In the past several months, the media has again turned its attention to the “mental health” of Britney Spears, with many articles commenting on whether there is reason for her to remain under a “probate conservatorship” (guardianship by a court-approved third party) that controls both her finances and personal life. This coverage, a Mad in America examination found, reflects conventional attitudes about “mental illness” that are both stigmatizing and encourage legislation that promotes forced treatment—despite the fact that the conservatorship she is being subjected to isn’t even designed for the “mentally ill.”
First, They Mocked Her
Estimated to be worth $215 million, Spears is one of the most successful entertainers on record, a Grammy Award winner who’s sold more than 100 million records worldwide. She’s performed professionally since the age of eight, and at 15 became a hit pop singer; her 1999 album “Baby One More Time” is the best-selling album ever by a teenager. Though her public image was often sexualized, it was still that of a “good girl” until she reached adulthood when, in typical late-adolescent fashion, she pushed limits with excessive partying and impulsive behavior, marrying Kevin Federline, a backup dancer she’d known for a few months, at age 22.
During 2007-2008, at age 26, Spears suffered a “mental breakdown.” Postpartum with her second child in a year, she had recently left her husband, lost a close aunt to cancer, and was struggling with substance abuse—all while being pursued relentlessly by press photographers. Headlines during this period regularly captured socially unacceptable incidents such as shaving her head, beating a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella, driving with her baby on her lap, and speaking in unusual accents.
One night, she held a standoff at her home with police, locking her young sons and herself in a bathroom and refusing to relinquish them into Federline’s care. Her divorced parents, from whom she was then estranged, got a psychiatrist to place her on a “5150” hold for an involuntary mental health assessment and then briefly placed her under an LPS conservatorship, a legal arrangement that forced her into psychiatric care.
Back then, Spears’ struggles were mocked, and her behavior shamed in the media. She was scolded in headlines such as “Sick!” (US Weekly, November 19, 2007), featured in a New York Times roundup of celebrity “train wrecks,” and eulogized in an 8,000-plus-word cover story in Rolling Stone, “The Tragedy of Britney Spears.” According to the press, Britney was done.
The Men Take Over
Despite her having returned to work within a few months of her commitment, a judge allowed her to be placed under a permanent probate conservatorship that continues to this day. Under this guardianship arrangement, Britney’s personal affairs and financial interests over the past decade-plus have been controlled by handsomely paid, court-appointed overseers. Her father, Jamie—a recovering alcoholic who was placed on a restraining order this past September after Federline alleged that he attacked one of his and Britney’s sons—handles her “person.” A business attorney named Andrew M. Wallet took care of her money. These men have had the power to decide matters as intimate as her medical care, visitors, and whether she can remarry—and as mundane as whether she’s permitted to drive her own car or grab a Starbucks. After Wallet abruptly quit in March and Jamie temporarily stepped down this fall citing ongoing health issues, Britney’s healthcare manager, a professional conservator named Jodi Montgomery, has temporarily taken over the job.
Why is this arrangement needed? Spears is said to suffer from an unspecified mental illness, for which her 2008 “meltdown” has been deemed prima facie evidence. But California’s probate conservatorship statute is not usually applied to “mentally ill” people, as it does not allow forced psychiatric treatment or medication, nor is it often used to protect the young and otherwise healthy (Spears just turned 38). Rather, it’s reserved for gravely disabled people, typically seniors, who cannot perform basic self-care and are non-compos mentis.
In California, guardianship of those diagnosed as mentally ill is governed by the Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act, and recent policy moves are attempting to bolster it. According to Disability Rights California, a proposed law, AB1572, aims to significantly broaden the definition of “gravely disabled” under LPS “in order to expand the number of persons that can be involuntarily held” by the mental health system and then placed under conservatorship. And under SB1045, a bill passed last year and slowly being implemented in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the state can place homeless mentally ill people under conservators who would order them into rehab.
However, Britney Spears’ guardianship was not authorized under that law. The reason may be that even though probate conservatorship is supposed to be reserved for “gravely disabled” people, the courts have interpreted that standard in a way that makes it easier for those seeking control over multiple areas of another’s life to obtain such guardianship. According to the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, the law, as interpreted, requires mainly that the person be unable to “provide properly” for their own needs, a more subjective assessment. In a report, CANHR notes: “The California test for conservatorships is purely functional, opening the process to taking over the affairs of mere eccentrics.”
In addition, whereas LPS conservatorships are designed expressly to facilitate the treatment of people with “mental illness,” they don’t allow for control over other aspects of the conservatee’s medical care or broader areas of their lives the way probate conservatorships do, according to Jan Costello, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in health and disability. A probate conservatorship potentially gives much more control to the guardian than an LPS conservatorship, and thus they are “supposed to be tailored to the needs of the individual,” Costello told Mad in America. “The court is not supposed to remove decision-making power from the conservatee in areas where they are able to act on their own.”
As such, Costello explained, “a probate conservatorship isn’t focused on whether you’re sane or insane, but your ability to make decisions and manage your life.”
Conservatorships are reviewed at least once a year, and theoretically the legal burden should be on the person who wants to continue the conservatorship to show it’s still needed, Costello said. Instead, as the law is regularly applied, if the conservatee wants to be released, or to request greater freedoms, “she has to show that things have changed since the conservatorship was last renewed.”
This, of course, leads to a Catch-22: “If the original finding took away most powers, in order to show you can do something, you have to show you’ve in fact been doing that thing,” and also obtain a confirming professional opinion, Costello said.
In other words, the conservatee has to prove he or she has been handling the very responsibilities or freedoms that the conservatorship has limited their ability to engage in.
Britney’s Successful Life
What Britney has accomplished over the past 12 years would seem to belie any finding that she is “gravely disabled” and unable to provide for her own needs. She has co-written and recorded multiple hit albums, toured, and performed onstage almost nonstop while also representing a popular fragrance brand. She’s apparently able to maintain personal relationships, having co-parented her children and enjoyed several long-term romantic relationships since her 2007 divorce. And like all big celebrities, she has numerous assistants, bodyguards, business associates, and other employees around to facilitate her daily life and ensure her safety.
And indeed, between 2008 and 2019, numerous articles told of how Britney was back. There were even a few features that explored why she remained under the probate conservancy, given her life. A 2008 A Rolling Stone cover story, “Britney Spears Returns!” asked what the conservancy “has cost her,” and reported on Spears’ own comments on her frustrations and some details on her initial attempts to fight it. A 2017 New York Times feature was titled “Is Britney Spears Ready to Stand on Her Own?” While agnostic on that question, this article more explicitly questioned the merits of the conservatorship, and the Catch-22 she was in.
“Ultimately some of the people who would help to decide whether to end [the conservancy] are the conservators and doctors who now help oversee it, many of whom receive fees from Ms. Spears’s estate for their work on her behalf,” the Times wrote. “…There has been some debate in California over whether court-appointed lawyers do enough to advocate the rights of those under conservatorship.” The Times later called the state’s system “troubled for decades.”
At the same time, there were some articles that quoted anonymous sources stating that the conservatorship needed to remain, such as one in The Huffington Post. “Though Spears has been doing ‘extremely well,’… her ‘personality disorder’ apparently makes her too much of a wild card to be able to make her own decisions…. Britney’s team of doctors just don’t feel that she is ready for the conservatorship to end.”
And so the conservatorship fees rolled on.
Press: Britney’s Off Her Meds!
In April of this year, the media reported that Spears had spent a month at a mental health facility. In January, she’d taken an indefinite hiatus from her Vegas show to deal with the stress of her father’s near-fatal ruptured colon and was said to have agreed to inpatient treatment due to feeling overwhelmed and having problems with her medications. Now, still shaky, she was trying to regroup.
But Britney’s Gram, a fan podcast broadcast that same month, made her conservatorship into an issue of contention. The podcast aired a voice message from someone who claimed to be a former paralegal at a law firm involved in her case, alleging Spears had decided to stop her meds, been forced into treatment, and wanted more freedom in her life. In response, a movement of concerned fans began demonstrating and a #FreeBritney hashtag began proliferating on social media, both of which continued into the fall.
This stirred the press to weigh in on her conservancy, and as it did, Spears was once again seen through the lens of “mental illness” that has been promoted by American psychiatry and advocates of forced treatment. Articles that sought to defend her handlers’ version of events told of a compliant patient who wasn’t resisting treatment or the conservatorship.
For example, an April 23 article in People had this headline: “Britney Spears’ Wellness Treatment Includes Adjusting Her Meds. ‘No One Forced Her,’ Says Source.” An US Weekly magazine article on May 1 portrayed her as assiduously focused on self-care, “taking her medications as prescribed.”
In contrast, US Weekly’s May 13 article told of a breakdown triggered by Spears’ failure to take her meds, and this was why she needed to be protected by the conservatorship:
“Multiple sources are now painting a picture of a situation that was more dire than initial reports led fans to believe—a downward spiral months in the making . . . After [dad-conservator] Jamie became sick, Britney stopped taking her medication, says the insider: ‘She wasn’t sleeping and had drastic mood swings. It was becoming eerily similar to the events in 2007 that led to the conservatorship.’”
The magazine was getting all this from an anonymous “insider,” who continued:
“Before Jamie became ill, he always stayed on top of Britney’s health . . . He’d do daily phone checks with her and her bodyguards to make sure that she was taking her meds,” adding, “The sole reason the conservatorship has gone on this long is because Britney would be non-compliant about taking her meds.”
Although these articles described different facts, both were rooted in the same beliefs: Britney suffers from a “mental illness,” which needs to be treated with medications. In the People and first US Weekly articles, she is presented as compliant and doing well on the meds, which implies she understands she is “ill” and thus, the conservatorship is needed. In the second US Weekly piece, her breakdown is attributed to her being non-compliant, and this non-compliance also requires the conservatorship.
Two different images of Britney, but both singing the same gospel.
Others Do the Talking
These articles suffered from a lack of any comments from Britney herself (save quotes from her Instagram account, which don’t address direct questions). Equally concerning, many relied on anonymous sources “close to the situation,” and/or second- and third-hand reports and experts not involved in her care. Spears, for her part, has never stated that she believes she has a “mental illness” and has seldom mentioned the conservancy.
On May 10, Spears, her parents, and their lawyers attended a court hearing on her conservatorship. A week later, a feature in The Washington Post titled “The Battle of Britney Spears” reported on the hearing, which, though journalistically balanced, ultimately served to defend the conservatorship and to dump cold water on the #FreeBritney effort.
The Post article led with how Britney left the courthouse shoeless (as though this were a sure sign of mental illness) and linked to a sensationalistic TMZ article that described her as unwell. (TMZ, a frequent source for many articles we studied, is a tabloid rated untrustworthy by the media watchdog Newsguard.)
“The [court] documents don’t specify what the expert will be evaluating, but in conservatorship cases, it often involves a mental examination of the conservatee … in this case, Britney. … Additionally, we’re told Britney asked the judge to allow her certain freedoms — things she’s not able to do under the conservatorship — but the judge did not grant any of her requests. The court’s decision highlights what we’ve been reporting … Britney’s not doing well after her 30-day stay in a mental health facility.”
Next, the Post article describes the conservatorship as benign, “a carefully protected bubble, handlers shielding her from negative influences or hangers-on.” The guardianship, it quotes her long-time manager, is “not a jail.”
Then the article describes how helpful the conservatorship has been for Spears. In 2009, the article states, a lawyer who claimed she’d hired him “attempted to win back her autonomy. The judge admonished him, saying [Britney’s having self-determination] would be a ‘travesty of justice’ in light of Spears’s ‘remarkable’ improvement, which she credited to the ‘superhuman’ work of her conservators.”
There was no mention of Britney’s role in her own recovery, only her guardians’.
Finally, the article tells why the conservatorship is still needed. People “in the singer’s circle stress that the conservatorship was enacted in early 2008 to save her life after a mental-health crisis involving several trips to rehab and two separate hospitalizations under psychiatric holds.” The conservatorship continues, her manager told the Post, because earlier this year she had been struggling to adjust to changes in her medication regimen and became “rattled and destabilized.”
Having defended the conservatorship, the Post article then turned its attention to the #FreeBritney movement. In this arena, noted TMZ in one of its articles, Spears did have a voice. “There are indications that Spears herself craves more freedom. At the hearing, she reportedly told a judge that ‘her father . . . committed her to a mental facility a month ago against her will and also forced her to take drugs.”
The Post article pooh-poohed such reports. The #FreeBritney advocates, with their “sign waving and conspiracy theories,” are naïve and counterproductive: “As social media supplants gossip blogs, and mockery is replaced by calls for support, it’s created a frenzy of fan speculation around Spears that some in her camp say may be just as detrimental…[Britney] indicated as much in a caption to an April Instagram video….”
That is as close as the Post gets to including input from Spears herself, returning to the subject of her mystery malady and deferring to the authorities who control her:
“Sources close to the singer are pushing back on the #FreeBritney narrative, emphasizing that Spears is in the conservatorship for a reason — long-term mental-health issues that they would not specify. They know #FreeBritney is born out of fans’ love for her, they say, but insist that fans don’t understand the details of Spears’s condition and the logistics of the legal arrangement, which is monitored closely by medical professionals and the courts.”
The article concluded by scolding the #FreeBritney crowd: “Despite the podcast’s posture of solidarity with the beleaguered and beloved star, it has drawn backlash from critics who note that the hosts have no firsthand knowledge into what’s going on in the life of a woman with a documented history of complex emotional struggles.”
However, reporters don’t have firsthand knowledge of what is happening to Britney either, as they haven’t interviewed her directly.
The Post article, like so many pieces on Spears’ recent struggles, not only leans on anonymous sources, dismisses challengers of the conservatorship, and lacks any direct input from her, but also never addresses such questions as why a probate conservatorship, which is for gravely disabled people, is being applied to someone who has had episodes of “mental illness” (seemingly the point of the story); why someone might want to stop taking their meds; how the guardianship takes away the autonomy and agency of a woman in the prime of her life; and finally, the possible financial and power motives of those close to her who are profiting from the conservatorship—a well-documented problem with guardianships that has drawn the attention of the US Senate Special Committee on Aging.
It’s for Her Own Good
In September, Spears attended another hearing to review her conservatorship. This one, and the accompanying protests, merited an investigative feature on the conservatorship by the Los Angeles Times, titled “Britney Spears Hasn’t Fully Controlled Her Life for Years: Fans Insist It’s Time to #FreeBritney.”
The article didn’t mention whether the Times had tried to contact Spears herself. Instead, it sought to interview “those who might have seen firsthand how it has affected her.” Yet, the paper conceded, “no one in her inner circle responded to requests for comments.”
The article stated that after a three-month investigation, which would appear to have included reviewing public court documents, it “could find no independent evidence that Spears was being harmed by the arrangement.” While it may be unusual for a young, productive person to be placed under a conservatorship, the paper added, Spears’ wealth provided a reason to do so in this case:
“Her estate is immense and complicated to manage, so she could be subject to ‘undue influence’—a factor judges consider along with mental capacity when deciding whether a conservatorship is a good fit.” Added a psychologist: “a person with that kind of wealth would be attracting a lot of people toward them, many of whom may not have their best interests in mind.” It’s hard to imagine the same paternalism applied to a male rock star.
Indeed, Andrew M. Wallet, a former conservator who successfully petitioned the court for a raise earlier this year, called the arrangement a “hybrid business model.” (A use for which conservatorships were not intended.) What this could mean, the Times wrote, “is that the conservatorship has enabled Spears to clinch business deals that might have been unavailable to her after her most turbulent years, [lawyer Andy] Mayoras said. She might have been seen as too much of a risk otherwise.”
People had a similar take in a September 23 article. Although Spears was still “not speaking” to her father-conservator, she still “needs someone around that makes daily decisions for her,” a “source” told the magazine.
More recently, USA Today provided its readers with similar reasoning. Its October 24 article featured an interview with Troy Martin, who helped the paper examine Spears’ publicly available court files but is not involved in her case. He outright praised the arrangement: “Everybody looks at conservatorship as a terrible thing foisted on her. I look at it as a success story… Her life was a wreck. … By all appearances, things are a heck of a lot better now than they were in 2008.”
However, this article did at least quote a critic of conservatorship. “We have found that [a conservatorship] is very easy to get into and extremely hard to get out of,” said attorney Zoe Brennan-Krohn of the Disability Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, “and the problem is they are stripping a person of all her civil rights and liberties. It can seem to be a sort of benign process if the conservator is well-meaning. But even if it seems benign, the person does not have their rights about basic things.” She added, “Most of us are free to make bad choices and learn from them, but that’s not true about people with disabilities.”
The Bottom Line
The coverage in recent stories about Spears, filled with truisms about mentally ill people’s incompetency, could have benefited from a more critical eye and less speculation. Instead, we see stories built on anonymous sources, who frequently use reporters for their own purposes; reporters’ inability to sit down with the star renders their reporting more like glorified gossip. Little attention was paid to an obvious fact about her case that resonates beyond it: The state has the power to circumscribe an allegedly disabled but highly functional woman’s right to self-governance “for her own good” even though she has committed no crime. Also, less extreme alternatives to conservatorship were never mentioned, such as supported decision-making.
Britney Spears’ next conservancy hearing is due in January 2020, which gives the news media another opportunity to better cover her case, beyond speculation and stereotypes. Let’s hope that she eventually is able and willing to sit down with reporters and speak freely about her future.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations