Whitney Houston Film Asks a Deeper Question About Addiction

A new documentary shows how multiple factors are at work in self-destruction.

Posted Aug 09, 2018

Since the 2012 death of legendary singer Whitney Houston, truths about the singer’s personal life continue to be revealed. While much of the analysis of the singer’s tragic descent and ultimate death has historically focused on the dangers of drug addiction, a new documentary by esteemed director Kevin Macdonald offers an expanded perspective on how the gifted singer’s life unraveled.

The new documentary, Whitney, offers interviews with countless musicians, friends, staff and family members who had close access to the performer. The film explains what we already know instinctively as an audience: Drugs can be deadly. But the film asks a more important question that applies not only to Houston, but to every addict who loses their life. What causes such severe addiction? While drug addiction is often the ultimate lethal driver, the film asks the audience to think about why the singer–anyone, for that matter–feels the need to use substances to such an extreme degree in the first place. 

In Houston’s case, her descent from astonishing worldwide success to living life on the brink of homelessness a few years prior to her death (confirmed by a representative of the Whitney Houston estate in the film) was not, the film illustrates, the consequence of any one factor. Psychologically speaking, the film suggests that no single factor–not a husband, fame, or any other factor alone–was the cause of such profound and insurmountable self-destructive impulses. 

The film cites how many factors acted in unison to create significant and chronic psychological distress in the superstar: an ethic identity crisis (bullied as a child by other black children for being too light-skinned and bullied later as an adult for making music that was 'too white,' exemplified by Reverend Al Sharpton years ago calling for a boycott of the singer and calling her "Whitey" Houston); a chaotic early life in which her mother was largely away from home, tending to her own singing career, as well as extramarital affairs by both her mother and father which caused major familial conflict; having a sibling who gave her marijuana and cocaine to try while she was still a teenager; a struggle with her sexual identity (having a relationship with her female assistant but being told by some close to her that she had to marry to dispel gay rumors which could ruin her career); a father who sued her for $100 million and said angrily in an interview on his death bed that he wants the money his daughter owes him; alleged molestation by a female relative; a codependent relationship with another addict who was simultaneously threatened by his wife's success; and betrayal by some close to her who sold incriminating stories or photographs of her to the press for their own financial gain. There must be a limit on how many emotional betrayals a person can suffer.

In this way, the film shows how universal Houston's story was. Despite fame and wealth, Houston did not successfully manage her self-destructive impulses. When wealthy or famous people die, people sometimes comment that these individuals should not have reached such destructive ends because they had access to the best medical and mental health resources. Yet the film is important in showing how the power of hopelessness and self-destructive impulses can be so great that the individual no longer sees the value in their own life. If a person no longer values their own life, they will not have sufficient motivation to seek out help and resources.

Celebrities–especially those rarefied few who reach astronomical levels of fame–deal with pressures, scrutiny, and a lack of anonymity that is not natural or healthy for anyone to experience. One of the most nefarious psychological consequences of extreme fame is the isolation it brings. Being recognized and adored by strangers everywhere you go causes such individuals to experience a reality that is disconnected from the experience of almost everyone else on the planet. While some egregiously famous people seem to manage without trips to a psychiatric ward, extreme drug use, or other extreme human experiences, these individuals are the exception. 

Extreme fame brings pressures and anxieties that are magnified if the famous individual has any significant psychological vulnerabilities. Famous men and women often have a troubled, conflict-laden life if any of the following factors apply to the life they had as boys and girls: coming from a chaotic home; insufficient attachments to early caregivers; a history of trauma; biologically-based mood disorders; and low self-esteem due to any of these or other factors. 

By the end of Whitney Houston's life, she had been reduced to a drug-addicted caricature. The new documentary of Houston's life provides a lesson in empathy for its audience, asking viewers to think about the human being behind her–or any other addict's–tragic, addictive behavior.