Weekend Reads: Whitney Houston Edition

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.

Bill O'Reilly to Whitney Houston: You Should Have Just Said 'No'

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?

Susie Bright and Daniel Engber, of Susie Bright’s Journal and Slate respectively, both seem to feel there are important messages about addiction and collective guilt to be taken from Houston’s death. In “Whitney Houston’s Death Is Probably Not What You Think It Is,” Bright suggests that the focus on Houston’s drug use has unconscious gendered elements, her supposedly drug-related death serving as the means for chastising a “fallen woman.” She explains how “women in pop culture are particularly framed with this ‘poor little prima donna who destroyed her talent’ garbage…Is that what happened when George Harrison died? The Beatles, every one of them, could’ve given Whitney Houston a clinic in drug abuse.” In “Did We All Kill Whitney Houston – Or Did We Prolong Her Life?” Engber provides a stark counterpoint to Bright, suggesting that Houston’s drug use provides us with a fascinating paradox: Money is an indicator of health, celebrities have money, therefore celebrities should be healthier than the general public. Arguing against the idea that the public can be blamed for driving Houston to drug addiction, Engber claims “the case against the American public ignores the fundamental benefit of having tabloid headlines and network TV shows and all the other trappings of celebrity. Being famous—whether it’s the good, Star-Spangled-Banner kind or the bad, rapid-weight-loss kind—is worth a lot of money.” Essentially, Engber argues, rather provocatively, that the public’s fascination with her drug use was not a net negative for Houston. Rather, it kept her from dropping into obscurity, which would only have accelerated her descent.

Bright and Engber’s discussions of collective guilt and judgment seem relatively tame when compared to the many articles about the War on Drugs that Houston’s death has inspired. For many pundits, one singer’s drug abuse and early demise signals a referendum on America’s drugs policy. This is surely a leap in logic, but an understandable one given the occasionally frenzied tenor of much of the Whitney Houston reportage. On Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth asks “Did the War on Drugs Kill Whitney Houston?” Soon after Houston’s death, famed crooner Tony Bennett – a man who nearly died of a cocaine overdose in 1979 – declared America should end its failed war on drugs. Williams, who accepts the failure of America’s Drug Wars as a given, reacts to Bennett’s use of the blanket term “drugs,” asking if responsibility, rather than legality, is the key issue.  “Michael Jackson didn’t meet his maker shooting heroin into his veins,” Elizabeth explains, “he died of ‘Acute Propofol Intoxication’ — and his doctor, Conrad Murray, was subsequently convicted of involuntary manslaughter…[Amy] Winehouse, meanwhile, died of alcohol poisoning.” Perhaps, Elizabeth suggests, we should dump the war on drugs and acknowledge that doing so would not have saved Whitney, Michael, or Amy.

The War on Drugs: Apparently it has something to do with Whitney Houston

Bill Bennett, the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also took on the meaning of Houston’s death within the framework of the War on Drugs, approaching the issue at hand in a most clumsy and heavy-handed manner. In his op-ed for CNN.com “Legalizing Drugs Won’t Prevent Abuse,” the author describes Tony Bennett’s comments as “idiotic” before calling for a re-upping of the federal War on Drugs. Exercising what could be most charitably referred to as “selective memory,” Bill Bennett reminisces on how, “in the 1980s and ’90s, the U.S. beat back the cocaine and heroine epidemics, not by legalization or decriminalization, but by tough law enforcement, strong prevention and education programs and public outcry.” For Bennett, Whitney Houston’s death presents an opportunity to write himself an epinicion, celebrating his own success in defeating the scourge of drugs during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Of course, this collection of articles only scrapes the surface of the discussion, representing the smallest sample of the collective drug-related navel gazing Whitney Houston’s death has inspired among the pundirati. Houston’s passing seems to have been little more than a Rorschach test for writers of all persuasions, entrenching their already-held positions on drug use, morality, and personal responsibility.

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Doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, Department of History. Part-time Ro-Man.

4 thoughts on “Weekend Reads: Whitney Houston Edition”

  1. Thanks for the good story. Of course, public health debates always engage the question: who is to blame — society or the individual? This question goes back at least to Emile Durkheim’s classic sociological work on suicide, which Durkheim claimed was a commentary on disintegrating modern society (this, over a century ago!).

    We see the same kinds of debate in the articles above, and in many other contexts. Speaking to a Russian sociologist two months ago, I was told that it may be necessary in Russia to have very strong external controls — controls we would consider oppressive in the West — because Russians lack internal controls. When the external controls are lifted, chaos and crime break loose, as witness the flowering of Russia Mafia activities, widespread bribery, corruption, and larger-scale economic shenanigans after the fall of Communism there.

    But if internal controls are lacking — whether in Russia or in America (as, perhaps in the case of drug addicts) — what is society’s role in the creation of this problem? And, if the problem’s source is larger than the Individual but smaller than Society, where should we look for answers? In the family? The schools? The community or peer group? The cut-throat entertainment industry, in Whitney Houston’s case?

    This is all by way of saying that studies of addiction (and addiction policy) are a locus for reviewing these important debates about free will and determinism, individual blame and societal (or cultural) blame. For myself, I wonder about the culture that promotes such a thirst for drugs. (And by “culture,” I also mean society and economy.) What causes the pain that requires so much pain-killing? Durkheim wasn’t asking the wrong question, though we don’t know the whole answer yet.

    • That’s an interesting question. Susan Bright mentions Houston’s eating disorders, but she doesn’t really explain what direct role (if any) her eating-related habits played in her alcoholism and drug use. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising to imagine a connection, but I think we’d need to know what Houston’s drug use habits were before we could make any sort of judgments.

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