I met Whitney Houston once, briefly. She was, as everyone says, absolutely stunning, truly startling in her beauty. It was 1995 and I was a contributing writer at Premiere magazine, doing an article on the making of Waiting to Exhale. While I’d been granted a fair amount of time with the other three principals (Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon), catching up to Whitney on my behalf had proved more of a challenge to the on-set publicist. But a meeting was finally arranged, under strict time limitations; I was given 10 minutes, as I recall. Here’s part of what I wrote: “She seems to come closest to telling the truth about her life when she looks out her trailer window, her eyes distracted yet steely, and says, “My world just keeps going. This movie is just one small section of it.” The Whitney Houston business, it seems, is enough to make a diva out of anyone.”
Tragically, we now know the full extent of the torment that comprised her world. She was, as they say, “difficult” during the making of this film and she does not come off well in the article, though I reported only what I saw and heard. Reading my words now, it is heartbreaking to know what made her so difficult.
Whitney Houston was an extraordinary artist who had a God-given gift that very few receive. Like many great popular-music singers you could name (Judy Garland, Etta James) she was addicted to a number of substances for much of her adult life. It is almost certain that that’s what killed her. Addiction is a brutal, brutal beast that some are simply unable to beat; she was one of them. These are the only things that can be asserted with certainty in relation to her life and death. There has been a great deal of speculation about how she got started on drugs, how it’s all Bobby Brown’s fault, how her gift was too much for her to bear, how, how, how. Because of course, we all want to know how or why someone with such a remarkable talent would live in a way that destroyed it—and ultimately destroyed her.
But we never will know how, and really, it’s useless to speculate. That is one of the savage truths of addiction; no matter how or why you start, it ends in only one of two ways: you stop or you die.
What it takes to stop is an almost inconceivable amount of strength, particularly for someone in Whitney’s position, which entailed so many other pressures and a constant return to the people, places and things (as they say in the 12-step programs) where her addiction began. Like Michael Jackson, she broke under the pressure. And like Michael, she was African-American and unimaginably wealthy.
As I researched addiction and alcoholism for my novel, The Taste of Salt (which is in part about the effects of alcoholism on an African-American family) I read many memoirs by addicts and alcoholics. Memoirs by white alcoholics and drug addicts are a dime bag a dozen—but when it came to African-Americans writing about the same subject, I found next to nothing. If the work is available, I couldn’t find it—the only other novel I’m aware of is Carleen Brice’s Orange Mint and Honey.
I believe that this is reflective of a larger issue—that there is still reluctance in parts of the African-American community to air our “dirty laundry” in public. But that reluctance leads to there being too little public conversation either within the African-American community (or outside of it) about the workings of addiction among wealthy or middle class African-Americans and the best, most culturally sensitive ways to treat it (An aside: I am well aware that no matter what your race or class, the state of drug and alcohol treatment in this country is a mess—no room to talk about that here, nor do I have the expertise to do so). There is no way that all of the addicts in the black community are beat down, broke crack addicts or homeless bums. But that’s the primary image you see. There are more stories to tell—and we can tell them.
One tiny bit of good that might come from Whitney’s death would be if we in the African-American community used it as an occasion to further acknowledge the reality of addiction across all class lines. Be honest about the costs, don’t focus so much on why or how it happened or whose fault it is; don’t assume it only happens to some people. The important thing is that it’s happening. While the only person who can ultimately stop an addict is him or herself (though most need the help of a 12-step program and/or other support), we can admit that addicts in our community, at all levels, are not aberrations, are not people to be ashamed of or accused, are people who need help. It’s a small step, but an important one
We will never know what complex factors forced Whitney Houston to succumb to her powerful disease, nor will we ever know how hard she tried to stop or who tried to make her stop. But perhaps more honesty and openness—and perhaps more storytelling—could help someone who isn’t famous, isn’t as gifted, is just a person loved by friends and family, take that first difficult step toward getting clean.