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The Tragedy Of Whitney Houston

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. [1]

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.

Read the whole thing. [1]

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.


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20 Comments To "The Tragedy Of Whitney Houston"

#1 Comment By collin On May 17, 2018 @ 10:14 am

Like you I was never much of a fan of Whitney Houston but her career was very intriguing because she really did have the potential to as great as Michael Jackson or, better yet under the right circumstances, Aretha Franklin. Every record had some great hits but she never completely focused her talent to achieve greatness. At the heart of it, it seems to relatively the same story in which some abuse may have occurred and once a person becomes a huge celebrity, they are often too caged to be comfortable. (We can call it the Elvis Presley Syndrome.)

#2 Comment By Adamant On May 17, 2018 @ 10:35 am

I remain baffled that #metoo has scarcely touched the music industry, or Silicon Valley, or Wall Street.

#3 Comment By Ping Lin On May 17, 2018 @ 11:45 am

I remain baffled that #metoo has scarcely touched the music industry, or Silicon Valley, or Wall Street.

I’m with Adamant here. Wall Street I can kinda-sorta-understand because a) they’re incredibly more powerful than anyone in Hollywood and b) women are probably a lot more scarce in that area than anywhere else…I can’t remember the last time I saw a female stocktrader on those pans across the NYSE floor you see in the news.

The music industry, though? I mean, R. Kelly is a known pedophile, accused by about a dozen women of grooming young girls for sex, and his punishment is…getting knocked off a curated list on Spotify. To say nothing of serial abusers like Chris Brown that run rampant in the industry.


#4 Comment By TR On May 17, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

The thing preventing her from expressing her true self was because (1) there is no such thing as a “true self” and (2) she was forced by fame to try to express the “self” created by makeup artists, hair dressers, publicists,gossip columnists, agents, handlers, and family living on her money-making ability. The staunchest, sincerest Christian here would have a hard time expressing anything if he or she were thrown into the same pot.

Child abuse is as terrible as RD makes it out to be, but one should be careful of making it the excuse for every personality defect. It’s gotten to the point where every defense attorney is going to claim that his client should not be found guilty or if so should be treated lightly because he or she was sexually abused as a child.

In Freudian days, sexually repressed mothers were blamed for every defect in adulthood. Child abusers are the new default.

#5 Comment By Leslie Fain On May 17, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

I was really surprised last night when reading about this documentary how soft writers were being on Dee Dee Warwick. One writer wrote there was a “special bond” between Houston and Warwick because of “their shared orientation.” Would we describe a male pedophile and his victim that way? Roger Friedman wrote that Warwick was not a monster, but “a gentle human being.” He also wrote that Warwick must have “suffered, too.” If he’s talking about potential abuse Warwick may have encountered, I agree, but if it’s merely about her guilty feelings, I’m sorry, that in no way compares to
what Houston endured. Is this the way we would describe a male pedophile? Dee Dee Warwick ruined Houston’s life and her brother’s. Even in the interview I read with the documentary director, what Warwick did is never described as “sexual abuse,” only abuse. Are they soft on Warwick because she’s a woman or LGBT or both?

#6 Comment By grumpy realist On May 17, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

Adamant–doesn’t this segue together with Rod’s column on how we should accept/reject artists for their work, not for their behavior?

The only explanation I can come up with is in most cases, the “great artists” are dead and buried, and they’re not continuing their squick-inducing behavior. Plus, historical differences and all that….

But present-day, still alive artists? Ones for whom our disapproval might still chastise into acting better? Yah, we’ll go after them.

#7 Comment By charles cosimano On May 17, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

Sorry. I still think the tragedy of Whitney Houston was there was a Whitney Houston.

I honestly have no use for back stories. Performers have no existence other than their performance and the rest is, well, so what? A lot of people have rotten lives. I have people who come to me with tales that would make your beard curl but no one is going to write a bio of them. They manage to achieve the best revenge–living well, not dying in the bathtub.

On the other hand, I have no love for the music industry but I love the way it has given #metoo the back of their hand. It is the only way to deal with such things. I’m also rather fond of the way they turn their fan base loose on feminists who object.

#8 Comment By Fiestamom On May 17, 2018 @ 12:30 pm

The article doesn’t mention it, but surely
Clive Davis (The head of the record label) bears responsibility for her downfall. The earlier commenters are correct, the music biz is ugly. Worse than Hollywood.

Clive Davis was instrumental in Janis Joplin’s career, too. Davis has claimed he was shocked and stunned to learn that Whitney Houston was gay.

Right before 9/11, Whitney made an appearance at a Michael Jackson concert, and she was skeletal. It was shocking. Poor Whitney. It seems like the guilt from her family is well placed. What a sad story.

#9 Comment By Elijah On May 17, 2018 @ 12:40 pm

“Adamant–doesn’t this segue together with Rod’s column on how we should accept/reject artists for their work, not for their behavior?”

@ grumpy – I was wondering the same thing. Why popular music should be the one metier where an artist is judged by his work is astounding – perhaps because there’s so much money involved?

I confess to being like Cosimano in this regard – I really couldn’t care less about the back story and, honestly, the less I know the better. Once you know that John Mayer is a smarmy jerk, for example, it’s awfully hard to get it out of your mind.

#10 Comment By Locksley On May 17, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

Whitney Houston should have learned to sing opera; she definitely had a powerful and mellifluous enough voice for it. But the song that made her famous–Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’–didn’t require that kind of voice. I’ve always preferred Dolly’s version.

#11 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 17, 2018 @ 3:20 pm

When I read this, I really didn’t have anything to say. After looking at it again, and the comments so far, which strike me as pretty shallow, I still don’t. Its a complex, tragic, situation, and I may actually read the book — I may actually look up the documentary, and I don’t often seek out documentaries on celebrities. Need more data to comment meaningfully.

#12 Comment By James Bradshaw On May 17, 2018 @ 5:56 pm

I didn’t care for all of her music, but I don’t think anyone has surpassed her rendition of the National Anthem at the ’91 Super Bowl, whether they were live or lip-synced it.


I’ve been reading “Sacrilege” by Leon Podles (about the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church). It’s harrowing, but it’s giving me a better idea of the degradation that is so intrinsic to sex abuse and which I’ve not always grasped.

#13 Comment By Richard Parker On May 17, 2018 @ 11:49 pm

Whitney was gay? When did this come about?? Why wasn’t I informed???

How is Kevin holding up?

#14 Comment By Mr. Jones On May 18, 2018 @ 12:00 am

I worked in a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center for 6 years. I know this is anecdotal, but I am still haunted that probably 90% of the women who were being treated talked about some kind of sexual abuse in their early years. The number for men might have been close, but men really don’t talk about that sort of experience. A lot of shame in the addiction business.

#15 Comment By Eric Mader On May 18, 2018 @ 12:28 am

Whitney who?

#16 Comment By Steve M On May 18, 2018 @ 6:54 am

Whitney Houston spent the better part of her life under tremendous stress. Apart from the abuse and drug issues, she was lesbian/bi in an industry that had zero use for promoting an out entertainer in the 1980s and 1990s. She was black and lesbian/bi at a time when the black community was, to put it mildly, hostile to homosexuality. People also forget that, in the 80s, certain quarters accused her of not being “black enough” because she had reached a crossover audience. Small wonder, then, that she was unable to reconcile all these competing stresses.

As for Clive Davis, there’s a reasoned case to be made that he pushed Houston to superstardom when she was much too young. But many of her personal issues would have been there whether Davis ever signed her to Arista Records or not. As for Janis Joplin, she was very happy with how the sessions were going for her final studio album, Pearl, when she made the foolish decision to try heroin again — which killed her. Clive Davis isn’t responsible for that and, in any event, much testimony exists that there were plenty of people around Joplin who loved her and only wanted the best for her.

Finally, Clive Davis was the one who brought Patti Smith to the public eye and he certainly didn’t destroy her. What then is the difference between Patti Smith and Whitney Houston and Janis Joplin other than Smith may be made of sterner stuff?

#17 Comment By Richard Parker On May 18, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

“Small wonder, then, that she was unable to reconcile all these competing stresses.”

All that money should have helped.

#18 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 18, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

All that money should have helped.

Yeah, like it did Richard Corey a lot of good. Are you serious? Money makes all pain and crises of the soul go away? Really?

#19 Comment By Donxon On May 19, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

People with severe substance abuse problems almost always suffered some form of early childhood trauma, usually sexual abuse. It’s makes the war on drugs that much more crazy.

#20 Comment By John` Riley On May 19, 2018 @ 1:56 pm

Some of the comments here are bloodcurdling. Why are so many conservatives obsessed with not allowing anyone’s story to be used or even known? It says so much about one that a child’s personal experience at the hands of a sex abuser has nothing to do with them being in a court of law or how they turn out as adults. When one is sexually abused and emotionally abused as a child every day of his or her life is a court of law. All that angst and energy turned toward making sure people go to jail is what someone says when he or she can’t be bothered by another’s experiences. I don’t think many murderers are let out because they were abused–but many, many murderers were abused. Sexual abuse in a Freudian mother?

Yes, I was sexually abused. For years I couldn’t see how it affected me. I’m older now and won’t go into how it affected my attitude toward sex and the feelings of worthlessness that accompanied my depression. I’m not blaming my depression or anything else on anything or anyone. (Sorry to cut you off.) I am finally wise enough to know we are made by the ingredients we’re born with and the care that is taken by the adults in the years of our formation. There is a reason everyone can remember their childhood. It’s like making bread. Regardless of how good the raw ingredients are to drop it on the floor or urinate in it or leave it out for days before preparing the bread will affect how that bread turns out. (And please don’t accuse me of saying people are no different or better than baked bread. It’s too silly, even for you.)

I live and work among damaged people and the most hurtful thing that can be said to them is not “use it for an excuse” or to be compared to someone who seems better. Sometimes it’s best to not say anything. It’s the first step toward wisdom.