I was not a fan of Whitney Houston, the megastar who died of a drug overdose six years ago. I thought at the time, “Oh, how sad, another star who couldn’t handle fame and money.” There’s a new documentary out now about her life and death, and this interview with the director made me feel more compassion for her.
It turns out that her family — her brothers — and others around her were saturated by drug abuse. It was everywhere when she was coming up. She wanted to be part of the fun. The director says that in interviewing 70 people for this movie, he was struck by how much latent guilt there seemed to be in everyone. They know that they had a hand in what happened to her.
The part that really got to me, though, was the revelation that Whitney Houston was sexually abused in childhood by her now-deceased cousin Dee-Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne Warwick. Excerpt:
It’s one of Whitney’s brothers who brings up the abuse allegations. How did you feel when you uncovered that piece of information?
I first began to suspect that there might be some kind of abuse involved before anyone had actually told me. I just had a sense, having sat watching interviews about her, watching footage of her. I had a feeling that there was something wrong with her. There was something preventing her, in some way, from expressing her real self. She felt uncomfortable in her own skin in almost every interview there was with her. And I thought that was a very strange thing, and it kind of reminded me of people I’d seen who had suffered from abuse, just in their body language and their sense of holding something back. That was just an intuition, and then somebody mentioned it off-camera to me. They wouldn’t talk about it on camera, but they said Whitney had said to her that something had happened.
And for a long time, that was where it lay. I didn’t know whether that was true. And then I interviewed Pat Houston and Gary Houston, who’s Whitney’s brother. He told me that he was abused by a woman in the family, and Pat Houston told me that, yes, Whitney had said to her, “This is what happened.” So at that stage, I’d had the confirmation that something had happened, but I didn’t know who it was. And then, on the next interview, Gary did tell me who it was. This was at the very end of filming, two weeks before we locked the cut. Then I [interviewed] Mary Jones, who was Whitney’s longtime assistant [throughout] the last 10 years of her life, and who knew her better probably better in that period than anybody else. And she told me Whitney’s point of view on this, and what Whitney had told her in detail, and how important she felt it was for understanding Whitney, but how scared everyone was to talk about it. So, yeah, the film changed radically in the last weeks of editing it, which I guess, as a detective, is the result you want.
But, obviously it’s such a disturbing allegation, and we did have a lot of debate about it. How do you present material like this, and how do you do it in a way that’s going to be fair to the family and to somebody who’s accused who is also deceased?
What was the answer to that question?
In the end, we felt that we had three different people saying this. One of them, Gary, was also abused by [the same woman]. So, we felt that having direct testimony of somebody saying, “This happened to me” meant that even if by some incredible stretch of the imagination, Whitney had been lying to everybody else about it, that there was no reason not to go public about it. All the experts I spoke to about this area and this issue told me that it’s best to talk about these things and best for them to be out. That is the current thinking: it may prevent other people being abused in the future, it may give people the courage to come forward and say, “This happened to me, and this was the person who did it.” So there was some nervousness about it to begin with because I didn’t expect to be making a film about somebody who was an entertainer to lead to such a dark place. But once we got there, I felt like we had an obligation to use this.
Whitney Houston famously had a lengthy love affair with Robyn Crawford, her longtime assistant, something the director acknowledges in the interview, though Crawford refused to be interviewed. Was Whitney Houston’s lesbianism tied to her abuse by her female cousin? Or: was the fact that she had same-sex desire compromised by the fact that when she first discovered it, it was in the context of abuse, and therefore it carried with it a special taint in her mind?
The torment of victims of child sexual abuse is something unique and horrifying. This is something anybody who has spent time reading accounts emerging from the church child abuse scandal learns, and never forgets. That poor woman. God bless those who endured, and found healing, not self-destruction. I wonder what would have happened to the singer had she been in a family that had been willing to talk about the abuse, and had not burdened her (and other victims of Dee-Dee Warwick) with the dead weight of keeping a malign secret.
The Houston tragedy makes me realize that one of the biggest ways the church sex abuse story changed me was making me much more hostile to the idea that people (families, churches, etc.) should keep dark and damaging secrets to maintain the façade, both inwardly and outwardly, of normality. It’s a sick system that tells those who were victimized by that system that they have a moral obligation to stay silent to protect the reputation and the stability of that system.