The Strangeness of the Britney Spears Conservatorship

Britney Spears performing in 2016
Britney Spears, Roundhouse, London (Apple Music Festival 2016)
Drew de F Fawkes, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Britney Spears has been in the news recently after the New York Times released its documentary Framing Britney Spears. It’s on Hulu and FX, which I don’t have access to, so I haven’t watched it. Still, I wanted to talk about the concept of conservatorship in relation to mental illness, because Britney represents an unusual example.

The background

This all started with a very public meltdown in 2007. She was hospitalized, but her diagnosis was never publicly released. In 2008, a California court gave her father, Jamie Spears, conservatorship over her medical and financial affairs.

According to a CBS News article published on Feb. 11/21, conservatorship, which is known as guardianship in many other jurisdictions, happens when a judge appoints a conservator/guardian to care for someone who’s unable to care for themselves or manage their own finances.

Post-meltdown, she’s continued performing and has kept quiet about the conservatorship. Some fans have rallied around the #FreeBritney hashtag to criticize the ongoing restrictions on her freedom.

Recent developments

While Britney hasn’t publicly challenged the conservatorship, she has recently been open about challenging her father’s role. According to an article published in The New York Times on Feb. 12/21:

“My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father,” Britney Spears’s court-appointed lawyer told a judge in November. “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.”

Earlier this month, Britney’s boyfriend of four years, Sam Asghari, was critical of Jamie Spears in an Instagram post. CBS News provides this quote from that post: “Now it’s important for people to understand that I have zero respect for someone trying to control our relationship and constantly throwing obstacles our way. In my opinion, Jamie is a total d**k.” 

Conservatorship and mental illness

I find this whole thing fascinating. At least where I am, this is not usual for people with mental illness. Granted, laws vary from place to place, but adult guardianship laws where I am in Canada sound pretty similar to conservatorship in California. I worked in mental health care for 15 years, and I came across very few people under adult guardianship orders.

Britney is clearly very high-functioning in certain very specific aspects of her life related to performing. How does one maintain functioning at that level in that area yet not have the capacity to make adult decisions?

While her diagnosis isn’t publicly known, bipolar disorder seems like a reasonable guess for the sake of argument. And let’s guess that the worry is that she’ll get manic and blow all her money. It’s hard to imagine that conservatorship would be the least restrictive means possible to prevent that outcome. Does California not have some kind of outpatient commitment or community treatment order system that could take care of some of that without taking away her rights as an adult? Conservatorship seems very heavy-handed for might-get-manic. At least in theory there would need to be an ongoing, consistent lack of capacity for that to be in place.

If she is, in fact, incapacitated, how appropriate is it to keep up a hardcore performing schedule? Is that her father taking advantage of her?

As for Britney herself, her social media posts have a childlike quality to them.

“Taking the time to learn and be a normal person” is a bit odd.

So many things are odd about this. But I do hope that this is the most appropriate option for Britney and it’s not an overreach. In general terms, though, I would say that this level of removal of rights isn’t appropriate for the vast majority of people with mental illness

What are your thoughts, either pertaining to Britney in particular or conservatorship and mental illness in general?

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39 thoughts on “The Strangeness of the Britney Spears Conservatorship”

  1. I understand to a point in 2007 but 13 + years later just doesn’t make sense to me. And i agree i would think performing for years in Las Vegas would be hard mentally. I’m sitting here working from home as sometime who has bipolar and i find it exhausting if she is capable to keep it together then then surely she can now.

    1. That’s for darn sure. Plus, if they tell you often enough that you can’t handle money, you begin to believe it. Learned Helplessness.

  2. We had heard of Brittany Spears but really don’t know who she is other than a singer. We have compassion for her and hope she receives loving care no matter what her status, finances, etc. Does she have kids?

  3. I don’t see why her father should be in control of her life at all. It’s HER money, to blow as she pleases, like so many other celebs do. If the money is the main issue, a chunk of it could be put away for a team of court approved accountants to oversee. Why should her father benefit?

    The other thing is I’m absolutely appalled at the way Justin T treated her ~ I had no idea he was such an asshole. I also didn’t realize that Janet J’s “wardrobe malfunction” was HIS FAULT. The way we worship white men and give them a pass for everything makes me SICK!

  4. I’m sure most her life has been controlled and sheltered. It’s hard to break free sometimes. She should definitely have control of her money though. I’m surprised the judge made the conservatorship permanent rather than temporary until she was doing better. 😕

  5. I’ve seen this mentioned in the news, but didn’t know what it was about, so thanks for the post that explains it. I don’t have much opinion either way, but I do find it really sad to see celebrities struggling with mental illness.

    It’s hard enough to live with mental illness, but then also being constantly in the public limelight must make it a million times harder. I’ve felt the same way about watching Kanye West and his various public meltdowns.

    The worst part of the whole thing sometimes is the public appetite to watch people like Kanye and Britney struggle for tabloid and gossip entertainment. The whole thing feels kind of sick to me.

  6. PrEdIcTaBlY UNpreDicTaBLe

    Makes sense to me. I relate to Britney…

    In the sense that, she is still like a child. Even though she is an adult.

    She is probably learning to be an adult as she goes along, like I am, as her childhood got screwed up to such an extent that parts of you get either shut down or are exiled.

    If you want to get what I mean by this. Read:

    You’ll see what a shame-based type of parenting style can do to you. Then add on trauma/abuse, and you will see the damage it can do and how complex it can make a person. And trust me I know this all too well.

    She probably doesn’t know how to look after herself properly. And it sounds like she has been very controlled during her life. Possibly abuse too from the sounds of it.

    She clearly has mental health issues/illness as I do, but at the same time, the performing and everything she does, a part of her will need to have, and keep going. As its a part of her. And she needs her fans, and this outside validation and approval, and attention.

    There are many parts to Britney I feel.

    There are to me too.

  7. I am intrigued to dice into her story further from reading this Ashleyleia. As a partner of someone in the public eye it’s an overwhelming position to be in. I see what the fans do and say that he reluctantly at times just puts up with. What is normal anyways right? Great piece 👏

  8. That post… it sounds like a rehearsed “hostage” speech to me.

    Daughter watched the documentary, said there was some shady stuff with visitation of her kids

    Possible bribery of the judge🤷🏼‍♀️

    I had the same questions… if she needs a full conservatorship, how can she do a Vegas Residency? Who signed the contract?

    It’s an interesting case.

  9. I’m a #FreeBritney even though I don’t know much about her. I’m probably projecting my own trauma from my severely controlling father but her dad doesn’t seem to have her best interests at heart.

    1. Yeah, giving too much control to the parent of an adult child seems like a recipe for disaster. If capacity is an issue, that control is most likely better off going to a neutral third party where family dynamics aren’t going to be an issue.

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