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Poor Mindy McCready. The beautiful, talented country singer led a deeply troubled life, and on Sunday, she was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. (She was 37 years old.) Though McCready had a huge hit in 1996 with "Ten Thousand Angels," her most recent claim to fame was a 2010 stint on VH1's Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. That makes her the fifth cast member of the reality series to die in the last two years. Does Dr. Drew Pinsky's show (which stopped shooting in 2011) bear some responsibility for their deaths?
"I think 'Dr' Drew Pinsky should change his name to Kevorkian. Same results," musician Richard Marx tweeted after the news broke. He amended his comment a few hours later, saying, "I went too far with the Kevorkian crack. It is, however, my opinion that what Dr. D does is exploitation and his TV track record is not good."
Comedic actor David Pressman was a little more blunt, tweeting, "On the next Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew should lead the patients through the door wearing a black hoodie and holding a scythe."
Is there a Celebrity Rehab "curse," and is Dr. Drew to blame? It's not surprising that people are holding him accountable for McCready's death; Celebrity Rehab was controversial from the start, with its uneasy mix of reality-show drama and high-stakes sobriety counseling. The celebrities who agreed to be filmed for VH1's cameras were hardcore addicts, most of whom had already survived substantial trauma (suicide attempts, arrests, abuse, loss of livelihood). Unlike most reality shows, there was no faking it for the cameras -- which is what made the series so compelling. But that also made it deeply, undeniably exploitative. To get help, celebs had to reveal their darkest secrets and shakiest withdrawal moments to the whole world. Dr. Drew was driving a hard bargain.
And yet, for six seasons, celebrities kept on walking through that door. No one forced them. Many of them were used to airing their dirty laundry in public, and didn't appear bothered by the cameras. Most of them seemed to think they had nothing left to lose, or perhaps, some desirable name-recognition to be gained. Sadly (and tellingly), there was no lack of famous addicts to fill those chairs.
McCready was an alcoholic and probably a prescription drug addict, and her story was an especially tragic one. Her teen fame led to exploitation, including a possible affair with married baseball player Roger Clemens when she was just 15. The father of her oldest son tried to kill her while they were still together. She had attempted suicide at least twice. She'd spent time in jail. She was feuding with her parents. And all of that happened before rehab. Afterwards, things got even worse.
It's possible that there was never any hope for someone like McCready, who had been an addict from such an early age and seemed surrounded by enablers. Pinsky himself has said as much; during an appearance on CNN on Monday, he pointed out that addiction has "virtually the same prognosis" as cancer.
"One of my hopes was, in bringing Celebrity Rehab out, was to teach people how dangerous addiction was. If I was doing a show on cancer there would not be much surprise when my cancer patient died," he argued.
In other words: Dr. Drew knew from the start that many of his patients would relapse, and possibly die as a result. It's us, the viewers, who were naive. We expect TV to give us happy endings. But that's not what Celebrity Rehab was about. It was about demonstrating that drugs and alcohol are not glamorous, and that they will destroy even the most perfect-seeming life. It was a vivid, brutal illustration of how difficult it is to recover from addiction. And every tragedy is further proof.
Did Dr. Drew and his recovery team do enough to help McCready and the four other celebs (actor Jeff Conaway, Alice in Chains musician Mike Starr, Real World alum Joey Kovar, and political lightning rod Rodney King) who ultimately died? We have no way of knowing. In the end, it seems unlikely that Celebrity Rehab did them any more harm than they did themselves. If it helped even one person down the road to recovery, it was probably worth it. For the rest of us, it's the ultimate cautionary tale: when someone is an addict, their whole life becomes a fight. And sometimes, they lose.