There is something disarming about the no-nonsense approach that Cissy Houston takes in recounting life with her daughter, pop superstar Whitney, who died nearly a year ago at 48.
In the emotionally tangled “Remembering Whitney,” the elder Houston — still clearly working out her grief — is a fiercely protective mama bear to the memory of her damaged cub, but she also refuses to lionize her.
She paints a picture of her daughter’s life —
Houston recalls Whitney as radiant, talented, warm, generous to a fault, funny, and smart. She also calls her out as stubborn, sometimes mean, and emotionally remote.
That “I don’t take no stuff” attitude that pervades the book, however, also makes it clear that Cissy Houston is not someone you want to anger or disappoint, which she confesses is probably why her daughter didn’t always come to her with her personal issues from a miscarriage to marriage woes with Brown and ultimately her drug addiction.
“[A]s much as I love my daughter, Nippy was no angel,” she writes at one point of Whitney, referred to throughout by her nickname. “She could be a straight-up heifer to people if they revealed things she didn’t want them to.”
And often that meant revealing things to Cissy, who earned the nickname “Big Cuda” — as in barracuda — among Whitney’s staff.
“Nobody likes to have their mama angry, and I would get angry at her sometimes. Maybe she was a little afraid to talk to me, afraid that I would snap at her. I wanted her to be strong, but if she couldn’t be strong, I wanted her to ask for my help. . . . She didn’t want me coming in with a bang, trying to solve her problems, so I tried to stay on the sidelines and give her some space. But the hard part about that was, I often didn’t have any idea what was going on with her. And that’s something I’ll never get over and I’ll never be right with.”
That passage sums up the core heartbreak of the book, an odd seesaw vision of mother-daughter intimacy (when Whitney was a little girl, when they worked on music together, or shared their Christian faith) and distance (much of the rest of the time).
For instance, addressing whether there was ever anything romantic between her daughter and Whitney’s longtime friend Robyn Crawford, Houston says she never knew because “Nippy never shared details of her personal life with me about things like that.”
Those looking for Houston to dump her daughter’s problems squarely at Brown’s doorstep will find no purchase here. She admits, repeatedly, that she was not a fan — and was particularly offended by “Humpin’ Around” — and did not always care for the way he treated her but says her daughter was a grown woman who made her own choices.
One choice the elder Houston made resonates. While she is a Grammy-winning gospel singer and much sought-after backup vocalist and arranger, she never hungered for large-scale fame. She was happy to burnish the performances of artists like Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, and Elvis Presley, which she writes about in some of the most captivating passages here and which would make a great book on their own if she fleshed them out.
“I’d seen what happened to good people who found themselves in the whirlwind of fame — there were so many pitfalls, so many distractions.” It must have been especially devastating to watch her daughter make a different choice with just those consequences.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.