You’d be forgiven for thinking Britney Spears was the first rebellious celebrity deemed legally incompetent after being forcibly institutionalized during a probable amphetamine bender. Turns out history is repeating itself again, and Britney has been Frances’d. Specifically Frances Farmer, an actress whose career was heralded before her atypical behavior landed her in a psych ward and then a parent-controlled guardianship.
Hi. I’m Nico. I’m a writer well-acquainted with the 5150 involuntary psych hold since I was placed in one a few years ago. It was a public story that I’ve written about. The issue’s dear to my heart, so I’m heartbroken when I learn about stories such as Frances’ and Britney’s.
Frances Farmer was born in 1913 in Seattle, WA. By the 1930s she became famous for acting in movies such as Come And Get It, an adaptation of an Edna Ferber novel, which “scores stood in line for hours” to see.1 As Kurt Cobain described, Frances Farmer was “kind of a foul-mouthed person, and she hated the whole Hollywood scene, and she expressed her hatred for them publicly.”2
Feeling crushed by soulless work, she negotiated with studios for time off from her seven-year contract3 to do Broadway shows like Golden Boy.4 Frances was known as a potential communist5 and for dressing how she wanted in the face of repressive norms.6 Despite her unorthodox ways, Frances was hailed as, “the next Greta Garbo.”4
There was trouble on the horizon, however. Frances started taking amphetamines marketed as Benzadrine shortly after arriving in Hollywood to control her weight.4 It would be years before amphetamines would be shown to induce psychosis similar to acute symptoms of schizophrenia.7 Sometime after divorcing her husband in June of 1942 then being dropped from Paramount in October,8 Frances started drinking.
The year is 2007. A short time after she spends a month in rehab,9 Britney Spears is charged in a hit-and-run for hitting a parked car and driving without a valid license.10 A few months later, a judge grants her baby daddy Kevin Federline full custody of their two sons and takes away Britney’s visitation after Kevin’s lawyers call the police on her for keeping their kids past her allotted time.11 At some point in this period she starts dating a paparazzo named Adnan Ghalib, who claims to have fought with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan,12 and who reportedly begins providing her with amphetamines.13
It must be pointed out that there was an incredible industry surrounding Britney Spears, an industry that was invested in her failure. Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ, openly called Britney TMZ’s “President Bush.”14 The Associated Press reportedly hired 22 new entertainment reporters in the period leading up to Britney’s hospitalization, covering everything that happened to Britney Spears as news.12 Photos of Britney could sell for up to $500,000.15
Needless to say, Britney’s boyfriend Adnan was selling exclusive photos of her through his agency while dating her.12 The predators smelled blood.
In October of 1942, Frances Farmer was pulled over during a “routine check of cars operating in a dim-out area”. When the cops began questioning her, she allegedly told them they were “boring” and drove away. When they caught up to her, she was arrested and given drunk driving probation.16 A short while later, in December, she reportedly left a film job in Mexico following an incident at a hotel involving her walking naked from door-to-door and spraying people in the face with water.17
In January of 1943, Frances violated the terms of her parole by not paying the rest of a fine and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. When the police arrived at her hotel to take her in, she asked if she could take a bath.16 She was sentenced to six months in jail, and as she was being led away “a melee” ensued in which “one husky officer” was knocked over.18 Frances’ sister-in-law Ruth submitted her for a mental test, with the thought that the asylum was better than jail, and on the 15th of January, 1943, Frances Farmer was placed into the psych ward.19
According to Jeffrey Michael Kauffman, who runs a site dedicated to dispelling myths about Frances with documentary evidence, and who was interviewed for this piece, she was placed into a guardianship “rather quickly,” following her first psych hold.
He offered that, “Guardians are appointed for adults all the time in situations like this where a person is deemed incapable of taking care of themselves and needs someone to look over them. It’s kind of like a conservatorship in that way, but is more directed toward the person rather than their funds.”
On January 28th 2008, Britney Spears had a falling-out with her friend Sam Lufti, and her mom called Jacqueline Butcher, a family friend, to drive them to Britney’s house. That night there’s a blowout fight between Britney’s family and friends, each “accusing one another of being a poor influence.”13 Britney returned home, acting manic and speaking in a baby voice.13 Someone called the police and she was taken on a 5150 hold to UCLA Hospital.
By the end of the week, Britney Spears is placed into a “temporary” conservatorship, under her father’s control, that will last at least 13 years.20
It’s impossible to understand Frances Farmer’s life without some context. Firstly, psychiatrists of her time understood a schizophrenia diagnosis in specific terms. A recently discovered ailment, it was considered “an illness of personality instead of biology.”21 Patients with schizophrenia were “academics, poets, women, eccentrics.”21 Psychiatrists such as Arthur P. Noyes encouraged clinicians to treat schizophrenic patients as “underdeveloped children,” and prescribe “dances, concerts, and other opportunities for social contact.”((The Protest Psychosis, Jonathan Metzl))
The doctor who initially conducted a mental health evaluation on Frances Farmer was Dr. Thomas Leonard. He determined she was, “hyper-emotional and dangerous to others and probably to herself.” He also decided she was in a manic-depressive psychosis, “which is probably the forerunner of a definite dementia praecox.”22
Dementia was first described by a Frenchman named Phillipe Pinel, who was attempting to reform the asylums of his time.21 He argued that patients shouldn’t be indiscriminately chained up, but rather that certain patients exhibited ‘Dèmence,’ and should be shown empathy. A follower of Pinel, Benedict Morel, elaborated on this view, describing a condition in which adolescents’ “brilliant intellectual facilities underwent in time a very distressing arrest” as, ‘dèmence prècoce, literally “premature dementia.”21
Dementia Praecox was formalized by a German physician named Emil Kraepelin, known as the father of modern psychiatry.23 He conducted longitudinal studies on case histories of the institutionalized and in 1899 published a system that separated the insane into two groups: one had a disease resulting in dementia, and the other just the beginning of the same disease. This second type occurred only in the young and was therefore reversible. According to Kraepelin, both were fundamentally physical in origin, resulting from lesions on the brain or faulty metabolisms.21
A little over a decade later a Freud-Loving Swissman named Paul Elgin Bleuler published a critique of Kraepelin’s work called, “Dementia Praecox or the Group of Schizophrenics.”21 While working in psych hospitals in Northern Europe, he had decided that praecox was not dementia and that it didn’t always occur in young people. The disease actually resulted from a neurosis, originating in childhood, that caused “loosening of associations” and made patients turn away from reality and into the world of “fantasy, wishes, fears, and symbols.” Since it wasn’t physical in origin, he proposed the term schizophrenia from the Greek words for ‘split’ (schizo) and ‘mind’ (phrene).21
When these two theories of mental illness came to the United States, Dementia Praecox, being an illness considered fundamentally biological in origin, became associated with the marginalized while Schizophrenia, a psychological illness, became a mainstream one.21
Schizophrenia entered American popular discourse in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Better Homes and Gardens articles asked, “Are you neurotic now? And if you are, does it mean that tomorrow you’ll be psychotic or schizophrenic?” Chicagoan Dr. W. A. Evans diagnosed Mary Todd Lincoln with a, “mild emotional insanity which caused her to act as does a case of schizophrenia.” And Harper’s Magazine dubbed it, “The Age of Schizophrenia.”21
According to Kauffman, “[Frances Farmer] had a number of diagnoses…The consensus seems to be she was schizophrenic with manic depressive aspects…”
In the days following the establishment of Britney Spears’ conservatorship, Britney fought back. She tried to hire a lawyer, Adam Streisand, who issued a statement saying “[Britney Spears] has expressed a very strong desire that her father not be appointed conservator. He has been estranged from her, and this is causing her even more stress.”24
While Britney was fighting for her life, her brother, Bryan Spears, filed to be in charge of the trust she’d set up in 2004 to be the repository of her earnings, stating that the appointment of conservators over his sister proved she was unable to control the trust.24 He claimed in a podcast last year that Britney wasn’t being held against her will and that the conservatorship has been a great thing for their family.25
Around the same time her brother was wresting control of her money, Britney had a friend conference call another lawyer named Jon Eardley to discuss contesting the conservatorship. On a recording of the call she says, “I just want my life back. I want to be able to drive my car. I want to be able to live in my house by myself. I want to be able to say who’s going to be my security guard.”24
In 1946, about three years after Frances Farmer was first diagnosed with schizophrenia, a novel was published called The Snake Pit, which would encapsulate popular attitudes regarding the illness. The back cover of The Snake Pit described it as, “the story of a beautiful woman’s mental breakdown and her thrilling recovery with the aid of a devoted and understanding husband and a wise psychiatrist.” Two years later the movie version would cement what Jonathan Metzl calls, “the popular narrative in which early-life trauma rendered white, middle-class women unable to function as wives….”21
When Frances’ mother, Lillian, spoke to newspapers in 1943 shortly after her daughter’s first hospitalization, she said that being cast as a “professional harlot” had caused Frances “nervous exhaustion.”26 Later, she would attribute her daughter’s state to communists who had “tricked and coerced” Frances into doing “things she didn’t want to do.”27
At a formal hearing for Frances’ sanity in late March of 1944 at Harborview County Hospital, her mother claimed that a couple of weeks earlier Frances had “grabbed [her] wrists and pushed [her] into a chair” after being asked to turn down the radio. It was at that moment that Lillian realized she was, “entirely unable to control her at home.”28
Lillian echoed earlier psychiatrists’ beliefs29 that “her daughter’s difficulty dated from her marital trouble or at least was caused by it.” The Board agreed, pointing out, “Marital difficulty is said to be a predisposing cause of the insanity.”28 Frances’ guardianship deprived her of basic civil rights until she petitioned the Superior Court for her freedom in 1953.4
In addition to the therapeutic delights of having your brain electrocuted or being submerged in ice water for hours, residents of Western State, the hospital Frances would spend most of the late 1940s, enjoyed spoiled food, being forcibly bedridden daily for half of the day, and at least a few “light epidemics of diarrhea” per year.30 As recently as 2018 Western State has been described as, “going into hell.”31
I’ll let Frances have the last word on her time at Washington State:
“What is emotional illness? What is mental illness? Where does one end, the other begin? I don’t know. There was reality then for me, but it was the awful reality of institutions.”32 “I didn’t think then, and I still don’t, that I was actually sick.”33
I shudder to think about what Britney Spears has endured over these last 13 years of her “temporary” conservatorship. She lives in a slightly more modern age of psychiatry, but she claimed earlier this year that she was forced to take Lithium34 after “not cooperating” in rehearsals. She has also been forced to change naked in front of someone else “morning, noon, and night,” and to go to therapy three times a week.34 She has daily 8am-6pm meetings and if she tries to not attend, she’s threatened with not seeing her kids or boyfriend.34
Where Frances was encouraged not to return to Hollywood by her family,35 Britney has been forced to perform with 104°F fevers36 under threat of having her children taken away. Her incredible talent has generated ridiculous sums for not only her immediate family, team, and representatives, but countless members of the recording industry, all while being at times an estimated 20% of the tabloid market, a multi-billion dollar industry.37 Britney isn’t a business, man, she’s a business empire.
In the meantime, she’s been forced into mental wards again38 and again,39 and prescribed “cocktails of medications” while her father and his team gaslight news outlets into reporting her checking herself in willingly.40 She might have a point when she says, “I’m a Slave 4 U.”
While Frances was called “flighty, erratic, a problem star,”((https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&dat=19580512&id=WQsTAAAAIBAJ&sjid=7QQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1569,2098076)) our more developed media has described Britney as “an inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes,” a “spitting, growling” “arrogant, anxiety-ridden” “braless chick”12 with “a toxic divorce, two kids, a custody battle [and] one shambolic reality TV show” who has “stabilized” “under her father’s supervision.”41 Britney’s father is reportedly an abusive alcoholic who once broke down a door to “violently shake” her 13-year-old son,42 who calls Britney “fat,” “whore,” “bad mother,”13 and who refers to her as “a racehorse who has to be handled like one.”36
A judge for Britney’s case described Jamie Spears in 2018 as a “capable, qualified person,” and he’s received at least 6.592 million dollars over the last 13 years in salary for his role as conservator, plus another $312,000 just for office space rental.36
While dementia praecox was the original term for what Frances Farmer is described as facing, Britney was described as simply having “dementia”13 on her conservatorship paperwork. While Farmer was deemed legally incompetent for 11 years, Spears has been in her conservatorship for 13. And there is reason to believe her dad isn’t going to give it up without a fight. Despite public pressure, he filed a brief on August 6th claiming that “no grounds exist” for his suspension as conservator,43 and has since filed another brief with no set date for his stepping down.44
The fact that this has happened to two allegedly beloved women over 60 years apart from one another certainly says something about the “awful reality of institutions.”
This article was first published in August of 2021, when Britney Spears was still in a conservatorship. Since then, Spears has been released and in October of 2023 published her memoir, The Woman in Me, detailing her experiences.
- Berkeley Daily Gazette, Jan 28, 1937
- The Protest Psychosis, Jonathan Metzl