Ken Tucker
September 14, 2009 AT 09:12 PM EDT

Sometimes it takes a star to interview a star. It’s doubtful that Whitney Houston would have opened up as freely as she did on Monday’s season premiere of Oprah were she not being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. There was an atmosphere of understanding and trust that allowed Houston to speak with little self-consciousness about her drug use, her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, and the squandering of her musical gifts. “I was so weak,” she said simply, powerfully.

For a star who has many times in her career seemed regally aloof from the petty concerns of the world that you and I endure, Houston spoke to Oprah in the manner so many of the abused women that Winfrey has interviewed over the years have spoken. That she was “trying to please” an “emotionally abusive” husband. That “I would become a little girl” in his presence. That there was an element of masochism to the abuse: “I was very interested in having someone have control over me.”

When Houston spoke about the “allure, the passion, the crazy love” during her early days with Brown, you knew that feeling in your bones — the maddening power of unbridled romance. She acknowledged the “sweet, gentle tenderness” about Brown at first. But as Houston became a bigger star than Brown (she locates the period as occurring around the time of The Bodyguard), she claimed his insecurity and jealousy increased with hostility. “He spit on me,” she said with quiet vehemence, as though reliving the degrading moment.

And drug use. At one point, Houston tried to explain the combination of drugs she was taking during her worst times, and Oprah (and this was when Winfrey was not a star, but a stand-in for us, the confused audience) had her break it down. “Follow me here, Oprah,” said Houston was winning wryness. She explained she was “lacing marijuana… with rock cocaine.” “I wasn’t getting high by myself,” she said. “We were partners.”

And Oprah made a terrific connection that Houston seized upon. “Now I see… you took those [marriage] vows seriously.” Yes, Houston said, yes! With the warped logic of the addicted, she said she thought that even in those cocaine moments, “holy matrimony was very serious to me” — and proved it by quoting from the Bible marriage ceremony. (Houston, daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, knows her Bible very well indeed.)

The sad thing is that Houston seems to have been a victim of the same sort of macho sexism that too many women still suffer under. She has succumbed to the idea that it’s somehow natural for a man to be threatened by a woman’s success and that she could have avoided a lot of trouble by being more deferential: “Something happens to a man when a woman has that much fame… I tried to play it down… I used to say, ‘I’m Mrs. Brown, don’t call me Houston.'”

She spoke movingly of wanting “my joy back” and of (quoting the Bible) “the peace that passeth all understanding.” On this day, she looked a little closer to achieving that. The second part of Oprah’s interview will air tomorrow.

Did you watch? What did you think?

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