Once upon a millennium, in a county not far away, I picked up my kids from preschool. Disney Radio was always on the menu there while the kids scampered outside. My 4 year old daughter made a positive comment about the music of Britney Spears. At the time I was teaching middle school kids at a local day school, and witnessed many a female student trying to ape her vocal style and her provocative choreography. I had to put the kabosh on my kids viewing this sexualized teen as a role model, so I said, “I don’t like Britney Spears. She sings like a frog.” That set off an hour-long cackling session. Mission accomplished.
Now I’ve come around to thinking she really is a role model. After more than 2 decades of intense scrutiny, harsh moral judgment and grueling amounts of hard work, she has been under conservatorship for more than 13 years, all the while amassing a net worth of over $60 million. Recently she appealed to a judge to end her conservatorship, which so far has been denied.
I have little expertise in mental health matters, but as a part-time chaplain I have encountered many hospice and palliative care patients under conservatorship. They are overwhelmingly female, elderly and have clearly demonstrated an inability to function on any level. Those of working age generally can’t even get themselves to a job interview, let alone hold down a job. They generally cannot sustain a long Vegas residency. So what gives?
“But she shaved her head!” “But she acted out in public!” And…? So did Mel Gibson, but he hasn’t been forced to keep taking birth control and provide percentages of his performance earnings to a conservator who had falsely testified in court that she had dementia, a degenerative brain disease. Over the weekend, she posted a picture of her bare back on social media. Out came the wolves, assuming this was somehow evidence of a psychotic relapse. Some responded with concern, many more with derision. Britney had a classic response to those smearing her “behind my back.” Apparently, her posted picture was a Rohrschach test whose response was exactly as she envisioned. Mic drop.
Few performers have endured the sustained, vicious attacks as has Britney. Magazines blared headlines like “Lock her up!” Perez Hilton of TMZ, shortly after Heath Ledger tragically died of a drug overdose, sold T-shirts emblazoned with “Why wasn’t it Britney?” He has since apologized, but he’s not gathering any widely scattered feathers from that exploded pillow.
So what, exactly, is Britney’s problem? The answer is simple: we are.
We love to gossip about stars and public figures. We tweet value judgments on personalities without hesitation. “We trespass, we betray, we slander, we spur others to sin,” we confess on Yom Kippur, then we grab a bagel and keep on sinning. We race up ladders of perception in our siloed communications until actual violence ensues. We respond to public slights with revenge plots, as Bar Kamtza did when publicly humiliated. Bar Kamtza endured this while witnessing guests, including rabbis, failing to lift a finger to stop the grave sin our Sages equate to a thousand murders. So Bar Kamtza engineered a response that quickly unfolded into a vast catastrophe, destroying Jerusalem and the Holy Temple on Tisha B’Av and sending myriads of Jews into exile and slavery.
Yes, it can get that bad that quickly. Even judges can get swept up in the, er, hysteria and destroy a talented and, it turns out, thoughtful person. We are particularly destructive when it comes to that quarter of our population who struggles with mental illness, the vast majority of whom function effectively, hold onto jobs, head loving families, and are far more likely to be in danger from us than to us. We use despicable slurs like “crazy,” or “insane.” We tell them to snap out of it. We avoid their calls. We don’t sit anywhere near them during kiddush. All the while, they – we – suffer in silence and shame, failing to reach out in the fear we will not be listened to. Our illnesses are treated as non-physical and thus differently from other chronic illnesses like heart disease or COPD. We are cosmically alone in the world, and we get shoved under the rug. 50 of us shoot ourselves dead every single day in America, and everybody just shrugs. That is heartless. That is un-Jewish.
The proper Jewish response to anyone who suffers from illness is to visit them personally, or Biqqur Holim. The proper Jewish response is to listen with compassion and empathy, to endeavor to relieve them of 1/60th of their illness with each visit. It is to advocate for them in the public sphere, to rebuke our neighbors who baselessly hate them in their hearts. It is certainly not to spew snarky tweets at someone we’ve never met – let alone those we have.
So, do you want to blame us for the destruction of our inner Jerusalems, or do you want to help us rebuild? Do you want to dismissively provide clueless advice, or do you have the courage to engage us, to really hear us, to get off your keyboards and actually help and advocate for us? Do you wish to abandon us to dark days, or do you wish to renew our days as of old?
Spend some time answering these questions with positive action. In the meantime, leave Britney the hell alone. She’s suffered enough. Shavua tov.