warning some videos in the post may trigger DSV survivors/ contains abuse story
Like many of my peers, I watched Oprah Winfrey’s two-day Whitney Houston interview with baited breath. Having grown up on the periphery of the Houston family (oh the things you don’t know about me dear readers), I remember asking about her latest news. I had always looked at Whitney’s rise to fame as a triumph of the strong black woman who peopled her family. In her early days, she was surrounded by amazing relatives and mentors, many of whom worked in the business themselves. And they were driven women who infused a similar drive, and perhaps judgmental self-assessment, into Whitney that I always believed was her greatest strength and part of her undoing. As her life unraveled, I doubted there was a more judgmental voice around her than her own.
For her audiences she was an emblem of strength, beauty, and immeasurable talent. She inspired generations of black female musicians and helped young black girls see themselves reflected in popular culture. As she conquered music and began to develop a presence in film, she provided the leadership that helped young black girls dare to reach for their dreams.
Her fall was ours. And thus her comeback, was ours as well.
In her two day interview, Whitney told us a story of driven young girl who never had a childhood. She had given her 20s to MTV and concerts. By 30 she had given birth to her daughter and entered a marriage that many thought was beneath her. Her dreams of romance and a quiet family with Bobbie Brown were soon dashed by judgmental and ever-present paparazzi and then by Brown himself.
Whitney refused to give details about the extent of Bobbie Brown’s abuse. However, her story of abuse, disillusionment, and final escape brought tears to my eyes and hopefully provided needed hope to other women still living in violence. She spoke about what it means to be a strong and successful woman in a misogynist world and what many women will recognize as the coping skills that diminish us to keep the peace:
Many have focused on how Whitney Houston claimed she was not physically abused in the first half of her interview. While it was hard to hear her say Bobbi Brown’s insecurities were “normal”, instead of societal pressures to place men on top, and then to minimize abuse, her story was more candid than dismissing her language allows. Her tale of being slapped and spit on in front of her child certainly were both physical and emotional abuse. Moreover, police reports state Bobbie Brown was arrested for physically abusing Houston on more than one occasion. He was also clearly guilty of emotional and sexual/ized abuse, while there is no evidence that he sexually assaulted Houston, he cheated on her and threw his affairs in her face. These moments likely set the stage for not only the emotional abuse that entails but sexual humiliation that would qualify as sexualized emotional abuse or emotional level sexual abuse.
According to Houston, he also engaged in emotional abuse that was starting to be physically threatening or imply murderous feelings and paranoia. And like many abuse survivors, she began to fear for her life/safety.
Rather than judge her perception of events, it is easier to understand her story as typical minimizing that survivors of domestic violence often engage in when they are considering leaving or have newly left. Minimizing is a typical coping mechanism that allows survivors to avoid emotionally threatening judgment or negative self-talk about their choices during their most vulnerable time. Rebuilding one’s psyche after years of abuse is a long hard battle against the voice that calls you weak, ugly, unwanted and unworthy, that is often echoed by members of our society. Her minimizing in public allows her to build an alternative empowered voice that will ultimately give way to speaking her full truth about the abuse she experienced.
What she is far more clear on, is her descent into self-medication/drug addiction and the silence that came with it. And more than that her decision to leave. She told Oprah that she told Bobbi Brown she was going out for milk and sugar and never came back and the powerful strength booming from within poured out of her in that moment.
For women, especially mothers, listening, Houston’s candid remarks provided a road map to freedom. She talked to her child, Bobbi Christina, about them “get[ting] up out of this [abuse]” to prepare her for their ultimate exit. She used a basic and expected task where she was likely to be left alone or allowed to take her child as the mechanism for escape. And she went to a safe place that Bobbi Brown would not violate. For her, that was a friend who had told Brown if he came on her property she would hurt him and clearly had the means b/c Brown believed it. For other women, a safe space can be a shelter, a bus ride out of town, or a hotel room. What matters is that place is either secret or cannot be breached by an abuser.
She also provided an outline for mothers who worry about what their children will think of them. She admitted sometimes her parenting was not the best but that she always tried to make sure her child knew that some day she would be given an answer to her questions. She always tried to remain connected to Bobbi Christina. She chose a mother oriented rehab program so she could take Bobbi Christina with her. Even in the cocaine haze, she was cognizant enough to explain her struggle with drugs to Bobbi Christina and help her understand what was underlining Whitney’s addictions. And when Bobbi Christina witnessed abuse, Whitney made sure to talk to her about what was needed in that moment and what would be needed later. Whitney prepared her for escape and when Bobbi Christina acted out, she continued to shower her with love and reasoned information. And ultimately, being as present as she could, as honest as she was able, and consistent and loving in the face of her child’s confusion and anger, she managed to retain and rebuild their relationship.
Houston said, that beside her own child and her spirit another of her main motivators to leave was her relationship with Michael Jackson. They had been friends since childhood and done a concert together in the midst of their separate addictions. Houston recalled looking at Michael’s emaciated body and knowing she had to try and get clean. Her first attempts at rehab support this story. The shock of recognition in another performer who had lost his childhood, been rejected by the media, and withdrawn to self-medication was the beginning of a better way.
Ultimately, while some will see her interview as a heavily engineered comeback narrative, or focus on her scratchy voice and lost range, what I saw was a woman who has come out the other side of hell, stronger. She survived domestic violence and drug addiction (self-medication) under the spotlight of the media. And unlike other extremely famous women who have been rumored to have survived abuse, Whitney was brave enough to tell us her story and provide hope for other women.
As she sang into the microphone the second day of her interview, “I was not built to break”, I thought of all the other women who would be whispering that in their own their heads across from an abuser that night and I was once again inspired by Miss Houston.