Steve Dennis is a ghostwriter -- a storyteller who spends so much time with his subjects that he writes credibly in their voice.
“It’s a part parasitic, part symbiotic invasion of somebody else’s life,” says Dennis, 37. “I go in the car with you, at dinner with you, with your wife and kids, girlfriend . . . It’s not about being interviewed. The true ghostwriter really does move in.”
He’s written two books in the voice of Lady Diana’s butler Paul Burrell, and another as British footballer Ashley Cole.
But about a year ago, Dennis’ own story took a strange turn. When a proposed ghostwriting job with Britney Spears didn’t come through, he decided to write a biography of the pop princess. But he found himself deprived of the very air he breathes.
“I found every door pretty much closed to me,” the Englishman says, sipping a soy latte at a cafe near his Venice apartment. “I was starting to panic. It was a classic Hollywood all-access-denied.”
Dennis, who says he thrives when the odds are stacked against him, didn’t give up. Instead, he decided the clearest path to the heart and mind of the performer was to gather as much research as he could, talk to whatever Spears associate would cooperate and then . . . visit a psychotherapist. Not for himself, but for Spears.
“I didn’t want to do what other biographers have done and become an amateur psychologist,” Dennis said. He wanted the real thing.
He found a Beverly Hills practitioner through a talent agency -- he won’t reveal her name -- and spent several meetings a week on a couch discussing Spears’ alcoholic father, her parents marriage, her sudden success, overexposure and her subsequent fall. During the last of three months he spent with the therapist, he saw her for four sessions a week.
He described Spears’ background for the therapist and took down her responses.
“It was like I was the boyfriend coming in to understand the girlfriend’s issues -- ‘She’s experiencing this, what’s she feeling?’ ” he said.
His publisher wasn’t instantly sold on the idea. When Dennis called to explain what he hoped to do, he said, “The voice on the other side of the line was like, ‘You really have been in L.A. too long.’ ”
But the result is “Britney: Inside the Dream” (Harper Collins UK), published this month.
He says his goal was to see her in broad terms.
“Here you have a girl from a rural village, who has a dream of being famous -- all she wants to do is sing and dance. Then fame picks her out, and decides ‘you are going to be the overnight phenomenon of our age, and held aloft as a role model.’ And all of a sudden, this self-created dream becomes a curse.”
The book is not consistently well-written, and the therapist’s words are not smoothly integrated into the text -- they appear in unbroken blocks a few hundred words at a time every few pages. (“The onslaught of fame will no doubt have made Britney feel trapped,” one begins, “and there was an intense burden on her.”)
Dennis says neither he nor the therapist could diagnose Spears as bipolar, as some observers have done (without examining her). But generally his research and consultation led him to see her not as “crazy,” as he says the gossip media have defined her, but someone who was ill-equipped psychologically and adapted poorly to sudden fame and the rapid shift from small-town folkways to life in Hollywood.
“The therapist showed me how we’d got it all wrong about Britney,” says Dennis, an earnest and disarming son of a Yorkshire farming village. “This is not the story of a madwoman but a survivor. And it’s only when you read her full struggle in context that you suddenly realize the spirit and resilience she must have.”
Is it ethical?
But can therapy by proxy tell us anything meaningful about the heart and soul of Britney Spears?
Some are skeptical. “I would never take a case like that,” Fran Praver, a New York-based psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist, pronounced flatly. “I don’t think it’s ethical and I don’t think it’s useful.”
Even the best research on Spears’ background, she says, would not take you very far. “Everybody is unique. You have children who grow up in horrible circumstances and do really well.” Without the actual subject, “You can hypothesize, but you can’t really deduce,” she said.
Praver’s view was prevalent but not unanimous in the therapists The Times contacted.
“If this was published as a novel, it would be a pretty clever idea,” says Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson, an authority on popular culture who, like Praver, has not seen the book.
He called the methodology “entirely ridiculous. It would be like a boss sending his secretary to the doctor because he doesn’t have time to go. It would yield some insights, but you wouldn’t know which ones were accurate.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time a writer has resorted to an unorthodox method.
When journalist Gay Talese was unable to get any time with Ol’ Blue Eyes, he conceived an article that made a virtue of the distance. In “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published in Esquire, he wrote about how the singer’s every move -- and every silence -- rippled through the culture.
Biographer Edmund Morris received unprecedented access to Ronald Reagan, but found him impenetrable. “Dutch,” in which he fictionalized aspects of the president’s life, became instantly controversial.
Despite his reservations about Dennis’ method, Thompson points out that biographers and historians often struggle to make sense of their subjects. Major figures -- whether Michelangelo or Ben Franklin -- typically get a major new biography every decade or so, which tend to use the psychological methods of their time. And as celebrities retreat from the larger culture, real access to them -- as opposed to paparazzi pictures or a publicist’s spin -- is hard to get.
“Biography is necessarily speculative,” Thompson says. “People have done a lot of books with people who’ve been long dead, where we’re extrapolating about them from a limited set of data. We can’t get to Britney herself, so we have to treat her like she’s Shakespeare or something.”
Whether the psychological narrative hit upon by Dennis and the therapist is accurate is unclear. But this kind of hypothesis -- the psychological assessment of a subject’s childhood traumas -- may have been cheapened by overuse. The heyday of Freudian analysis, Thompson says, lasted from the 1950s, when it was the toast of the intelligentsia, through the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it seeped into the American suburban mainstream.
“There was a honeymoon period for mass-produced psychology,” Thompson says. Today, “psychology is still a useful and legitimate field, but now you roll your eyes a little bit.”