Love Addiction Is the Worst III: The Billie Holliday Story

How can Holliday’s love and heroin addictions be compared?

Posted Feb 27, 2021

Hulu is now streaming The United States vs. Billie Holliday. Somewhat reluctantly, I began to watch it. And, as I worried would happen, I couldn’t finish it. Not because I know how it ends. I couldn’t tolerate her self-destructiveness. And I’m not speaking about the heroin

I. The Persecution of Billie Holliday  

Johann Hari’s drug policy and addiction-concept-reform book, Chasing the Scream, in which Billie Holliday’s persecution at the hands of federal drug enforcement pioneer Harry Anslinger is retold, has been made into a movie now screening on Hulu: The United States vs. Billie Holliday. (Amazon is also streaming the documentary, Billie.)

As portrayed by Hari, for some perverted combination of reasons—sexual, racial, political, even aesthetic—Anslinger targeted the brilliant Black jazz singer, Billie Holliday. Anslinger (and J. Edgar Hoover), considered Holliday subversive. 

(Hoover felt the same way about Marian Anderson, whose name crops up in the film. But Anderson, who performed both classical and spiritual music and who didn’t use drugs, was protected by Eleanor Roosevelt.)

As a result, Holliday’s performances and her career were regularly interrupted by local police and federal authorities, and she was jailed for her heroin use. Her career destroyed, she plummeted to personal disaster.

II. What About Treatment?

Holliday was promised a hospital sentence if she pleaded to her drug charge. Instead, she was sentenced to a year in prison. Would hospitalization have been the better option? It so happens that Johann and I have clashed around this issue. Johann feels, just as it was better that homosexuality be dealt with as a disease than a crime at one point in time, that we are in a similar transitional period with regards to drugs. This is despite his own rejection of the disease theory of addiction.

I don’t feel that way. I certainly don’t want people to be imprisoned for drug use, whether they can claim to be addicted or not. But claiming a supposed brain disease as the justification for people to avoid prison is a bridge too far for me. I view the existential trap of self-ghettoization as an “addict” to be a worse form of imprisonment than jail.

III. Other Options: Safe Consumption and Drug Maintenance

Two policy innovations used in Europe and Canada are safe drug consumption sites (DCS) and heroin maintenance programs. Although both have been actively discussed and promoted recently—in fact for years—there are no such programs in the U.S. 

In recent months, considerable enthusiasm has been expressed by a number of political and law-enforcement figures in the United States over the possible benefits of heroin maintenance in the treatment of the addict population and the potential benefits in reduction of crime and ultimate rehabilitation.

Lest we become too excited about this prospect, the above was written in JAMA 50 years ago. 

IV. Why Did Billie Holliday Prefer Heroin?

Since neither Johann nor I view the preference for heroin as a biological imperative, why was Holliday wedded to the drug? The movie provides ample explanation for her addiction. Put simply, if you were cornered by your race, not allowed to express your genius, pursued by government authorities at home and on stage, what relief might you resort to? For those of us ensconced in white male privilege, we’ll never know. But we might suspect that our reactions would be, similar to Holliday’s, addictive. We inevitably think of Lenny Bruce.

V. What Else Was Troubling Holliday?

Much of Holliday’s music and life revolved around destructive relationships with men—love addiction. Do the same factors that drove Holliday to her drug addiction explain her love addiction? That’s a home study question. There is no assured answer. But obviously her crushing, negative life situation disposed her to addictions of all kinds.

VI. If Heroin Maintenance Is a Viable Option, What About Love Addiction?

Holliday couldn’t be imprisoned for continually being beaten and cheated (financially and intimately) by men. So that storyline has a different trajectory than her heroin addiction. Could it be a more controllable one? The short answer for Holliday was no. She persisted in destructive love relationships with even more vehemence, tolerated far more degradation from them, than she did with heroin.

I couldn’t stand it. So when her latest lover/manager beat her all over the floor because she had tried to capture the money he regularly rifled from her, I had to avert my eyes, and quit watching.

Watching Holliday shoot up simply didn’t have that effect for me.