Unlike a lot of the journalists who are in mourning today, I didn’t know the New York Times’s David Carr, who died Thursday in New York. For a personal remembrance, you should look to my colleague Erik Wemple, who worked with Carr at Washington City Paper and was exceptionally close to him.
But I have read Carr’s memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” in which he re-reports his own life, particularly his long struggle with addiction and his experience raising his two daughters as a single father (he would later have another daughter with his wife, who survives him). And I hope you’ll take the occasion of Carr’s death to read it. “The Night of the Gun” is an uncompromising attempt to complicate the all-too-common narrative about addiction and recovery. And it’s a tremendous, skeptical book about masculinity and the damage men do to themselves and others in chasing all sorts of cockeyed ideas about what it means to be a real man.
One of the most powerful throughlines in “The Night of the Gun” is the gimlet eye Carr cast on the idea that being a badass is really such a powerful, admirable or even manageable thing. “Even as I was getting busy with the coke at night, I was happy to hold the cops and government officials to account in my day job. Getting loaded, acting the fool, seemed like a part of the job description, at least the way I did it,” he wrote of his early self-conception. But the truth was that the job description was one that Carr had made up for himself. And exploits in which he tried to play the action hero often ended in embarrassment, as when he attempted to kick down a door and “My right knee started to give way before my sneaker did any damage.”
If action heroes go through women with stunning speed, Carr recognized the ugliness behind his fun. “I did not date women, I took hostages,” he wrote bluntly of his behavior. “My duplicity around women was towering and chronic. I conned and manipulated myself into their beds and then treated them as human jewelry, something to be worn for effect.” He plundered his first wife’s bank account: When he goes to visit her later for the book project, Carr wrote that the meeting was “the equivalent of a burglar stopping by to ask you what it felt like to have part of your life stolen.” He cheated on her with Doolie, who became his girlfriend. Carr admitted that he “slowly drove her insane.”
Carr’s writing about his behavior toward the women he hit is blunt and unsparing — of himself. “I got in a fight with my girlfriend,” he writes in one scene early in the book. “The last time we had fought, I ended up going to jail because I assaulted her, so this time I was smart enough to call my friend Chris to pick me up.” When his relationship with another girlfriend, Doolie, begins to sour, “I began, and there is no nice way to say this, smacking her around. I had always remembered that I hit her—my face hot each time that I did—but I told myself that it was always in response to some physical provocation from her. I knew when I saw her again, without even reconsidering, that that was a lie.”
Of another girlfriend, Anna, Carr noted “She was in the habit of slamming doors in my face—I called her ‘Bam Bam’ in part because of that—and I was in the habit of coming right through those doors and choking her.” It might have been easy for Carr to draw a firm before and after in these incidents of abuse, linking them to his cocaine use and charting that they stopped after he got sober. But he never let the line be that clear. “When Anna came to visit me [in recovery],” he recalled, “We got in a fight, and I gave what I remember as a playful bite on the lip on the way out. She remembers it more vividly and probably correctly as one more time—the last—that I assaulted her, and this time I was not high.” As Carr wrote about a reporting trip to see his old addiction counselor, “The question of whether chemicals induced behavior or revealed character seemed to hang a little too close for comfort when I was sitting on that patio with Barb.”
In “The Night of the Gun,” Carr’s journey toward sustainable sobriety begins on a terrible night when he goes to score and leaves his daughters in the car, because “coming through the doors of the dope house swinging two occupied baby buckets was not done.” It’s on his way back out to check on them that Carr starts to make a critical shift, recognizing that there are some people whose needs you just can’t jeopardize. With adult women, Carr was capable of avoiding responsibility and treating their needs and rights as less important than his own. But though it took time for him to enter rehabilitation and put the girls in foster care, it was impossible for him to treat his daughters that way forever.
Among the most moving passages in “The Night of the Gun” are the ones about fatherhood. Once again, Carr dismantles cliches about how men become fathers when their children are born, which given that his daughters arrived in the literal midst of a crack binge, was not precisely the case for him. “I love small people, think they are endlessly fascinating,” he writes in a passage that ought to be taken as parenting advice everywhere. “My kids became mine through a series of overt acts, and when my patrimony was called into question later, I couldn’t have cared less. It would not matter what the tests said. I knew they were mine because they became so in tiny steps across my soul.”
The one place where Carr’s narrative does have a tendency to lapse into cliche is in the sections that examine how being a father encouraged Carr to have healthier and more respectful romantic relationships with women. The idea that everybody is somebody’s daughter may be as hoary as it gets, but it’s stuck around in part because it’s effective. Carr, at least, is a bit more colorful about it: “It took a woman to explain to me that you couldn’t compartmentalize life—be Ward Cleaver one day and some street version of Casanova the next,” Carr wrote of his counselor, Barb. “I had to learn to be a man, no pretending involved.”
David Carr leaves lots of other legacies in the journalists he mentored, his commitment to newsroom diversity and a wonderful body of reporting. But that idea of what it means “to be a man, no pretending” deserves a slot in the roster of his accomplishments.