When a superstar celebrity melts down in a very public spectacle of addiction, tirades and rage, is there a way for her to make a comeback later, to clean up the mess?
How far must she go before the masses of fans are able to forgive, allow her to be redeemed?
Does the road to redemption begin when the celebrity reveals herself as ordinary, human, lost, or so low that down looks like up? Do the fans begin to empathize when her rage is caught on camera and she, in the middle of some black night, is hitting a parked car with a green umbrella? Crazed.
After all, every woman, if she has lived long enough, has had a moment of unadulterated rage. Blind indignation. Righteous wrath. Mind goes blank. Grabs a pot of grits. Breaks the vase. Slams the bedroom door so hard it comes off the hinges. Takes an umbrella to his windshield, making not a dent but proving a point.
If you are a regular somebody, your moments of rage happen in private (or almost, if the neighbors can hear). But if you are Britney Spears, the story is different.
There she was, exposed, photographed, looking far from glam, in gym shorts, sweat shirt and sneakers, shaved head, madly swinging a green umbrella at a car parked near her estranged husband's apartment.
The road back is not easily traveled. But it has been done: Drew Barrymore did it. So did Mariah Carey. And Robert Downey Jr.
What would it take for Spears?
"What is happening with Britney is nobody is accepting her now," says Stuart Fischoff, a professor emeritus of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. "She is seen as someone who has gone around the bend. It is not clear she will come back."
If the 25-year-old pop star were to try to come back, he said, she would have to apologize, show some introspection, beg forgiveness for crumbling in front of us all, even if it is the fault of the culture that makes child stars grow up too fast.
"The point about Britney is that she started her meltdown when she started to sexualize her persona," Fischoff says. "That was her bid for adulthood. That is when she began to walk on the razor's edge."
Fischoff has a path back for Spears: She would have to grow up. Become more complex. Grab hold of whatever talent she has. Take back some privacy. Put on some decent clothes.
"You can't just be a sex object. You can't just show your body," Fischoff says. "It is a time-honored truth that you can expose yourself too much.
"The imagination of who you are is what drives fans. There has to be a curtain between you and your fans. If you have become demystified, now all you are seen as is pathetic. This is a fickle culture and they will turn on you and find somebody else."
In order to be redeemed, he says, Spears would have to come out of her confusion. And when she is ready, the masses may be willing to embrace as they did with Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.
"In redemption, everybody likes to forgive. Likes to see rehabilitation," Fischoff says. "But you can't do it too often. Then it gets boring. And if there is one thing this generation can't stand it is to be bored. But Britney will have to show something. Get it together. For now, she looks perfectly awful with the head shaved. She makes Jack Nicholson look handsome. She's going to have to get off drugs and alcohol. Then she can make the media circuit like Drew Barrymore, who talked about how she pulled her life back together. She will have to have talent and preserve that talent. Otherwise, she becomes a clown."
But some are skeptical.
"I don't feel sorry for her," says Ditmar Becton, 28, a Northeast Washington barber. " . . . Her husband left that black girl when she was pregnant with his child. Now she's reaping what she sowed. I wouldn't accept anyone who leaves a family while a child is involved."
When Barry Carter, 32, a computer technician who lives in Northeast, looked at the photos of Spears attacking the car, he had no empathy. "I think she has too much money. She doesn't know what to do. I don't look at her as a celebrity, never did."
Some women were better able to relate to Spears's fury. Katarina Vilkman, 29, an office manager from Northeast, says, "I feel sorry for her. If it is related to postpartum depression, from a female perspective, it was just sad. She was so out of hand."
Zakia Williams, 28, a conference coordinator who lives in Burtonsville, also feels sorry for the pop star. "I couldn't live the way she lives with the paparazzi. It would drive me crazy. I understand."
Over the weekend, it was reported that Spears's estranged husband, Kevin Federline, visited her at the Promises rehabilitation center in Malibu, Calif. Britney's father, Jamie Spears, told Fox News that his daughter is "a sick little girl." He said her problems were "not about what other people think." Now she is just a little girl whose parents are worried about her.