On Saturday, the nation said goodbye to Whitney Houston. It will be weeks before toxicology reports pinpoint the specific cause of the six-time Grammy winner’s death. But even without those results, it should be obvious that Houston died as the result of decades of hard living.
Once an elegant and classy superstar, Houston made a series of wrong turns that transformed her into a disheveled shell of her former self and the butt of jokes by late night talk-show hosts.
Anyone who followed Houston — her tumultuous marriage, her Hawaiian drug bust, her bizarrely Afro-centric trip to Israel, her canceled tour dates and incoherent concerts — could see that she was headed for a fall.
Yet, remarkably, in the week since her passing, Houston’s fans, fellow celebrities and members of the media have portrayed her not as tragic figure, but as one of life’s victims.
In the days leading up to Houston’s funeral, the media’s working hypothesis was that various doctors prescribed her medications that when combined (with each other and alcohol) proved lethal.
The willingness to blame the medical profession — for, at best, failing to coordinate care and, at worst, enabling a celebrity’s addictions — is a cop-out.
So are accusations that Houston’s death was caused by nebulous forces such as “fame” and “the culture of music industry.” But the most absurd claim is the one made by music legend Tony Bennett that America’s drug laws are at fault. (Unclear how Bennett thinks the legalization of drugs could have saved Houston.)
To be sure, the sycophants who called themselves Houston’s friends, while leading her down a path of destruction, bear some responsibility for her downfall. Yet conspicuously absent from the public discussion of Houston’s death is the role of personal responsibility.
The language used to describe Houston’s death is revealing. “Whitney was taken from us too soon,” cooed Anderson Cooper. Taken by whom, Cooper does not say — but the implication is clear: Death is something that happened to Whitney Houston, not something she did to herself.
Few media outlets have suggested that Houston’s death was — even accidentally — self-inflicted. Even fewer have discussed the possibility that Houston — who in the days before her death talked openly about wanting to “meet Jesus” — committed suicide. And nobody has dared to suggest the very real possibility that Houston timed her death to coincide with the 54th annual Grammy Awards (a night custom-made for moving tributes and loving testimonials).
Because to raise these possibilities would be to undermine the storyline of Houston as victim.
Ironically, Houston herself understood that she was to blame for her struggles. When asked by Diane Sawyer in 2002 to name her “biggest devil” (among alcohol, pills, marijuana and cocaine), Houston replied, “that would be me.” She then added, “No one makes me do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision, so the biggest devil is me.”
None of this is to deny the role of addiction. Addiction was Houston’s tragic flaw. But although she was not responsible for her disease, Houston understood that she was responsible for how she chose to deal with it.
The deflection of responsibility onto everyone and everything other than Houston herself prevents us from learning valuable lessons from the superstar’s life.
Whitney Houston did not deserve to die naked and alone in a hotel bathtub at the age of 48. That she did is a result of decades of bad choices. To say so is not to “blame the victim”; it is simply to warn the living.