As the Grammy Awards approach this February 10, 2013, we hark back one year to the mournful anniversary of Whitney Houston’s death.
Here I offer my own speculation about both her life and her death.
I am cautious in my opinion-giving to use the word, “speculation”, because, unless you were there, 24/7 in a person’s life, that’s all there is: theory and hypothesis.
However, after years of being a therapist and dealing professionally with women under attack by their own mothers for being gay, there is a well-known blueprint that is impossible not to recognize, even from afar.
In Whitney Houston’s case, Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview on OWN Network with homophobic mother, Cissy Houston, provides the caulking and grout that brings together the tragic mosaic of Whitney’s public suicide; her aggressive self-destruction that was excruciating and baffling to view as it unfolded.
There is no doubt that Cissy Houston refused to accept and love her daughter if she had a gay lifestyle.
Whitney desperately wanted her mother’s approval and love.
This is no secret.
She revered her mother, and spoke reverently of her in every interview that was substantial.
At the same time, she was increasingly presented in a drugged blur, destroying her health, body, and even demolishing her voice, her brilliant talent.
Psychologically, rage and pain underline these behaviors.
Cissy was adamant with Oprah that she would not condone Whitney as a gay person.
“Absolutely no.” Cissy replied to Oprah’s question about whether she would have accepted Whitney if she had been gay.
So where does a fragile young woman go, one who desperately needs parental approval, when it is withheld?
Many gay people choose to deny the reality of who they are, push it back, even marry, as a way of clinging to an acceptable public identity, avoiding public scorn, and sustaining a mother’s love.
What inner sacrifice is required, what happens to a person’s true feelings when those feelings threaten to cut off a mother’s love.
Where do those feelings go?
When a person knows that the deepest part of herself, including her sexuality, is considered wrong, that sense of wrongness and shame festers and turns into self-loathing.
Further, to put it psychologically, when the identification with the mother is experienced as the requirement for survival, the child will sacrifice herself in order to survive.
Psychiatrist Dr. Bernard Bail examines this fusion with mother which can spark the internal death of the child as a separate being, in cases with extremely disturbed mothers, in his brilliant investigative book, “The Mother’s Signature”.
No amount of public praise or adulation can make up for the dark secret that Whitney had to keep in order not to lose her mother’s love, a secret that would perhaps also threaten her popularity and career.
Too much to risk for an undeveloped soul.
The perceived possibility of losing the love of her fans which was based on a false persona, and the love of her mother which was all-important until the day she died.
It was too simple to judge Whitney Houston’s bizarre and disturbing behavior, both on and off her and husband Bobby Brown’s reality show, during her last years of life.
In fact, the mental illness she expressed was too alarming for most people to watch.
What exactly happened to her?
We are quick in the public to turn against badly behaving celebrities,
especially those who “let us down” with well-publicized cocaine habits and public scenes of mental impairment.
Loud, public brawls and snarling faces caught on camera added fuel to the unattractiveness of Whitney’s public decline.
So the urgent question of what was underneath Whitney’s extreme unraveling went unexplored.
Why do I think Whitney was gay?
Is it only the pictures of a young masculine girl, who very often was photographed clinging to or cradled by her mother?
Or is it the many anecdotes from credible people who remember knowing Whitney when she and Robin Crawford shared their lives together?
Was it the empty yet simmering response that Cissy offered for her rabid dislike of Robin, in spite of Robin’s obvious love for Whitney in going to Cissy with concern about Whitney’s cocaine habits?
What I do know is that it would have been impossible for Whitney to embrace a gay lifestyle as long as she was desperately dependent on her mother’s approval.
Cissy admitted to Oprah that she ruled the family as a matriarch.
She further asserted that she made Whitney who she was, and therefore could never be jealous of Whitney’s success overshadowing Cissy’s own career.
Therein lies Cissy’s troubling narcissism as a mother; the belief that she was the creator of who Whitney was. In other words, that there was no Whitney who independently existed apart from the Whitney Cissy created.
I believe that Whitney herself aligned with this command of having no separate self that her mother would find unworthy of love.
It is likely that this dependency and symbiosis with a mother who never loved who she really was is what drove Whitney to obliterate herself.
It is the story of a tender soul choosing to fuse with the viscerally rejecting mother.
Toxic hatred from a mother can be wordlessly delivered, but is nothing short of emotional assassination.
Some daughters survive by breaking away and launching a life apart from a mother who is sick with hate; others sacrifice their lives or self-destruct.
Those who break away ultimately are brave and tough enough to choose confronting the death of relationship with the mother rather than the inner death of the self.
This is a very difficult, uncommon path.
Although the story of homophobic mothers surely exists with non-celebrity daughters, Whitney Houston is not the only celebrity we have watched self-destruct from the terrorism of a mother’s homophobia.
Living a public and private life that was a lie easily explains the drug-fueled, drunken rages at the end of her life.
Perhaps she wanted out.
Nobody watching her could miss the fact that she was living a personal hell.
Had her rage become volcanic enough for her to want the world to witness her death specifically at Grammy time?
Here’s what I do know.
In this era of publicized gay acceptance and hard-won civil rights, homophobia is the disease that continues to quietly—and not so quietly—kill.
We have to wake up to this, point it out, and change it.