Amy had bulimia, which weakened her body and her heart. As her fame and power grew, so did her access to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, introduced to her by her bad-boy ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil. At one point in the film she says she used drugs with Blake because she wanted to feel what he feels, see the world as he sees it. Her love for him was addictive - their breakup inspired many songs on her breakout album "Back to Black" and he opportunistically reappeared in her life soon after the album's smashing success. They fueled each other's using.
After an overdose hospitalized Amy for the first time, doctors warned her repeatedly that any alcohol could stop her heart (which in the end it did). In the final months of her life the media portrayed her as an out-of-control addict who couldn't get her act together and squandered her immense talent. CNN newscasters chastised her, saying she had her chance at a comeback and "blew it," while Jay Leno and others made her a punchline.
The film doesn't capture the media response to her death, but I recalled Russell Brand's moving blog post "For Amy" in which he reflected on her otherworldly genius and implored us to recognize addiction as an illness and support treatment rather than criminalization.
This is also a story about the toxic cost of celebrity.
Amy was an introverted jazz musician, craving intimate connection and terrified by fame. Yet with the success of her debut album she was booked into an intense tour schedule of stadium performances. She was hounded and then terrorized by the paparazzi. Interviewers focused on her celebrity rather than her music. She became a caricature of herself, her beehive hairdo expanding and her body shrinking, photos of her blood-stained slippers and smeared eyeliner dominating the news as she struggled to find quiet space where she could just make her music. She couldn't escape.
One of the more shocking implications of the film is that toward the end of her life, she had achieved six weeks of sobriety. She was writing, reaching out to rap and spoken word artists to collaborate, energized and on the verge of evolution in her music. She had gained weight, her hair was glossy, she was almost glowing. She was recovering but fragile.
Then on the eve of a scheduled tour, where she was to play once again the hits that felt stagnant to her in the stadiums that drowned her, she told anyone who would listen that she didn't want to do the tour. One night as she slept someone loaded her into a van to the airport, then put her on a private jet to Serbia.
Amy showed up on stage in Belgrade looking dazed and drunk and refusing to sing, eliciting boos from the crowd and making her a laughingstock in the press. Audio footage in the film implies she sabotaged her own health because that was the only way out from the circus performance to which she was contractually bound. She died less than a month later.
Delve deeper, and you discover a story of violation and extraction.
Amy channeled a higher creative power beyond her control; she seemed almost perplexed by the words and music that poured out of her when she picked up a guitar. Her otherworldly voice and commanding lyrics compelled people to listen to her, and also translated into commercial power and profit potential in an industry that turns artists into commodities.
Her music, performances, and press appearances funded her husband's drug habit, her father's growing public life, and who knows how many careers. She was put on a fast track to big success, and once that train was rolling nobody with power would let her off. Disturbing audio from a conversation with her manager and father include their advice that even successful people, like doctors and lawyers, live while using heroin. The help she needed was in direct conflict with the profit motivation to keep her in the public eye.
Finally, this is the story of a sensitive, willful, and troubled child whose immense talent propelled her into a world that she never developed the tools to handle, in which none of the trusted adults in her life set the limits that she needed.
The film features audio from Amy's mother as she admits that she didn't have the strength to say no to her daughter. Amy's father left her family and home when she was 9, an event leaving wounds that never healed (although he later reappeared in her life as an opportunistic, albeit loving, manager). Her budding bulimia at age 15 was shrugged off as "just a phase".
During the few moments in the film in which Amy faced limits, such as when her bodyguard prevents her from going out at night because she has a gig in the morning, or when her producers force her to sign a contract saying she won't record another album until she has attended rehab, she seems relieved. She was so charismatic and disarming, volatile and brilliant, that many of the people in her life didn't seem to know what to do with her or her addiction. She was loved, but what she needed was to hear "no".
I'm reminded of this interview with Elaine Aron about research evidence for the HSP trait - "Are You a Sensitive Person? What You Need to Know About the Science of This Personality Type" - and particularly her description of differential susceptibility:
"People with this gene, or with certain behaviors, such as cautiousness or physical or emotional reactivity —all signs of sensitivity — do better than others in good environments and worse than others in bad ones. That’s an important concept for us. It’s mostly been studied in children, and if they have grown up in a supportive environment or there’s an intervention to help their parents raise them, they actually turn out better than other children in social competence, academic performance, health — all kinds of variables have been looked at. It’s becoming a very popular thing to study. If children don’t have that supportive environment, then there’s depression, anxiety, and shyness and all of that. So sensitivity does not lead to vulnerability. It leads to differential susceptibility.
I keep thinking, if only.
If only Amy's parents had had the awareness and resources to help her navigate this overwhelming world as a gifted and sensitive child.
If only she had been delivered into a society where her immense talent was honored, cultivated, and protected rather than manipulated for its commercial value.
If only she had been treated with empathy and compassion in her industry rather than plowed down by a commitment to the bottom line.
If only her power as an artist and her struggles as a woman had been honored rather than funneled into public bullying and snide sound bites. As Nathania Gilson states in her excellent review, "This is a film that urges us to revive our empathy and attention in a world that would rather find a way for female pain and trauma to remain profitable and newsworthy."
If only she had just survived her youth. Tony Bennett, one of her idols and her duet partner during one of her last recording sessions, states in a bittersweet eulogy toward the end of the film, "Life teaches you how to live it, if you can live long enough."
This film convinced me, too late, that Amy Winehouse was one of our greats, and the squandering of her power is a reflection on us.
So how can the sadness of this story be channeled into action? Start here:
1) SHARE - See the film, if you haven't already. You won't regret it. Tell everyone you know to see the film. Then talk about it. It breaks my heart to think about much money was spent to own her music or see her live, how many people devoured the headlines about her, compared with how few people are likely to see this film (in limited release, mostly in art house theaters) that so dynamically captures her humanity and challenges us to accept some complicity in her death. Had this film been a shallow celebration, rather than a raw examination of a full life, I'm certain it would have received much wider release.
2) WRITE - Write letters to news stations and periodicals letting the press know that their coverage of people as commodities rather than the art they create is a form of bullying and abuse that shouldn't be tolerated. Stop buying into the commercialization of gossip and trauma. Be critical of media coverage of artists and celebrities, especially when "news" stories focus on vilifying personal struggles with substance abuse and mental health.
3) CONNECT - Keep your heart open with compassion for the people in your life who may be struggling with substance abuse, and do what you can to connect them with resources that will help them into recovery. If you are struggling to love someone battling addiction, read these Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving an Addicted Person or connect with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence for more resources. Read here and here for more information about current research findings on addiction and treatment.
4) GIVE - Support organizations that are trying to make the world more livable for the sensitive souls. Donate to the Amy Winehouse Foundation. Volunteer for a local organization, like the YWCA or the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Support YouthArts or Youth Speaks. Donate new or used items to a local women's or youth shelter. Reach out in support of youth struggling in your own community.
5) PARENT - If you suspect your child may be Highly Sensitive, take this quiz to find out. Learn more about parenting the HSC here. Let's work together to help our growing artists, dreamers, lovers, and healers learn how to thrive in this harsh world that maybe, one day, will be worthy of them.