Did We All Kill Whitney Houston—Or Did We Prolong Her Life?

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Feb. 16 2012 2:21 PM

Did We All Kill Whitney Houston—Or Did We Prolong Her Life?

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A poster of Whitney Houston with candles at Whitney Houston Leimert Park Vigil on February 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images

It will be a few weeks before we know exactly what killed Whitney Houston, but there are already plenty of theories about who might be to blame. Her death could have been a form of suicide. Perhaps she fell under the fatal influence of her ex-husband. Or maybe her death should be ascribed to a broader conspiracy—one that encompasses all her enablers in show business and even her legions of fans. And how about everyone who ever read about her in a tabloid headline, or watched her hobble through a reality show on Bravo, or queued up her sweaty, drugged-out performances on YouTube? What if we all killed Whitney Houston—just like we all killed Amy Winehouse last summer, and we all killed Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith, too?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

It’s easy to make the case against America when a celebrity dies from drugs. We indulged Houston’s addiction by letting her cash in on her own humiliation; the lower she sank, the bigger the headlines. We worried about her, sure, just like we worried about Winehouse and Jackson and Smith. But all the while we mocked her rapidly worsening life until she crossed a terrible threshold where drug abuse was all she had left—a fallen star’s last chance to grab headlines and make a buck. Did all this ogling and cash-for-trash ease her way into the gutter? Is celebrity culture to blame for her death?

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I’m not so sure. The case against the American public ignores the fundamental benefit of having tabloid headlines and network TV shows and all the other trappings of celebrity. Being famous—whether it’s the good, Star-Spangled-Banner kind or the bad, rapid-weight-loss kind—is worth a lot of money. And money is, broadly speaking, very good for your health. Speaking on national television in 2002, moments before her infamous declaration that “crack is wack,” the freshly-rehabbed diva made a revealing statement about the nature of her addiction: “Crack is cheap,” she said. “I made too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight.” Yes, she’d been taking drugs, but she’d been doing it in the way that a rich person does.

Drug abuse has much more dire consequences, on average, for those who live in poverty. Epidemiological studies have repeatedly shown that the higher your socioeconomic status, the less likely you are to die from your addictions. Low-income users are more likely to share needles and cookers; they’re more likely to take speedballs; they have higher rates of HIV and lower rates of treatment for it; they tend to inject their drugs in shooting galleries; and they lack the friends and family-members who might encourage them into treatment or even cart them off to the ER in case of overdose. If you’re an addict who’s stuck on the street, you’re more vulnerable to all the morbidity and mortality that comes with your disease.

To the extent that a public fascination with Houston’s drug use kept her in the newspapers and on television, it also kept her income from dropping to zero even during her darkest days. Before Saturday, who’s to say how many times her platinum records and celebrity status had already saved her life?

The blame-America crowd will doubtless sneer at the idea that Being Bobby Brown might have helped keep Houston healthy. But their argument does more than ignore the salubrious effects of positive income. It also relies on the dubious assumption that someone must hit bottom before they can get better. In 1972, a researcher named Leon Brill looked at the process of “de-addiction” in a few dozen addicts, and proposed the phrase “rock bottom” to describe the moment at which his subjects decided to clean up. It was only when things got sufficiently bad, Brill argued, that the benefits of going straight would begin to outweigh the costs of staying a user. (In the academic literature on recovery, this notion dates to the late 1950s, and is related to the idea that the severity of alcoholism proceeds along an inverted bell curve.) Perhaps, some might say, the public fascination with Whitney Houston’s drug use kept her from bottoming out, thus leaving her in an ultimately fatal kind of drug-use purgatory.

But a 2007 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence suggests that the bottoming-out hypothesis might be false. Researchers at the Dallas Veterans Medical Center looked at 200 drug addicts, to see if their desire to go straight matched up with the severity of their emotional distress, or their recent history of stressful life events such as getting divorced or losing a job. They found that their hypothesis was exactly wrong: Anxiety, depression, and life stressors were inversely correlated with a motivation to quit drugs. In other words, the closer you were to rock bottom, the less likely you’d be to recover.

There are other, more intuitive problems with the idea of bottoming out. Anyone who recovers from a drug addiction is guaranteed have had some low point or points in her past, which can then be described, retroactively, as a “crossroads” or “rock bottom”; the idea of “bottoming out” may just be a story we tell ourselves after we recover. It’s also possible that hitting bottom may increase your chances of dying, insofar as such a state is likely to be connected with the most dangerous behaviors. If starring in a de facto reality show about her own decline staved off bottom for Whitney Houston, or if it raised the floor for how bad things could possibly get, then the public fascination would have helped to keep her alive.

The “We all killed Whitney” argument has the merit of appealing to our vanity. It makes us important players in the melodrama of her life, and assuages whatever guilt we may have for indulging in trash culture by letting us confess to an imagined sin. But the truth is we didn’t kill Whitney Houston. And, who knows, we may have made her life a little better.

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