Today the phenomenally talented, and phenomenally troubled Whitney Houston died in Los Angeles at the age of 48. The cause of death is still undetermined, but it’s almost certainly related to her well-documented history of substance abuse. Of course, the internet and the 24-hour news cycle lit up with tributes and video clips. Here’s Whitney singing the national anthem. Here’s Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video, where she looks impossibly young and vibrant and gifted. Here’s Whitney’s infamous “crack is wack” interview with Diane Sawyer, in which she claims to be clean but her glassy eyes, oddly flat speech, and twitchy defensiveness give her away.
I’ve seen all of that before. But when I saw the news about Whitney Houston’s death, my first thought wasn’t of the video clips or the tributes but of her 18 year old daughter, Bobbi Kristina. Bobbi Kristina’s parents have both been addicted to drugs for much of her life. She’s had a front-row seat to a first-rate horrorshow for a long time now, so my guess is that her mother’s death, while devastating, is not exactly shocking. Truth is, when you’re dealing with a loved one who has a chronic addiction, the bad outcome often seems inevitable well before it happens. I once said of a beloved family member who was in her mid-50s and unshakeably addicted to alcohol and opiates that barring a miracle, I was sure she’d be dead by 60. It was an awful thing to say, but at a certain point you just know that everything is not going to turn out okay. You can’t ignore how deep and unfixable the damage is. Well, you can, but that’s just denial. For those of us who don’t take refuge in denial, there’s fatalism, which isn’t a hell of a lot better because ultimately fatalism just entitles you to say “I told you so” about all the dreadful scenarios you didn’t want to be right about anyway.
So whenever I hear about the death of a celebrity with a serious addiction—Kurt Cobain, Anna Nicole Smith, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston—I know that behind the big story and the spontaneous tributes and outpourings of grief by strangers on Facebook and Twitter there’s a family who probably saw this coming a long time ago. They may have done everything they possibly could to prevent it: threats, interventions, rehab, legal action. But they couldn’t prevent it. I like to think that by dying, the addict has gained some measure of peace and release from suffering. At least, I fervently hope so. Unfortunately, her family just keeps suffering.