I was thirteen when I heard Britney Spears got plastic surgery. I was sitting at my desk in social studies; a couple of the boys were talking about it, snickering behind their three-ring binders.
My best friend rolled her eyes. “Britney Spears is skanky,” she announced.
“Totally,” I agreed, immediately and unequivocally accepting both the operation and the value judgment as empirical fact. It never occurred to me to wonder if it was true, or who might have encouraged a teenage girl to alter her body so drastically. It certainly never occurred to me to wonder if it was my business at all.
I was twenty-two when I heard Britney Spears had gone crazy. I remember staring at that picture of her shaving her head–you know the one–and frowning with not-quite-genuine worry; “She’s so sad,” my coworker commented over lunch. I never considered the ethics of using someone’s mental health crisis as mealtime entertainment. I never asked what a decade of constant scrutiny might do to a person’s heart.
I was well into my thirties by the time it dawned on me that everything I knew about Britney–and dozens of other famous women–was completely wrong: that behind every salacious headline was a human person, that for every supposed train wreck there were years of pain and trauma I knew nothing about. It was humbling to realize that despite my feminist mom and my liberal arts degree, I’d somehow bought into a harmful, sexist Hollywood fairytale without ever realizing that’s what it was.
So I did what I always do when I’m trying to figure out how I’m feeling about something: I wrote about it. Birds of California showed up on the page more or less fully formed, beginning with the scene where Sam walks into the print shop —and Fiona promptly tells him to get lost. I originally conceived the project as Young Adult–I’m the author of seven messy, complicated YA romances—but there was something about this particular story that begged for a grown-up point of view. I wanted Fiona to have gotten some space from what happened to her when she was a teenager—to have had time to forgive herself for the lies she bought into, for not knowing any of the things she didn’t know back when she didn’t know them. I want that for all the rest of us, too.