On Wednesday, the world was finally able to hear Britney Spears talk about the conservatorship that has been controlling her life for the past 13 years. In a 23-minute statement she delivered to Judge Brenda Penny in court, Spears said that the conservatorship gave her little financial and medical control, that she’s been drugged and made to undergo rehab programs and therapies she didn’t choose for herself, that she isn’t allowed to have children or get married and has an IUD that she can’t remove, and that she’s been forced to work against her will under threat of virtual blackmail.
The constraints of Spears’ conservatorship under her father Jamie Spears, financial firm Bessemer Trust, and professional conservator Jodi Montgomery, have long been speculated by fans. The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, released earlier this year, brought the discourse over Spears’ conservatorship to bigger audiences, highlighting the fan-led #FreeBritney movement and the financial conflicts of interest involved: Under the arrangement, Spears can make money that she doesn’t control, which her conservators can then use to pay for lawyers to argue for her continued conservatorship.
But Spears’ own disclosure of her decade-plus experience under the conservatorship — from her descriptions of the medical mistreatment she’s endured, to her lack of control — was shocking. You can listen to the full audio of her address at the video below (it is, notably, striking to realize that her voice is far less chipper and light than the voice she uses in her Instagram videos):
Several publications have also shared lightly-edited transcripts of Spears’ statement, during which she gave a chronological timeline of the abuse she’s experienced. She said she was forced to go on tour in 2018, and when she told her management that she didn’t want to do her second Vegas residency, they told her therapist she wasn’t taking her medication, and her therapist put her on lithium. She said that, after her dad told her she failed a psych exam, they sent her to a rehab program that she didn’t need but she had to pay for, where she was watched constantly and had to work seven days a week. The conservatorship has taken a huge mental toll on her, she said, and has made her depressed. She said she wants to get married and have more children, but she currently has an IUD birth control implant, and isn’t allowed to have it removed.
All of this is appalling. No one should be forced to bear this kind of treatment legally, let alone someone whose conservatorship is a financial incentive for the people who are acting as her conservators. But what stood out to me aside from Spears’ accounts was her plea to the judge that she be listened to, that she had tried to advocate for herself before and felt shut down, and that she had been unsure how to find her way out of this conservatorship. From Variety‘s transcript:
The last time I spoke to you by just keeping the conservatorship going, and also keeping my dad in the loop, made me feel like I was dead — like I didn’t matter, like nothing had been done to me, like you thought I was lying or something. I’m telling you again, because I’m not lying. I want to feel heard. And I’m telling you this again, so maybe you can understand the depth and the degree and the damage that they did to me back then.
I want changes, and I want changes going forward. I deserve changes. I was told I have to sit down and be evaluated, again, if I want to end the conservatorship. Ma’am, I didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to end it. I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that. But honestly, but I don’t think I owe anyone to be evaluated. I’ve done more than enough. I don’t feel like I should even be in room with anyone to offend me by trying to question my capacity of intelligence, whether I need to be in this stupid conservatorship or not. I’ve done more than enough.
Her comments about not being heard, and not being believed, echo a report from the Times released the day before, which disclosed confidential court records showing that Spears has tried to push back forcefully against the bonds of her conservatorship in the past, but has been rejected. From the Times, emphasis mine:
In 2014, Mr. Ingham [her court-appointed lawyer] told the court that Ms. Spears believed her father was drinking, according to a transcript of the closed hearing. Lawyers representing the conservatorship responded that Mr. Spears had voluntarily submitted to regularly scheduled alcohol tests and never failed. Mr. Spears’s lawyer said he took one random test, but refused to take any more, calling the request inappropriate.
“Absolutely inappropriate,” the judge replied. “And who is she to be demanding that of anybody?”
Mr. Ingham told the court that his client was upset that it was not taking her concerns seriously. “She said to me, when she gave me this shopping list, that she anticipates that, as it has been done before, the court will simply sweep it under the carpet and ignore any negative inferences with regard to Mr. Spears,” Mr. Ingham said, according to a transcript.
Mr. Ingham also raised Ms. Spears’s urgent desire to terminate the conservatorship altogether. She had even mentioned the possibility of changing her lifestyle and retiring, but believed the conservatorship precluded that, he said, according to a transcript.
The judge said that she would consider ending the conservatorship if Ms. Spears established a healthy relationship with a therapist and returned one year’s worth of clean drug tests. But the judge would not guarantee it.
It is hard to imagine that this is the kind of treatment that Spears has received from a judge — as she pointed out in her statement, she feared she wouldn’t be believed because she’s Britney Spears, and she’s supposed to have it all. But this is, plainly, the truth. Spears has, by all accounts, been asking to have control over her life again for years, and instead of having her requests thoughtfully considered by a fair, impartial arbiter of justice, she was shamed for demanding something as simple as a drug test for the person who is supposed to be overseeing her finances and life choices. You have to ask, if this is how they’re treating Spears, how do these judges treat everyone else?
What is this supposed to mean for anyone who doesn’t have the privilege that Spears’ celebrity has gotten her? If this is the way that judges have treated an able-bodied adult capable of running a successful concert tour, of raking in millions in residency performances, then what chance does any marginalized person have in navigating their state’s guardianship or conservatorship system?
Plainly, they don’t. From New Republic‘s report on the deeper implications of Spears’ conservatorship problems, and what this means for disabled people, from February:
In California, courts are supposed to exhaust all alternatives before entering a person into conservatorship. This is certainly the opinion of Vivian Lee Thoreen, an attorney who has represented Britney’s father and who appears in Framing Britney Spears. “Courts take conservatorships really seriously, and that’s because, I think, every person’s rights are sacred,” Thoreen said. “There are rules and procedures in place to make sure that there’s accountability. And really, the theme of conservatorships is to act in the conservatee’s best interests.” However, she later concedes, she has never seen a conservatee successfully terminate a conservatorship. She does not seem to acknowledge the contradiction.
According to Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project, there are normally few checks during conservatorship proceedings. “[They] tend to be pretty pro forma,” she told me. “Before a judge grants conservatorship, the judge should ask: What else have you tried? Is there a danger issue? What’s going wrong, that you think this person needs conservatorship? What might address that issue short of stripping this person of all of their civil rights and civil liberties? And in reality, judges rarely ask those questions.”
Spears’ story is heartbreaking, especially for so many fans who saw her music and work as their own expressions of adolescent freedom. But beyond what has happened to her is a larger story of what may be happening to so many other people who are on the wrong end of the conservator or guardianship system—to disabled people facing down the pathologies of the world, to elderly people having their autonomy brutally taken away, to women whose feelings and experiences are dismissed as trivial, untrustworthy hysteria. She is a symbol for those people, and for anyone who ever expected the justice system to work for them but instead found that it was rigged against them.
Spears isn’t allowed to make financial decisions for herself. She’s being forced to work against her will. She’s unable to remove a birth control implant and have children. All of these aspects of her conservatorship are horrific and unimaginable, and they’re happening within a system that normally prioritizes people like her. What is happening to other people who are also legally barred from making these same decisions for themselves, who aren’t being listened to by the judges of their cases, who have no chance of garnering the same amount of attention to their legal situations as Spears does?