Editor’s Note: Thank you for rejoining the retooled Weekend Reads. You’ll notice that, rather than providing links to a variety of stories currently in the news, this column will now look at the multiple lenses through which the blogosphere frames a single, current drug-related news story. This week, we take on Whitney Houston’s untimely passing and what role, if any, drugs played in the singer’s life and death.
As you likely know by now, multiple Grammy Award winner and movie semi-star Whitney Houston was found dead in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11. Houston – the much-beloved multiplatinum belter-outer of megahits like “I Wanna’ Dance With Somebody” and “I Will Always Love You” – had fallen on tough times over the last decade. Though she was still financially solvent and continued producing moderately successful records, she was a heavy drinker, had a conflicted relationship with food, and clearly dabbled in all manner of drugs, including “street drugs” rarely associated with the lifestyles of the Hollywood glitterati. Her drug use most famously entered the public ether more than a decade ago when, being interviewed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Houston felt compelled to (disingenuously) pronounce “crack is whack.”
Once Houston’s drug use became fodder for public discussion, it came to dominate her public persona. For this reason, the media – as is its wont – has made her drug use a central element of discussions of her passing. Did she bring her death upon herself through cavalier drug use? Such is the view of pundit Bill O’Reilly, who proclaimed that all Houston had to do was choose not to use drugs and she could escape the ravages of addiction. The Telegraph’s Damian Thompson, perhaps anticipating a rash of O’Reilly-like moral outrage, headed such thoughts off at the pass. In “Whitney Houston and Crack Cocaine: Why This Addiction is so Desperately Hard to Break,” Thompson explains the mechanics of drug addiction and, in particular, the effect crack cocaine has on the release of dopamine to the brain, concluding that “for any experienced user of crack or crystal meth (the most deadly dopamine stimulant of all), it’s not a question of just saying no: there’s no “just” about it.” Alas, the Fox News and Telegraph crowds rarely mix.
Reilly’s supposition, while clearly preposterous and profoundly ignorant, speaks to some of the broader discussions in the media regarding Houston’s passing. In “The Strange Lessons of Whitney Houston’s Addiction,” Elizabeth Wurtzel of The Atlantic takes on the idea that there is anything other addicts or prospective addicts can take from Houston’s experiences, given the singularity of the singer’s experience as a millionaire media idol. Wurtzel also points out how close the average person is to falling into the abyss of addiction, chastising the “entertainment industry that has been (understandably) ridiculing Houston’s behavior for at least a decade…[but] is now mourning her unapologetically.” Should we be trying to take any lessons from Houston’s death other than drugs are terribly addictive and you might need to die before people acknowledge that fact?