my dad”, Britney said. For mums in family court, they know that anything that happens to them has to be approved by their children’s father. They also know that the children are used as leverage to further the abuse.
Britney refers to her access with her children being also in the hands of her father. “When my kids went home to Louisiana – he was the one who approved it”, she said. Her father then made her time with her children reliant on her compliance with a range of bizarre interventions. Britney told the court “Over the two-week holiday, a lady came into my home for four hours a day, sat me down and did a psych test on me. It took forever. But I was I was told I had to”. All victims jump through all of the hoops they can, for their children. Abusers know our kids are our Achilles heel. That’s why Britney’s father made her contact with her kids dependent upon her compliance to his demands. In a family court abuse case, a mothers relationship with her children is often reliant on her compliance with an abuser too.
The victims in family court who have experienced coercive control also have court mandated psychological testing. The so-called experts are usually hand-picked by the abuser’s legal team, to conduct their investigations. They are often insufficiently qualified, or known for writing reports that demonstrate a biased, or even pre-determined outcome that will not even reference coercive control. If victims in family court refuse to comply, they run the risk of losing their children for ‘failure to engage’. In Britney’s case, her assessments also appear rigged. In family court, mothers term this frequently as a ‘complete stitch-up’.
The impact on Britney’s relationship with her children, is likely to be irreversible. For family court mums, the finite nature of childhood becomes a new terror. For every day families remain stuck in the dynamic it increases the certainty that their childhood will be an experience to recover from, and not to look fondly back upon.
But why would someone systematically wish to harm another person in this way? Ask a coercive controller why they do it, they will tell you a whole host of reasons, usually denigrating the victim. She was mental. Unfit mother. Crazy. A Madonna and a whore. Many people hold the slightly quieter negative view that victims are maybe a bit stupid, or perhaps just vulnerable. Coercive control knows no class or demographic. There is not one ‘type’ of victim. They might be professionals, leaders in their field. They might be world famous icons like Britney Spears. There’s nothing an abuser loves more, than to actively break someone down. For many abusers, taking down a ‘strong’ woman is even more enticing. One such abuser was asked why he continued to take his ex-wife to court to control her life, and when asked the question ‘doesn’t it take a special kind of bitterness to keep that up for a decade? Why do you do it?’ He laughed and chillingly replied, “because I love it”. Britney said of her father in her powerful testimony, that “he loved the control to hurt his own daughter.” Abusive men make terrible fathers.
Victims have to quickly come to terms with just how much a perpetrator will focus their entire life’s purpose, to own them and fight to keep ownership of them. How much they view their victims as a ‘non-person’, their feelings a ‘non-issue’, and treat them like nothing more than property. The court in all of these cases, is complicit in failing to address the underlying narrative of coercive control. In Britney’s case, the court has been doing her abusers (extremely elaborate) bidding for thirteen years. Many family court mums are also in the process for upwards of a decade. That this journey into coercive control is a long one, is an understatement.
“I don’t think how the state of California can have all this written in the court documents from the time I showed up and do absolutely nothing” Britney said in her address to the judge. But day in day out, in courtrooms all over the world, women reporting coercive control are completely ignored. Their concerns are side-lined, minimized or even actively covered up – and the risks and abusive patterns continue.
Britney referred to being gagged: “I’m told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me.” Court is a credible and terrifying threat to any victim, because it can effectively state sanction the abuse to continue. It’ll also ensure you are not allowed to speak about it. You cannot refer to the people, the events or the processes, you have to just get on with the arrangements they impose, whilst trying to navigate the legal minefield until one blows up. The perpetrators who speak out (usually to protest their innocence and denigrate their victims simultaneously) face no consequences, whilst the victims that do, are punished. This imbalance of power was one that Britney clearly knew all too well.
Britney deserves to be able to tell her story, to own what has happened and to move on from it fully supported. Every victim of coercive control deserves this. She deserves to enjoy all of her human rights, including the right to not be subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment, and her right to family life. The right to own what is hers, to assert her agency. The right to buy a coffee and make some damn decisions. She deserves to be able to use the voice she has been blessed with, however she wants.
As for the depth and degree of the damage done to Britney – we will likely never know the true extent. However any victim of coercive control will have an insight better than most people. Hearing Britney Spears taking a stand to salvage her life and protect her future from her own father was heartbreaking. That a successful 39 year old woman has to ask a judge to allow her to make an adult decision, is abhorrent. Despite the realization of this awful case and it’s Gilead-worthy parallels, all victims listening to her testimony would have recognized in mirror image the deep hope and faith that keeps you going, when you have no other choice. Her desire to reclaim her body and mind, drawing a great big circle of ‘NO’ around her, was palpable. Britney said to the judge:
“Ma’am, I’m not here to be anyone’s slave”.