Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Nightmare: How the pop star’s father and a team of lawyers seized control of her life—and have held on to it for thirteen years.

On June 22nd, Britney Spears’s management team started getting nervous. Spears, who is thirty-nine, has spent the past thirteen years living under a conservatorship, a legal structure in which a person’s personal, economic, and legal decision-making power is ceded to others. Called a guardianship in most states, the arrangement is intended for people who cannot take care of themselves. Since the establishment of Spears’s conservatorship, she has released four albums, headlined a global tour that grossed a hundred and thirty-one million dollars, and performed for four years in a hit Las Vegas residency. Yet her conservators, who include her father, Jamie Spears, have controlled her spending, communications, and personal decisions.

In April, Spears had requested a hearing, in open court, to discuss the terms of the arrangement. It was scheduled for June 23rd. Members of Spears’s team, most of whom have had little or no direct contact with her for years, didn’t expect drastic changes to result. Two years earlier, in the midst of health struggles and pressure from Spears, Jamie had stepped down from his duties overseeing her personal life, and now the team thought that perhaps she wanted to remove him as the conservator of her financial affairs. Some of the team told reporters that they believed Spears liked the conservatorship arrangement, as long as her father wasn’t involved.

Running the business of Britney had become routine: every Thursday at noon, about ten people responsible for managing Spears’s legal and business affairs, public relations, and social media met to discuss merchandise deals, song-license requests, and Spears’s posts to Instagram and Twitter. (“This is how it works without her,” one member of the team said.) Spears, according to her management, typically writes the posts and submits them to CrowdSurf, a company employed to handle her social media, which then uploads them. In rare cases, posts that raise legal questions have been deemed too sensitive to upload. “She’s not supposed to discuss the conservatorship,” the team member said.

On the eve of the hearing, according both to a person close to Spears and to law enforcement in Ventura County, California, where she lives, Spears called 911 to report herself as a victim of conservatorship abuse. (Emergency calls in California are generally accessible to the public, but the county, citing an ongoing investigation, sealed the records of Spears’s call.) Members of Spears’s team began texting one another frantically. They were worried about what Spears might say the next day, and they discussed how to prepare in the event that she went rogue. In court on the 23rd, an attorney for the conservatorship urged the judge to clear the courtroom and seal the transcript of Spears’s testimony. Spears, calling into the hearing, objected. “Somebody’s done a good job at exploiting my life,” she said, adding, “I feel like it should be an open-court hearing—they should listen and hear what I have to say.” Then, for the first time in years, Spears spoke for herself, sounding lucid and furious, talking so fast that the judge interjected repeatedly to tell her to slow down, to allow for accurate transcription. “The people who did this to me should not get away,” Spears said. Addressing the judge directly, she added, “Ma’am, my dad, and anyone involved in this conservatorship, and my management, who played a huge role in punishing me when I said no—Ma’am, they should be in jail.”

For the next twenty minutes, Spears described how she had been isolated, medicated, financially exploited, and emotionally abused. She assigned harsh blame to the California legal system, which she said let it all happen. She added that she had tried to complain to the court before but had been ignored, which made her “feel like I was dead,” she said—“like I didn’t matter.” She wanted to share her story publicly, she said, “instead of it being a hush-hush secret to benefit all of them.” She added, “It concerns me I’ve been told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me.” At one point, she told the court, “All I want is to own my money, for this to end, and for my boyfriend to drive me in his fucking car.”

Spears’s remarks were incendiary but, for people familiar with the creation and the functioning of her conservatorship, not surprising. Andrew Gallery, a photographer who worked for Spears in 2008, attended the hearing, watching the lawyers’ faces on a monitor. “As she spoke, I wanted to scream, and gasp, and shout ‘What the fuck is going on?’ ” he said. “But the lawyers had no reaction. They just sat there.”

The conservatorship was instituted by Spears’s family—in part out of real concerns about her mental health, people close to the family said. But the family was divided by money and fame, and Spears, in an underregulated part of the legal system, was stripped of her rights. She has fought for years to get them back.

As a pop star, Spears sustained a multinational industry of managers, agents, producers, lawyers, publicists, and assorted hangers-on. As the subject of the conservatorship, she has provided for the livelihood of even more lawyers and other court-appointed professionals. Jacqueline Butcher, a former friend of the Spears family who was present in court for the conservatorship’s creation, said she regrets the testimony that she offered to help secure it. “At the time, I thought we were helping,” she said. “And I wasn’t, and I helped a corrupt family seize all this control.”

Jamie Spears, who is sixty-eight, has graying hair and a hangdog demeanor. When he was thirteen, he endured an unimaginable tragedy: his mother committed suicide on the grave of one of her sons, who had died eight years earlier, at just three days old. In high school, Jamie was a basketball and football star; later, he worked as a welder and a cook. Lynne Spears, Britney’s mother, grew up with Jamie, in the small town of Kentwood, Louisiana. Sixty-six years old, she has a smile like Britney’s and thick dark hair with bangs. She used to run her own day-care center. Friends describe her as traditional and nonconfrontational. In a conversation in June, she was fastidiously polite as she declined to answer detailed questions about the case. She spoke in a whisper and apologized that she might have to hang up abruptly if other family members walked in and discovered her speaking to a reporter. “I got mixed feelings about everything,” she said. “I don’t know what to think. . . . It’s a lot of pain, a lot of worry.” She added, a little wryly, “I’m good. I’m good at deflecting.” Jamie and Lynne eloped when she was twenty-one, and the marriage was troubled from the start: in divorce papers filed, then withdrawn, in 1980, less than two years before Britney’s birth, Lynne accused Jamie of cheating on her on Christmas Day. Jamie wrestled with alcoholism, going on benders so egregious that Lynne once shelled his cooler with a shotgun.

But Jamie and Lynne worked together to make Britney, their second child, happy and a success. She was a born performer, a scene-stealer at dance recitals starting at age three. Her parents drove her to small dance competitions in Lafayette, then to larger ones in New Orleans. They borrowed money from friends to pay for gas to get her to auditions. Spears snagged an understudy role on Broadway and then a stint in the nineties version of “The Mickey Mouse Club.” When she was sixteen, she signed a six-album deal with Jive Records, thanks to an enterprising entertainment lawyer named Larry Rudolph, who became her manager. A precise and commanding dancer with an unmistakable vocal tone of sugary coyness, Spears emerged as a teen-pop singularity. In 1998, the music video for her début single, “. . . Baby One More Time,” featuring a sixteen-year-old Spears in a Catholic-schoolgirl outfit, exploded across American pop culture like fireworks on the Fourth of July. The pleated skirt and bare midriff were her idea—a fact that’s sometimes cited as evidence of her self-determination but might also suggest an intuition, common among teen-age girls, of the compromised power of sex appeal.

Because Jamie and Lynne had two other children to look after, a family friend chaperoned Spears for much of her early career. But Spears remained close to her mother, and, in 2000, she built a four-and-a-half-million-dollar estate for Lynne in Kentwood. That year, according to “Through the Storm,” a memoir that Lynne published in 2008, Spears urged her mother to divorce her father, knowing that “years and years of verbal abuse, abandonment, erratic behavior, and his simply not being there for me had taken their toll,” Lynne writes. She and Jamie divorced in May, 2002, and Spears told People that it was “the best thing that’s ever happened to my family.”

Spears had just broken up with Justin Timberlake, a fellow teen-pop icon, whom she had met when she was eleven, when they were both cast as Mouseketeers. The breakup destabilized her, people close to her remember; her status as half of a golden couple had become an integral part of her identity, and after the split her sex life became a regular topic in the news. She began going out more and hanging out with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, forming a holy trinity for tabloid culture at its early-two-thousands peak. “The paparazzi were out of control,” Hilton recalled, of one night with Spears at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Fighting over getting the shot, pushing each other against my car, scratching it with their cameras. It was overwhelming and frightening.” The hairdresser Kim Vo, Spears’s longtime colorist, remembers how, one day, as Spears was getting her hair done, a paparazzo scaled a wall and broke a salon window with his fist.

Spears distracted herself with work—a relentless grind of dance rehearsals, studio sessions, photo shoots, stadium performances, long nights on the tour bus, and hotel check-ins before dawn. “The schedule was crazier and crazier,” Julianne Kaye, a makeup artist who worked with Spears in the early years, said. “She would have little breakdowns. She was always crying, saying, ‘I want to be normal.’ ” Spears blew off steam by partying: she smoked weed, used cocaine, took Molly with her dancers and jumped into the Mediterranean Sea. But the machinery around her only grew. When she toured, the crew took at least a dozen buses and filled entire hotel floors.

In the spring of 2004, Spears met a dancer named Kevin Federline at a night club, and they were married within six months. Spears initially did not secure a prenuptial agreement, which prompted panic in her family. A considerable fortune was at stake. “Lynne lost her mind,” Butcher, the family friend, recalled. “They weren’t gonna allow the wedding to be made legal.” The marriage contract wasn’t signed until the month after the ceremony, when Federline legally agreed to limit his stake in Spears’s estate. But Spears seemed thrilled, and commissioned a photo shoot in which she dressed up as a French maid and served drinks to Federline, who wore a trucker hat, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. Spears wanted a family. “I’ve had a career since I was 16, have traveled around the world & back and even kissed Madonna!” she wrote on her Web site, two months after getting married. “The only thing I haven’t done so far is experience the closest thing to God and that’s having a baby. I can’t wait!”

Spears’s first son, Sean Preston, was born ten months after the wedding. “Our life was running at 150,000 miles an hour,” Federline later told Us Weekly. “I’d walk into a club and get a table worth $15,000 a night with unlimited free drinking. . . . But everything got so crazy.” Spears had been so sheltered that Paris Hilton had to show her how to use Google, according to a person who was there. She negotiated the hormonal and logistical turbulence of early motherhood while paparazzi, eager to monetize her mistakes, chased her down, pointing flashbulbs and shouting provocations any time she left the house. After she was photographed driving with an infant Preston on her lap, she explained that she had been trying to get away from paparazzi—and besides, she added, she had grown up riding on her dad’s lap on country roads. A few months later, visibly pregnant and holding Preston, she stumbled while surrounded by photographers; the paparazzi kept shooting as she retreated to a café, cradled her baby, and cried.

Spears had her second child, Jayden James, in September, 2006. Three weeks later, Federline took a private jet to Vegas to party with his friends. Spears filed for divorce in November, reportedly notifying Federline by text message. At a night club, he scrawled on a bathroom wall “Today I’m a free man—f**k a wife, give me my kids bitch!” He requested full custody. While the divorce was being adjudicated, he and Spears divided parental duties. Preston was a little more than a year old, and Spears was still nursing Jayden; she wanted to be with them all the time, and hated being at home without them. “I did not know what to do with myself,” she said later, in an MTV documentary. Spears and Federline both went out on their free nights, but Spears was the one who became the target of tabloid blood sport. (“mommy’s crying,” Us Weekly blared, over a full-page photo of Preston.) In February, 2007, she shaved off her hair, at a salon in Tarzana; five days later, she attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. The two incidents cemented her image as “crazy.” Both were precipitated by her driving to Federline’s house, trailed by photographers, and being refused access to her kids.

Many people who were close to Spears during her early career suspect that she was dealing with postpartum depression, but none of them remembers anyone bringing it up with her. Some of the same people said that Spears was also struggling with drugs and alcohol. Her mother and Federline insisted that, if Spears wanted to spend more time with her children, she needed to go to rehab. In early 2007, she checked into a treatment center in Antigua, then checked out after just one day. The judge in the custody hearing, who had cited Spears’s “habitual, frequent uses of controlled substances and alcohol,” gave primary custody of the children to Federline, granting Spears four days of visitation per week, under the eye of a court-ordered monitor named Robin Johnson.

Around this time, Spears met Sam Lutfi, a Hollywood operator with a knack for insinuating himself into the lives of turbulent female stars. Spears had recently parted ways with Larry Rudolph, her longtime manager, and she began to entrust her professional and private affairs to Lutfi. Now forty-six, Lutfi cuts a nondescript figure: average height, occasionally goateed, favoring baseball caps and black T-shirts. Over coffee at a Los Angeles restaurant this spring, he said that Spears took to him in part because he told her that she didn’t have to work nearly as hard as she was. “She’d always believed there were massive consequences if she didn’t work, that she’d lose so much, and it blew her mind that she could just call the shots,” he said. “You want to cancel that meeting? Cancel it. You’re gonna lose five grand? Lose it. She’d walk into a car dealership, say she wanted something. I’d say, ‘Buy it.’ Her parents would say, ‘Why would you let her do that?’ But it’s an eighty-thousand-dollar car, not a yacht, and she just got fifteen million from Estée Lauder. Anyway, she’s an adult. I’m not gonna tell her that she can’t buy a fucking yacht.” (Lutfi later assumed a similar role in the life of Courtney Love, who called him a “street hustler,” and he said that he advised Amanda Bynes’s family as they placed her in a conservatorship. He is currently subject to a five-year restraining order filed against him, in 2019, by a conservatorship lawyer, on Spears’s behalf.)

Lutfi brokered relationships with the paparazzi and on occasion invited them into Spears’s home, telling her that this would make them less adversarial. Spears started dating one of the photographers, Adnan Ghalib. Lutfi claims that Ghalib gave Spears amphetamines. (Lutfi has also been accused of giving her drugs, which he denies; Ghalib could not be reached for comment.) Spears’s housekeeper at the time paused when asked about Ghalib: “I wouldn’t be happy if my daughter dated him. That’s all I will say.” Other people recalled Ghalib treating Spears kindly, and said that the Spears family cruelly mocked him behind his back.

Jamie had become close to Lou Taylor, a business manager who shares the Spears family’s Christian faith and whose husband is a pastor at an evangelical church. Taylor later raised the possibility of putting Lindsay Lohan under a conservatorship, according to Lohan’s father; in a recent interview, Courtney Love said that Taylor tried to wrest control over her family’s estate. (In a statement, Charles Harder, a lawyer representing Taylor, said, “At no time did Ms. Taylor ever make any effort to put anyone into a conservatorship. Not Britney Spears. Not Lindsay Lohan. Not Courtney Love.”) Taylor, sources present at the time said, began attempting to contact Spears, efforts that Spears rebuffed.

Spears had stopped sleeping and had begun behaving even more erratically. “The days she didn’t have the kids with her were hard,” the housekeeper said. “But, even then, she was never doing anything to hurt anyone. It was really hard for her, having the kids for just a few hours. When she had to say goodbye, it was very sad—I would carry one to the car, and she would take the other, and they would cry a lot, and she would cry, too.” Spears grew so lonely that she would sometimes ask the housekeeper if she could bring her own children to the house and stay the night. “She used to ask me if I was happy,” the housekeeper said. “And I used to say yes. And she would say, ‘I just want to be happy. I want to have a family. I want my kids to stay with me every day.’ ”

Early in January, 2008, as a visit with her boys came to an end, Spears began to cry. “I just want to keep my kids with me,” she said. “Why do they have to go?” A bodyguard had arrived to take the kids back to Federline’s house. Every extra minute with them put her in violation of the custody agreement: she could either give up the kids at that moment or give up the right to see them later. Eventually, she handed Preston to the bodyguard, but she went into a bathroom with Jayden and refused to come out. According to Lutfi, Federline’s lawyer called the police and the fire department, which in turn called an ambulance. News crews gathered outside the house, with anchors reporting live on the standoff. Four helicopters circled overhead. Lutfi arrived to find the house filled with cops and firemen wielding axes. “It looked like a murder scene,” he recalled. “I pushed past everyone and opened the bathroom door—it was ridiculous; the locks on that door didn’t even work—and there she was, standing, pacing, holding the sleeping baby. She was dressed for a night out, in Louboutins. The bath is running. You could see the light filling up the bathroom from the choppers. I told her she needed to let Jayden go, and, as she’s about to hand me the kid, the firemen blow things up. They take the kid and bring a gurney and strap her down. She didn’t say anything. She was just looking at me, staring at me.” Lutfi was later told that it was a “5150”—an emergency psychiatric hold, in which a person having a mental-health episode can be involuntarily hospitalized. Paparazzi surrounded the ambulance and followed it to Cedars-Sinai hospital. One photographer posted a photo of Spears on the gurney to his Myspace account with the caption “Cha-ching! Cha-ching!!”

Federline was granted immediate sole custody of the children, and Spears’s visitation rights were suspended. It was widely assumed that Spears had endangered her children, but those who were around them disagree. “There’s nothing she’d do to endanger those kids,” Lutfi said. He described her as a mother who would have breakfast made when the kids came over, “dressed to a T, games and DVDs ready.” The housekeeper said, “As a mom, I can tell you: Britney was a good mom. She didn’t want to hurt or do anything wrong with her kids. No. I was there, and I know all she wanted was to have her kids at least another night.” Robin Johnson, the court-ordered monitor, who saw Spears four times a week, said, “None of this was her fault.” She went on, “There were so many people involved in her life that caused all of this craziness with her. I don’t have anything derogatory to say about her. . . . It was probably one of the saddest cases that I’ve ever done in my entire life.”

After the 5150, Jamie and Lou Taylor consulted lawyers about establishing a conservatorship for Spears. (Harder, Taylor’s lawyer, said that on the calls Taylor was “more of a listener than a contributor.”) Jamie and Lynne were terrified for their daughter, multiple people said; they were worried that Lutfi might be siphoning money from Spears, or that he might encourage impulsive choices that would leave her in serious debt. “The piranhas around Britney were fucking awful,” Gallery, the photographer who worked for Spears, said, “and her parents were trying to help.” A conservatorship “seemed like an impossible dream at that point, with Sam still so entrenched in her life,” Lynne wrote, in her memoir, referring to Lutfi. Jamie planned to file papers on January 22nd, but then Taylor “felt God leading them to wait, fast, and pray, despite the frustration of a phalanx of lawyers,” Lynne wrote. “I shuddered to think of what depths of desperation we would have to plumb to regain charge of our child.”

According to Lutfi, Spears had passed regular drug tests for much of the prior year, but she had begun taking Adderall when he was away for the holidays. On January 28th, she and Lutfi had an argument. Lynne called Jacqueline Butcher, the family friend, asking for a ride to Spears’s residence. Lynne told Butcher that she hoped the falling out with Lutfi might provide an opening for her to reëstablish contact with her daughter. Spears had been keeping her family at arm’s length. Jamie, Lynne, and Spears’s brother, Bryan, have all spent years on Spears’s payroll, and, as friends who spoke with her at the time recalled, she was increasingly resentful of their efforts to influence her. Butcher, who had become friends with Lynne through the entertainment industry, spent nearly a decade in close proximity to the family before, during, and after the creation of the conservatorship. She remembered how, during a trip to Las Vegas without Spears’s parents or siblings, Spears asked her for comfort. “She has anxiety,” Butcher said. “She called me on that trip and said, ‘Miss Jackie, come to my room.’ She just wanted me to hold her hand. She was in the living room, on a chair, and I just pulled up a chair and held her hand.”

Butcher was sympathetic to the idea that Spears needed to be wrested from Lutfi’s influence, and she agreed to help Lynne. They drove to the house together, in Butcher’s gray Range Rover. But, unbeknownst to Butcher, Jamie was following behind them. Arriving at the house around dusk, they were greeted by Lutfi, who said that Spears had left and wouldn’t come back until Jamie was gone. “Jamie was furious,” Butcher said. “He was screaming that he wasn’t going to let Sam do this.” A security guard asked Jamie to leave; after he did, Spears returned home, with Ghalib. She seemed odd and hyper—she was talking in a baby voice, standing up and sitting down, compulsively combing her hair, repeatedly changing her clothes and those of her dog. “That’s when the shit hit the fan,” Butcher said. Lynne, Ghalib, and Lutfi exchanged bitter recriminations, accusing one another of being a poor influence on Spears. Finally, Spears shouted at them to shut up.

Lynne writes, in her memoir, that Lutfi called her two days later to tell her that “somebody was coming to try to commit Britney again.” Lutfi maintains that Spears’s doctor called in a second 5150; others close to the situation speculate that Lutfi said something to the doctor to trigger the call, an allegation that he denies. Butcher, Lynne, Lutfi, and Spears were at the house when the police banged on the doors and then marched in. “It was a freaking circus—you would think it was a swat team taking down a drug ring,” Butcher said. “Cops, helicopters, fire department—you name it.” Spears, Butcher added, “was coöperative but crying and shaking” as they strapped her to a gurney. At one point, Butcher said, she moved to comfort Spears, and a first responder shouted at her to freeze and keep her distance. Spears was loaded into an ambulance, alone, and taken to U.C.L.A. Medical Center, flanked by a police convoy the length of a football field.

It was after midnight. Butcher, accompanied by Lynne and Ghalib, followed the ambulance to the hospital. At U.C.L.A., staff put them in a waiting room, where, joined by Jamie, they stayed; Spears had not given them permission to come see her. Some time later, they found out that Lutfi had arrived and was in the room with Spears. Jamie became irate. “That’s it. We’re getting him out of there. We’re getting the conservatorship,” Butcher recalled him saying. The following afternoon, Butcher joined Lynne at Bryan Spears’s apartment, and, at Lynne’s request, got on the phone with Jamie’s attorney, Geraldine Wyle. Urged on by Lynne, who said her throat hurt and that she was too fatigued to provide details, Butcher spoke with Wyle for about an hour, providing a comprehensive account of the events at Spears’s house in the previous days. Wyle said she would write up a report and submit it to the court. In retrospect, Butcher feels that she was exploited. “I didn’t know how a conservatorship worked,” she said. “It was supposed to be temporary.”

From that moment, the proceedings moved with remarkable speed. The next morning, with Spears still at the hospital, Jamie, Lynne, and Butcher went to a small courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. Butcher had been told that she would be required to give more testimony and answer questions. Instead, according to Butcher, Lynne told her, “It’s taken care of.” The judge, Reva Goetz, who has since retired, arrived and announced that the conservatorship had been granted. “The whole process was maybe ten minutes,” Butcher said. “No one testified. No questions were asked.” At the time, she felt relief that she’d helped to protect Spears. Now she is haunted by the event. “A conservatorship was granted without ever talking to her,” she said. “And, whatever they claim about any input she had behind the scenes, how could you have assessed her then? Shouldn’t you wait a week, then interview her? She never had a chance.” (Goetz disputed this account, saying that there were lengthy confidential discussions addressing Spears’s health, and that it was incorrect to say that Spears was not meaningfully assessed or given opportunities for input. She added, “I can tell you unequivocally that I did not coördinate anything related to the case with anyone connected to the case before it came in.”)

California requires that conservatees be given five days’ notice before a conservatorship takes effect, but this can be bypassed if a judge decides that they could suffer “immediate and substantial harm.” Goetz appointed a probate lawyer named Sam Ingham as Spears’s advocate, and then granted the conservators’ petition to waive the requirement to notify her that any of this was happening. Ingham remains in the role; Spears covers his annual salary of five hundred and twenty thousand dollars. (Her own living expenses in 2019 were $438,360.)

Jamie became a co-conservator, sharing duties with a lawyer named Andrew Wallet, who was appointed by the court. On the petition to establish the arrangement, Jamie or someone working with him checked a box indicating that Spears had dementia. Jamie also filed a restraining order against Lutfi on behalf of his daughter. In her memoir, Lynne claims Lutfi told her that he had disabled Spears’s cars, cut the phone lines at her house, and crushed up her medications and given them to her in her food. Butcher said that, although she saw Lutfi give Spears what appeared to be prescription medication, she cannot corroborate the other allegations, many of which were later not supported by sworn declarations from multiple people, including Robin Johnson, the court-ordered monitor, and Spears’s assistant. But such allegations became central to the establishment of the conservatorship.

The group went from the courtroom to Wyle’s law office. As Jamie spoke with Wyle in a frosted-glass conference room, and Lynne and Butcher sat in a waiting area nearby, Butcher asked Lynne, “Don’t you think you and Jamie should be co-conservators together?” Spears’s relationship with Jamie, who could be domineering and hostile toward his daughter, was strained. Butcher recalled Lynne replying that the conservatorship would last only a few months, and that it would be best for Spears to resent Jamie, rather than her, when it was all over. But, after they joined Jamie in the conference room, Butcher said, Lynne began talking about her hopes for how the conservatorship would be managed, prompting Jamie to shout about his control over his daughter’s life, including Lynne’s access to her. At one point, Butcher recalled him bellowing, “I am Britney Spears!” It was a refrain she would hear him repeat often during the early years of the conservatorship, she said. Lynne, as Butcher remembered it, grew quiet.

Three psychiatrists were asked to provide a necessary declaration confirming Spears’s lack of mental fitness. The third, James Spar, provided it. (Earlier this year, Spar said of Spears, on a podcast, “I don’t know why she still has a conservatorship.”) As a co-conservator, Jamie reinstated Larry Rudolph as Spears’s music manager and installed Lou Taylor as her business manager, first for Spears’s “Circus” tour and subsequently for her entire estate. Several people close to Spears said that she had disdained Taylor and expressed astonishment at Taylor’s appointment to a controlling role in her life. Later, some members of Spears’s team raised doubts about Taylor’s financial management during her tours. “I’m not saying it was like a million dollars missing—it’s not that obvious,” one of them said. “Money was wasted in a particular way, and when I asked a question I got shut down, cause nobody wanted to admit fault.” (Harder, Taylor’s attorney, called the allegation “completely false.”)

From the earliest days of the conservatorship, Spears appeared to chafe against her constraints. While hospitalized, she had contacted a lawyer named Adam Streisand. He represented her in a court hearing on February 4th, attesting that Spears had a “strong desire” that Jamie not be a conservator. But the judge, based on a report from Ingham and testimony from Spar, ruled that Spears had no capacity to retain an attorney. Spears spoke with another lawyer, Jon Eardley, who attempted to move the case to federal court. The lawyers for the conservatorship argued that “Britney lacked the capacity to hire Mr. Eardley to file the Notice of Removal on her behalf, and therefore could not have hired him.” The lawyers noted that Spears did have the right to meet with legal counsel: Sam Ingham, who met with Spears for about fifteen minutes two days after the conservatorship was granted, when he visited her at the U.C.L.A. hospital. Several sources close to the situation felt that Ingham was loyal to the conservatorship and to Jamie, despite nominally representing Spears. Butcher recalled Jamie saying that Ingham reported to him on Spears’s movements and activities. (Ingham did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)

Eardley filed a declaration asking that Spears be brought to court, insisting that she would “testify truthfully that she did authorize me to take action on her behalf and I did so.” According to Rolling Stone, Spears told Eardley, on a phone call that was tape-recorded, “I basically just want my life back.” Eardley filed another declaration, arguing, among other things, that Spears was being denied due process. “It is obvious that the conservatorship was planned well in advance of its implementation as a tool to influence the custody proceedings in the family law court and for other illicit purposes,” he wrote. In another document, he stated that, the last time Spears attempted to call him, her phone was taken away from her, and that the number was disconnected the next day.

According to Jonathan Martinis, the senior director for law and policy at a center for disability rights at Syracuse University, one of the most dangerous aspects of guardianships is the way that they prevent people from getting their own legal counsel. “The rights at stake in guardianship are analogous to the rights at stake in criminal cases,” Martinis said. “Britney could have been found holding an axe and a severed head, saying ‘I did it,’ and she still would’ve had the right to an attorney. So, under guardianship, you don’t have the same rights as an axe murderer.”

Less than two months after the second 5150, Spears taped a guest appearance on the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” Publicly, her comeback had already begun—and it had been in the works virtually from the outset. Butcher remembers sitting in Spears’s home office on one of the first days after she was released from the hospital. Butcher, Lynne, and Spears were on the floor, Spears on her knees; Jamie was sitting at a desk. A flat-screen TV was playing nearby. “Jamie said, ‘Baby,’ ” Butcher recalled, “and I thought he was going to say, ‘We love you, but you need help.’ But what he said was ‘You’re fat. Daddy’s gonna get you on a diet and a trainer, and you’re gonna get back in shape.’ ” Butcher felt sick. Jamie pointed at the TV and said, “You see that TV over there? You know what it’s going to say in eight weeks? That’s gonna be you on there, and they’re gonna say, ‘She’s back.’ ”

In the following weeks, Jamie wore Spears down. “He would get all in her face—spittle was flying—telling her she was a whore and a terrible mother,” Butcher said. Spears was told that she could see her kids again only if she coöperated. “Lynne was just, like, ‘Obey Daddy and they’ll let you out,’ ” Butcher added. Spears behaved, and regained limited access to her children. But Jamie got rid of anyone his daughter had been close to. The housekeeper who worked for Spears during the custody dispute remembers being let go at this time. “Anyone that works for her from now on goes through me,” Jamie told her. When Spears called the housekeeper a few days later, asking her to come back, the two of them cried on the phone together. “I love you and I miss you, too,” the housekeeper recalled saying, “but your dad told me I’m not allowed to work for you.” After that, she said, Jamie told her not to accept Spears’s calls. Spears went back to the studio, to record her sixth album, “Circus.” Drug tests were mandated in the contracts for the dancers who were hired for her next tour.

To provide evidence of her comeback, Spears spent months filming a documentary called “Britney: For the Record.” It’s a remarkable document, capturing Spears in a strange limbo between assertion and acquiescence. She appears clear and composed, struggling to maintain a sort of thwarted optimism. In behind-the-scenes footage of workdays and rehearsals, she gets visibly tense whenever Jamie is in the room. At one point, she does an impression of her father, adopting a thick Southern accent: “You know, she don’t listen to me. I scream at her and she gets onto me about screamin’ at her, but I can’t do it. You’re just gonna have to talk some fucking sense into her.” She says, wistfully, that her life is too controlled. She laments not being able to go out when it’s a “certain time of night, and wanting to walk down the Grove and feeling the crispy air.”

“I never wanted to become one of those prisoner people,” Spears says, at another point in the documentary. “I always wanted to feel free, and get in my car and go and not let people make me feel like I had to stay at my home.” But, she adds, “I think that was always the part of me that kinda got me in trouble. I had let certain people into my life that were just bad people . . . and I really paid the consequences for that, big time. But I just feel like you do something wrong, and you learn from it, you move on. But it’s, like, I’m having to pay for it for a really long time.” Gallery, the photographer, who was her director of content and worked on the documentary, said, “You know how you go for a hike, and get to the top of the mountain, and you have this moment of clarity? Britney was always at the bottom of the mountain, surrounded by security guards, all this chaos.” But, on occasion, things would quiet down. “We would have these talks, and she would always say, ‘I want to get married again. I want to have a husband. I want to have more kids.’ ” At the time, Gallery said, it didn’t seem as though anyone imagined that the conservatorship would be a long-term arrangement. It was made permanent in October, 2008.

Over the holidays, Spears and Gallery were smoking cigarettes outside a dinner party when Spears gave him a handwritten letter on lined paper, which told her story in the third person, and asked him if he could read it on TV. She had been asking Gallery to help her find another lawyer. “She was lied to and set up,” the letter read. “Her children were taken away and she did spin out of control which any mother would in those circumstances.” Spears wrote that she “had no rights,” and that the conservatorship would go on “as long as the people are getting paid.” Gallery told her, “Look, I will read this on TV, but you know I will be removed from your life immediately.” He asked her to sit on it for a couple days. “Then, all of a sudden,” he said, “every lawyer on the team is calling me and demanding I come in and surrender this letter.” He gave the letter to the lawyers, and soon afterward, he said, he was pushed out of her employment. (Gallery read a copy of the letter on TikTok last year.) He recalled contacting one of Spears’s managers a few years later, to see if Spears could give him a recommendation for his application to graduate school. He said that the manager refused, telling him that any such document would serve as proof that Spears was of sound mind.

In January, 2009, Christina Lutfi, Sam’s younger sister, got word that Spears wanted a phone, and that she would be at the gym of the Peninsula Hotel, in Beverly Hills. “I got a prepaid cell phone and pretended I was a guest,” Christina said. “She and her mom were at the gym, and so I got on a bike next to her. I was dressed to go out that night, so I took my fedora off and hid it. A bodyguard was watching her while she worked out, and then she went to the locker room, and I followed her, and the bodyguard was standing outside. Then I saw her go to the steam room, and I threw a towel over my shoulder and followed her in. She almost screamed—it was steamy, and I’m not sure she was wearing anything, maybe a towel, and this stranger comes in wearing a fedora. But then I said I was Sam’s sister, and gave her the phone in a ziplock, and she thanked me and ran to put it in her locker.”

When Butcher heard from Sam Lutfi that Spears had a cell phone and was trying to contact a lawyer, she said, she decided not to alert Spears’s parents. “I didn’t rat her out. I knew the abuse she would suffer,” she said. “I just thought, What’s the harm if she has her own attorney?” But she also said she understood the profound risk that Spears was taking, because Jamie, upon learning that Spears was going behind his back, would “do terrible things, like withhold access to her kids.”

Soon afterward, a housekeeper overheard Spears talking on the contraband phone and alerted Jamie, who ordered the housekeeper to confiscate it. “They ended up finding it,” Christina Lutfi said. “Looking back, I’m, like, this is effed up. I’d been to her house. She was super sweet. She was clearly functional enough to work out and put out an album. Why couldn’t she have a phone? I didn’t understand it.” After the phone was found, Butcher said, she was exiled from Spears’s orbit. She believes Jamie discovered evidence of her complicity in the plot. “Anytime someone could threaten the conservatorship,” she said, “they were out.”

Jamie filed restraining orders, on Spears’s behalf, against Lutfi, Eardley, and Ghalib. In later hearings, Jamie’s lawyers alleged a conspiracy among them to undermine the conservatorship, and claimed that audio of Spears talking to Eardley had been doctored. Eardley’s career unravelled: the state bar of California filed disciplinary charges against him for attempting to represent Spears without having obtained consent to do so. He was subsequently found culpable of misconduct for writing bad checks on his client trust account, and was disbarred. Eardley could not be reached for comment. “Where is he?” Roger Diamond, a lawyer whom Eardley hired to represent him in his dealings with the Spears family, asked. “Have you talked to him? I haven’t heard from him in years.” Diamond added, of the conservatorship hearings, “I think Jon stumbled onto a real scandal in the probate law of California. It was shocking to me to see the way in which there was room for favoritism on the part of the judge. I had the feeling, in the courtroom, that there was a coverup going on, and it was my job to pierce it, and yet nobody was coöperating.”

Lutfi and Eardley got in touch with a new lawyer, John Anderson. According to Lutfi, who was involved in brokering the meeting, Spears secretly rendezvoused with a contact at the Montage hotel, in Beverly Hills, and signed papers retaining Anderson’s services. On January 27, 2009, Anderson notified Jamie’s lawyers of his petition to grant Spears the authority to appoint independent counsel. The same day, he spoke to two of Jamie’s lawyers. On January 28th, Anderson sent an e-mail to Lutfi and Eardley, writing, “I can say no more; will do no more; and cannot communicate with anyone in this regard any further. That is the end for me.”

In early 2009, Jordan Miller, a journalism and media-studies major in Las Vegas who ran a popular Spears fan site called BreatheHeavy, started to publicly lobby against the conservatorship. “It was the reports that she didn’t have access to a cell phone that did it,” Miller, now thirty-three, said. He began signing posts on the Web site “Free Britney”—“followed by lots of exclamation points,” he said. “And I got a lot of pushback for that. People said, ‘You don’t know her situation. Her family is there for her.’ ” A few months later, Miller received a call from a person who patched in Jamie Spears. “He told me he was going to destroy my ass,” Miller said. “He was on the call for probably two or three minutes, and I got no words in edgewise. I was shaking in my childhood bedroom, terrified.” After receiving a letter from Jamie’s lawyers saying that BreatheHeavy had violated copyright law, Miller took down the Web site. But he put it up again, a few days later, determined to stick to his conviction that Spears was being mistreated. Around this time, an Elle cover story celebrated the return of “Brit, the one we love—blond, happy, and back on top.” But the paparazzi, who continued to stalk Spears everywhere, were catching her crying in her car and walking around looking detached and distraught. “There were probably just a couple thousand of us who were trying to wrap our heads around it,” Miller said.

People in Spears’s orbit also noticed changes. A producer who’d worked with her since she was in her early twenties said that she was “more distant, less present—there were no more jokes, no laughter. By the end, she was just led into the vocal booth. She never came into the room where we were.” Recording with Spears had once been effortless, he said, and now it was “really hard, nearly impossible,” to elicit her spark in the booth. In 2012, she was hired as a judge on the TV show “The X Factor.” Billy B., her makeup artist on set, had first worked with her on a fragrance commercial not long before she appeared on the show. He recalled Spears seeming robotic between the commercial’s takes—“head down in the corner, and she’d just come when she was called,” he said. “We were never alone, never unmonitored.” Kim Vo, Spears’s colorist, went out to dinner with her in 2012 in Las Vegas. The bill was thirteen hundred dollars, and Spears told him that she couldn’t afford to pay her half of it. Yet her “X Factor” role alone paid her fifteen million dollars. In sealed court records recently obtained by the Times, Spears said that she was limited to a two-thousand-dollar weekly allowance, no matter how much she earned.

Many of Spears’s former friends and employees came to accept that she had entered a new, more secluded phase. She had always changed her phone number frequently; now she stopped calling people at all. She’d got engaged to her agent at William Morris Endeavor, Jason Trawick, but they split up in early 2013. “I’ve gone through a few boyfriends with her,” Vo, who stopped doing Spears’s hair around 2012, said. “Every time they get close, they disappear. Every time she gets close to someone who could change her life, decisions are made—‘you’re getting too close.’ ” Spears began performing in Las Vegas; the contract paid three hundred thousand dollars per night, and it required that she remain under the conservatorship. She usually flew in and out for each performance, to insure that her new gig wouldn’t disrupt her sons’ lives. “It makes me sad,” a former stylist of Spears’s said. “All of us are still friends, but the only one missing is her.”

The following year, according to the court documents obtained by the Times, Sam Ingham told Reva Goetz, the judge on the conservatorship case, that Spears was unhappy with her father as a co-conservator and wanted to terminate the arrangement. Ingham also said that Spears was interested in retiring from performing but “believed the conservatorship precluded that.” The Times reported that “those gathered, including the judge and lawyers on both sides, raised the possibility that Ms. Spears’s boyfriend was provoking her discontent.” Her boyfriend at the time was David Lucado, a non-Hollywood type from Atlanta who, after he and Spears broke up, defended her as a “great mother” and spoke out against the conservatorship. His relationship with Spears reportedly ended when Jamie bought a video of Lucado kissing another woman and showed it to his daughter.

Sam Lutfi claims that Spears sporadically reached out to him. “I’ll go years without contact, and then I’ll get a call every once in a while from her in a closet,” he said. He believes that she has a phone that’s mirrored by her lawyers, and that she calls or texts only when she can get hold of another phone. “Last time she called me, she was at Ralphs, in Calabasas,” he said. “After she hung up, I got a call from the same number—it’s an Asian doctor, who says, ‘Wow, this is surreal, Britney just borrowed my phone.’ Five years ago, she borrowed a phone at the gym and just made off with it.” Lutfi said that the last time he saw Spears was in 2015, and that the encounter left him concerned. “My opinion is that this conservatorship has drastically affected her mind-set,” he said. A friend of Spears said, “They made her a zombie. That is not the same girl.” That year, Spears extended her Las Vegas residency, in a two-year deal worth thirty-five million dollars. Jamie had been granted one and a half per cent of the gross revenues from the performances and merchandising.

Around 2015, Spears’s Instagram account, which had until then mostly served up bland promotional images captioned with marketing copy, turned into a subject of minor cultural fascination. The posts became weirder and more joyful—low-res selfies and inspirational quotes, memes about needing chocolate and being single and not wanting to get out of bed. Some images expressed a cryptic yearning: a photo of sunlight filtering onto a path in a darkened forest, captioned “Infinity,” or a photo of Mars, captioned “Nothing’s what it seems.” In 2016, she posted an image with an unattributed quote: “Are we all so wedded to the ‘spectatorial’ gaze – the confirming, approving gaze of others- that we don’t feel endorsed in the privacy of our own consciousness?”

That same year, the Times reported recently, Spears told a probate-court investigator that she felt the conservatorship had become an “oppressive and controlling tool against her,” and that the system had “too much control. Too, too much!” She said that she was “sick of being taken advantage of.” The investigator’s report called for a “pathway to independence and the eventual termination of the conservatorship.”

On Instagram, though, life seemed sunny. Spears started posting photos of her new boyfriend, a twenty-three-year-old actor and model named Sam Asghari, whom she met on the set of one of her music videos. (Asghari did not respond to repeated requests for comment). In 2017, she posted a video of herself painting a canvas on her terrace, captioned “Sometimes you just gotta play!!!!!!,” followed by what became her Instagram signature: a string of jubilant emojis. The post became the subject of the first episode of a podcast hosted by the comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, called “Britney’s Gram.” “We either can never think what she’s thinking, or we know exactly what she’s thinking—that’s the enigma of Britney,” Barker said, delighted.

A new Vegas residency, called “Domination,” was announced in 2018. But then Jamie underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured colon, and, in early 2019, Spears cancelled the residency and announced a work hiatus, ostensibly on account of her father’s health. She stopped posting on social media. Andrew Wallet, the co-conservator, resigned, receiving a hundred-thousand-dollar parting payment. The following month, TMZ reported that Spears had checked into a mental-health facility, and “Britney’s Gram” received an anonymous voice mail. “Hi there,” the caller said. “I cannot disclose who I am . . . I used to be a paralegal for an attorney that worked with Britney’s conservatorship. I am no longer with them.” The caller alleged that Spears had been forced into the mental-health facility months earlier, against her will.

Spears’s camp suggested that the voice mail came from an impostor, but, after Spears resumed posting, her fans began combing through her social-media posts for clues. A conspiratorial energy developed among her followers after a fan left a comment on Spears’s TikTok account reading “if you need help wear yellow in your next video,” and then Spears posted a video to Instagram wearing what she called “my favorite yellow shirt.” The Instagram account grew bizarre: Spears regularly posted multiple near-identical photos of herself, and also videos of herself dancing alone, passionately, in her house.

Fans began reading these either as indications that Spears was unwell or that her team was making her look unwell in order to justify the conservatorship. A member of her team claimed that, aside from “about one per cent” of her posts—those which might incur liability—Spears has “pretty much total control” of her social media. “Would anyone be telling her to put that stuff up?” he said. “It’s detrimental to the brand. Trust me, if I had my way, that’s not what she would be posting. But the point is that she’s not the prisoner with no rights that some people in the Free Britney movement are trying to make her out to be.”

At the hearing this June, Spears described what was happening to her in 2018. She was forced by her managers to go on tour, she said, and was threatened that she’d be sued if she refused. After the tour, she was told to start rehearsing for “Domination,” even though she wanted to take a break. (The member of her team denied the allegation, saying that Spears had enthusiastically signed up for the tour and that her conservators forced her hand only when she attempted to renege after arriving.) One day, she said, she refused to do a certain dance move in rehearsal, and “it was as if I planted a huge bomb somewhere.” Her therapist told her that he’d been informed by her managers that she wasn’t coöperating or taking her medication—“which is so dumb,” Spears added, “because I’ve had the same lady every morning for the past eight years give me my same medication, and I’m nowhere near these stupid people.” Soon afterward, she said, her therapist put her on lithium; the new medication made her feel drunk and scared, she said. Over the holidays, a woman came to perform a “psych test,” and then her father told her that she had failed it and needed to go to rehab. “I cried on the phone for an hour, and he loved every minute of it,” she said. “The control he had over someone as powerful as me—he loved the control to hurt his own daughter. One hundred thousand per cent, he loved it.” At the facility, she said, she had to attend ten hours of meetings a day, seven days a week, for four months, and if she didn’t coöperate she wasn’t allowed to see her kids or her boyfriend.

As Spears privately resisted her father’s involvement in the conservatorship, he used her money to fight back. Recent court documents show that Jamie’s lawyers billed nearly nine hundred thousand dollars for four months of work, from October, 2020, to February, 2021. The bill accounts for hundreds of hours of work by crisis-P.R. specialists who charged between five hundred and nine hundred dollars an hour to respond, they claimed, to media requests.

Ingham seemed to begin hedging his bets. He requested, in a court filing, that future hearings be unsealed, and indicated support for the #FreeBritney movement, as it came to be known: “Far from being a conspiracy theory or a ‘joke’ . . . this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James’ aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimize the amount of meaningful information made available to the public.” In November, Ingham told the court that Spears had informed him that she was “afraid of her father” and that she “will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.” A financial firm called Bessemer Trust was appointed as a co-conservator. (Following Spears’s June testimony in court, Bessemer requested to resign from that role, citing the pop star’s desire to terminate the arrangement.) Lynne began to oppose Jamie’s involvement, giving a statement saying that his relationship to Spears was “toxic.”

Despite all this, in December, 2020, the conservatorship was extended until September, 2021. “Britney knows that her daddy loves her,” one of Jamie’s lawyers said, in an interview with “Good Morning America.” The #FreeBritney movement staged a thirty-day campaign to call attention to Spears’s story. (“This is a radicalized group,” the member of Spears’s team said. “And they don’t care about facts.”) It urged followers to support legislation in California that would strengthen the right to legal representation for conservatees. In June, on the day of the hearing, around a hundred and twenty devoted supporters rallied at the courthouse in Los Angeles. They gathered on the plaza outside to listen to Spears’s statement, which they streamed and broadcasted over a speaker system. When Spears said that she didn’t feel like she owed her team anything, and that they “need to be reminded they actually work for me,” the crowd cheered.

At one point during the hearing, Spears said that the conservatorship had denied her reproductive rights. “I was told right now, in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby,” Spears said. “I have an IUD inside of myself right now, so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the IUD out, so I could start trying to have another baby, but the so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out, because they don’t want me to have any more children.” It was a startling allegation, but it was not entirely new. In October, 2020, a makeup artist named Maxi, who is close to Asghari, Spears’s boyfriend, said, on a podcast, that Spears’s conservators had the final say about who Spears’s friends were, whether or not she could get married, and whether or not she could have a baby. “We’re talking about some ‘Handmaid’s Tale’-type things,” Maxi said. (When contacted for comment, one of Jamie’s representatives declined to answer specific questions but characterized his behavior as that of a loving father saving his daughter from possible ruin. The representative, who repeatedly referred to Jamie as “daddy,” objected to the idea that Jamie, as a churchgoer, would have anything to do with an IUD.)

A lack of control over one’s medical decisions is a fundamental feature of many conservatorships—and it had been clear for a long time that Spears’s management played a guiding role in her personal life. In 2008, shortly after the conservatorship was established, Larry Rudolph told Rolling Stone that the next step in Spears’s recovery was a new boyfriend, because “she’s a relationship girl.” Trawick, her fiancé in the early twenty-tens, was not only her agent; he was formally made co-conservator for a time. Butcher said, “You have to understand—even when she was free, when did she pay a bill? Never. When was she able to pick her friends? Never. When was she ever taught to trust anybody? Never. Anytime she’s trusted anyone, the family has smeared their name and told her she was stupid to trust them.”

Some of the silence around the conservatorship may have been well-meaning: after so much invasiveness, people wanted to grant Spears her privacy. One person on Spears’s team claimed that she was down to just a few million dollars when the conservatorship was established, and points to Spears’s net worth now—her assets are estimated at more than sixty million dollars—as evidence that it has looked out for her interests. And, when someone struggles with mental illness, family members may have to take strict actions that might not make sense to outsiders. Even the most vocal members of the #FreeBritney movement, in interviews, have often issued disclaimers that no one but Spears can really know the truth of the situation. Spears’s team took full advantage of all this, sealing court hearings and shrouding the conservatorship in secrecy. Butcher, who saw Spears at her most erratic, noted that an argument for her incapacity would be easy to make about anyone in Spears’s circumstances. “If you’re controlling someone’s medications, and the shrinks who assess them, you can absolutely build a case,” she said. “She was angry, breaking things. And people wouldn’t know the context—that it was because they held the kids over her.”

Conservatorships can protect people who are elderly, or who live with profound disabilities or catastrophic mental illness. But there is also a wide range of alternatives to conservatorship that are less strict than what Spears has experienced, such as conditional powers of attorney or formal shared control of finances. As conservatorship law is written, the court is required to determine that a conservatorship is—and remains—necessary. “In practice,” Zoë Brennan-Krohn, a disability-rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “this is absolutely not the case. What should be happening is that a judge at a reëvaluation hearing would ask, ‘What else have you tried? Why isn’t anything else working?’ And, if the conservator hasn’t shown that they’ve tried less restrictive options, the conservatorship should be suspended. But I’ve never heard of a judge asking that in any situation.”

Lisa MacCarley, an estate-and-probate lawyer in Los Angeles who has become something of a “mascot,” as she put it, for the #FreeBritney movement, describes the city’s probate-court system as plagued by cronyism, with judges appointing advocates from a small list of favored lawyers. Ingham, she said, “has made a lot of money bullshitting people.” The Times has reported that Ingham described a ninety-minute meeting with Spears as “at least three times longer” than any session he’d previously had with her. In one hearing, according to the Times, Goetz, the judge, told him that she didn’t recall an order specifically preventing Spears from getting married, but that he “may not want to tell her that.” Ingham replied, “Somehow, that did not come up in the conversation.”

Less than a week after Spears’s statement in court, Jamie’s lawyers submitted a filing that pinned Spears’s unhappiness on Jodi Montgomery, who has served as the conservator of Spears’s person since September, 2019, and whom Ingham has petitioned to be permanently appointed. They suggested that, perhaps, Spears did not have enough say in the matter of Montgomery’s appointment. In another filing, Jamie’s lawyers requested an investigation into the truthfulness of Spears’s statement in court.

People on Spears’s team suggest that further hearings will undermine her claims. “God bless her, I felt sorry for her. But at the same time, don’t be telling tall tales,” the member of her team said. “Your problems, what was wrong with you, your shortcomings—don’t keep trying to blame everyone else for it.” The defenders of the conservatorship offer a set of familiar narratives to explain her ire: that Spears is being manipulated by a man—at this moment, according to some, Asghari—with an interest in commandeering her fortune, and that there is a grave medical diagnosis behind the arrangement that the public has no right to know. “It is so fucking irresponsible to say, ‘Let her do whatever she wants to do,’ ” the member of her team said.

The idea that Spears needs this conservatorship to function is, to some degree, self-reinforcing. In that respect, experts said, her case is common. Martinis, the disability-rights lawyer, said that many guardianships can prove inescapable, which is why they are vulnerable to abuse. In the extreme cases, he said, “the strategy is isolate, medicate, liquidate. You isolate them, medicate them to keep them quiet, liquidate the assets.” If a conservatee functions well under conservatorship, it can be framed as proof of the arrangement’s necessity; if a conservatee struggles under conservatorship, the same conclusion can be drawn. And if a conservatee gets out, and stumbles into crisis or manipulation—a likelihood increased by time spent formally disempowered—this, too, might reinforce the argument for their prior legal restraints. “Our mistakes make us who we are, and teach us who we can be,” Martinis said. “Without bad choices, we can’t be wholly human. And with the best of intentions, we say to people with disabilities: we’ll keep you from ever making a mistake.” He added, “Should Britney get out, just watch. The first mistake she makes, fingers will wag, and people will say this would never have happened if she were under guardianship.”

“There’s this concept of the dignity of risk,” Brennan-Krohn, the A.C.L.U. lawyer, said. “Most of us have a very wide range of bad choices we can make that society is O.K. with, but, in a conservatorship, you’re subject to the decision-making rubric of best interest. And it’s possible we’d all be better off if someone was making decisions for us like that, but those are not the values of the society we live in.” In her remarks this June, Spears gestured, briefly, to the wider world of broken guardianships: “We can sit here all day and say, ‘Oh, conservatorships are here to help people,’ but, Ma’am, there’s a thousand conservatorships that are abusive, as well.” As she said this, the #FreeBritney supporters at the courthouse, their glittery signs laid down on the concrete, let out an impassioned “Yes!”

The question of control has surrounded Britney Spears from the start of her career. How much was she being manipulated by the powerful men who stood to profit from her image? To what extent was her existence manufactured by the demands of the system around her? A strong sense of self-ownership always emerged from Spears in performance, specifically in dance: when she moved, she was sharp, knowing, seemingly absorbing everything thrown at her and surmounting it through sheer will and charisma. And, all along, as her fans have noticed, she has been singing songs that she didn’t write but which nonetheless seem to speak directly to her situation: my loneliness is killing me; I’m a slave for you; I’m not a girl, not yet a woman; you want a piece of me. As famous and wealthy as Spears has been since she was a teen-ager, she has never been in full control of her life. Many of the most harrowing revelations in her testimony had been visible to anyone who cared to look closely. She told the court that she’d wanted to express them for a long time but had been afraid to do so in public. “I thought people would make fun of me,” she said. “Or laugh at me and say, ‘She’s lying. She’s got everything. She’s Britney Spears.’ ”

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