I knew, like Winehouse, that I was No Good, but I insisted, as she did, on my own right to choose not to be.
Both times I met Amy Winehouse, it struck me as amazing she hadn’t died already. She was 25, and I remember her dimunitive, emaciated, beehive-topped body reminding me of Marion Cotillard’s version of the 47-year-old Edit Piaf in La Vie en Rose. I was 22, a broke-ass grad student and freshly-minted divorcée pulling espresso in a Covent Garden Starbucks, where Winehouse had teetered in a couple times while I was on shift to get a latte and complain about the state of the condiment bar.
In those days I was considering arranging a leave of absence from my university due to the fact that my involvement with a married man had suddenly gotten seriously heavy. “Heavy” as is in, after fielding how-could-you-be-such-a-homewrecker phone calls from the wife I thought he’d left, I used to lock myself in my student flat, crank up Amy’s “Me and Mr. Jones,” and sob hysterically until my RA would appear to ensure I shouldn’t actually be in hospital. (And when I did end up there for three long days with some sort of ovarian something, the married man wasn’t aware of my absence for a good while because he was with The Wife.)
In those days, I think girls like me took Winehouse’s continued survival, despite all physiological indications that she was in fact part of The Undead, as a sort of talisman that operating your life as a giant fuck-you to society was, well, indefinitely sustainable. Like me, Winehouse was a Virgo, a serial cheater with authority issues, a kid from working-class people who dared you to think her trashy. We both slurped sexual validation from men who continued to disappoint us with as much gusto as the booze we’d later use to blunt the resulting emotional agony and self-hatred.
I knew, like Winehouse, that I was No Good, but I insisted, as she did in “Rehab,” on my own right to choose not to be.
And then she did die, three years ago today, and in the tutting about Tragedy and the 27 Club, you could sense in the London press an undercurrent of satisfaction at this proof of the adult admonition that Actions Have Consequences, which is after all one of the main incentives to take responsibility for your own life rather than drink away your pain every night in a stupor.
It was roundabout then that, with a sort of superhuman effort-in-suffering, I had managed to wrench myself away from the unreliable lover and take a hiatus from Back to Black. In the intervening few years, I managed to find a steady, inoffensive sort of guy to attach myself to and then marry him. I’d still sing Winehouse while washing dishes, but instead of “Wake Up Alone” it was “Valerie,” and with the same feeling of resigned nostalgia for the bad old days that makes Amy’s rendition of the non-Ronson version so brilliant and heartbreaking.
In three days I will be exactly as old as Amy Winehouse was when she died. She’s been in my head a lot in recent months as my writing has started reaching a broader audience. I try, like Amy tried, to allow my own sense of moral ambiguity to infuse my work—with the political justification that that’s a big part of what’s missing from feminism—while not letting that vulnerability eat me alive.
But the difference between me and Amy is that at some point after the marriage to the inoffensive husband I began to stop berating myself for needing love. That’s also when I started to understand—really understand—that Actions Do Have Consequences: The more you cling to people who reproach you for needing love, the more you will need it and the more you’ll think you’re worthless.
Perhaps ironically, choosing self-love (and the authentic, supportive love of people who weren’t my husband, and then leaving him) involved reassuming the same attitude of fuck-your-social-norms that seemed to spell the end for Amy. And the bad-girl hat is a particularly helpful one to wear when you’re trying to push yourself through the early terror of writing: Winehouse and other badass and/or fucked-up women like her offer superb lessons in how to give critics The Finger. (The rapper M.I.A. and the [also dead] alcoholic writer Jean Rhys are a couple of my particular favorites these days.)
The challenge lies in not using these women’s raw humanity as an excuse to allow yourself to spin out of control, to forget the thing about Actions Having Consequences. To do so would be to caricature their suffering, abdicating responsibility for helping those among us in most intense need of love to find it, so we can instead keep enjoying the pain that seeps into their creative output.
Loving women who don’t always love themselves might seem like a waste of energy. But more often it’s that they don’t know how to love themselves, and they need someone to show them.
If I survive to the end of the week, I’ll have lived longer than Amy Winehouse. And that is because at some point I had to allow myself the chance to love myself—and allow myself to be close to people who loved me.
I wish Amy’d had the same chance.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.