What Do Crack Cocaine and Journalism Have in Common?

For this portrait, Carr laid on the floor in the dark. The artist used a flashlight as a paintbrush while the film was exposed for eight minutes. Photo: Gary Schneider

David Carr has always had a knack for collecting pals and devotees—at his 30th-birthday party in Minneapolis, more than 100 people surprised him wearing T-shirts saying I AM A CLOSE PERSONAL FRIEND OF DAVID CARR—but there’s still no denying the guy takes some getting used to. For a brief while, David worked at New York Magazine, and while I eventually became one of the legions who adored him, the first twenty minutes of our first social encounter were excruciating. David seems to have blind spots directly in front of him—he doesn’t quite see you when he talks—and during that first lunch, we couldn’t figure out a way to connect, with each beat in our dialogue stretching so long it felt like we were stuck on a bad overseas phone line. Eventually, he decided to change tack. “So,” he said. “The reason I have twins is because I knocked up my crack dealer.” Hello. He then explained he’d developed a passion for coke in his twenties and thirties and that he’d gone so far down the loonytown expressway he’d wound up in more than a few jails, spent more than a few unsuccessful stints in rehab, and slept with Lord knows how many high-haired women of disrepute. Also, he said, he got cancer. I don’t think our entrées had even arrived.

Because David has always been an open book, a real one seemed inevitable. Before he wrote his new memoir, The Night of the Gun, out on bookshelves this week (The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt two weeks ago), his lunatic past was a staple of his narrative repertoire, a part of himself that he seemed to love as much as revile. And the fact that he’d been a crack addict made a strange kind of sense. It explained the penumbra of controlled chaos around him, the weirdness and charm and swagger and energetic pursuit of fun. What wasn’t immediately apparent was the ugliness of his old life. In some distant way, his friends and closer colleagues all knew that David hung out with fellows named Bongo and Tony the Hat, and maybe even that he shot coke into the veins of his hand. But this? While David’s girlfriend was pregnant, he writes in The Night of the Gun, “both of us were chronically, psychotically high.” He shortly adds, “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.” He hit bottom when he was home alone one night with the twins, craving crack so badly that he drove them to a dopehouse, left them in the car, and emerged hours later. It’d gotten so cold he could see their breath.

By now, most of us have read about the novel conceit of The Night of the Gun: David went to Best Buy, bought $800 of recording equipment, and filled it with 40 gigs of documents and testimony in order to figure out what had happened in those smeary drug years. By using the tools of journalism, he not only inoculated himself from allegations that he might be lying, as James Frey so crudely did in A Million Little Pieces, but turned the project into something that perfectly suits his sensibility. David has always approached truth-telling as an extreme sport. He speaks in confessions and cudgels. If his female friends whinge too long about unworthy men in their lives, he cuts them off: “So why are you pulling down your panties for him?” If a friend doesn’t shut up, he tells him to “quit filibustering.” Once, when I visited David in the hospital, he told me he loved asking doctors if they were disoriented when they opened him up—he’s missing a spleen, a pancreas, and half a gallbladder, the by-product of Hodgkin lymphoma and its assorted complications—and they scored big points if they said yes. (David added he’d given my flowers to some sad-sack character down the hall who needed them more. You what?)

Yet David, whose name became synonymous with candor for so many of us, still wasn’t telling us everything. “Even the things I was aware of and did know I found surprising to read,” says Seth Mnookin, the Vanity Fair writer and friend of David’s who has written about his own struggle with addiction. “It’s very difficult and extremely rare for people to be that honest when they’re putting something out publicly.

It was his behavior toward women that stunned me. The Night of the Gun contains calm, graphic depictions of how he hit a girlfriend named Doolie—when he shows up to interview her for the book, she walks him through a reenactment—and it catalogues a variety of bad behaviors toward her and others. “My duplicity around women was towering and chronic,” he writes. “I conned and manipulated myself into their beds and then treated them like human jewelry, something to be worn for effect.” And that’s just the stuff he considered publishable. When I recently asked him what spools of confession were sitting on the cutting-room floor, he didn’t hesitate. “I was very busy with women. Probably pathologically so.”

Carr with his friend Donald postcollege at a bar in Minneapolis. Photo: Courtesy of David Carr

Really? But he mentioned quite a bit of tomcatting …

“Yeah, but when I went back and interviewed all my friends from then,” he said, “a lot of times, they’re talking about me and girls.” So unlovely was his behavior that readers of early drafts of his book recommended he skip certain stories—they tapped the narrative off its orbit, rendering him less good guy than brute. “People said, ‘There’s enough sort of misogyny and objectification without this kind of fratty stuff,’ ” he said. “It made me seem like a thug and a player, and that was one tick of grossness too many.”

All of which raises the question: Who is this guy? To meet David today, you’d never suspect he’d have been capable of such awfulness. He comes across as integrated and true, professional and secure: a media columnist and Oscars blogger, a New Jersey homeowner, a father of three, a husband of a former aide to a Republican senator. (To scandalized liberals, he usually adds, “I didn’t know Jill didn’t give a shit about poor people until I married her.”) His past seems safely behind him, a furry monster securely nailed beneath a trap door. It never occurred to me that this monster might be an angry troll, or that it might still scratch at the surface once in a while, begging for air.

Yet at the end of the book, David declares outright, “I’m not normal.” And indeed, by the end of the book—what in movie terms would be known as the third act—he confirms his self-diagnosis, revealing that in 2002, after almost fourteen years of sobriety, he began to drink again, heavily. Only Mnookin knew the full extent of his recidivism. His own brother, whom David had urged for years to quit drinking, had no clue. “It turned out that all the time he was encouraging me, he’d been in various stages of relapse,” says John Carr, who works for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

So was this the monster rearing his buried head or just a garden-variety midlife crisis? (Given David’s extraordinary past, he probably wouldn’t have recognized anything so banal as a midlife crisis.) And if, as David writes, he’s truly “a maniac who simply enjoys the fruits of acting normal,” what on earth does he do all day, one day at a time, to subdue Mr. Hyde? “It’s a great dramatic point in the narrative, that I face-plant,” David tells me. “But it’s not so good for me personally. I’m coming up on three years sober. I don’t want my employers or colleagues to think I’m a basket case.”

So unlovely was his behavior toward women that readers of early drafts of his book recommended he skip certain stories—they tapped the narrative off its orbit, making him seem less good guy than brute. “You want me to say you’re a nice guy,” said one woman he’d known in the old days. “You’re not.”

Just a couple of weeks before his book excerpt goes online, I meet David in the lobby of the new Times Building. He’s looked pretty much the same over the seven years I’ve known him—shirt tucked in over his gut, gut hanging over his pants, neck sloped like a serpent’s. He’s just had three big stories run in the space of 24 hours, totaling 6,300 words. “There’s something to the theory of mania replacing mania,” he says. And compulsion replacing compulsion, he might have added: When he recently wrote a media column slamming Fox News, he got 450 e-mails, and he answered each and every one. “And why would I do that?” he asks. “There’s a weirdness to it. Like if I don’t, flying monkeys will attack.”

David has a former crackhead’s approach to news. He’s always in pursuit of stimulation, always needing more more more. (In The Night of the Gun, he says that’s what he used to call coke, back in the day, as in, “You got any more?”) In his book, he talked about being terrified of missing something, and his career at the Times has some of that: a ravenous quality, with his chewing variously on the subjects of media, movies, music, politics. This fear of missing something also means he figured out Web journalism a lot faster than his colleagues. He has one of the Times’ most readable blogs; he was one of the first to make himself a video star on nytimes.com, doing meta-interviews with celebrities and regular Joes. (He has the “Beetlejuicy” personality for it, as Kurt Andersen, the novelist and public-radio host, so aptly puts it—all nerve endings and bounce.)

There’s a psychedelic quality, too, to David’s writing and speech, a facility with metaphor that reminds us his synapses might have seen a few extra chemicals in their day. (Two of my favorite workplace Davidisms: Outsize jerks in the office are “asymmetrical threats”; fighting your boss is “throwing spitballs at a battleship.”) “His voice bears a relation to the dialogue in Deadwood,” says Andersen. “This mixture of grotesque profanity and quasi-Shakespearean orotundity. And then there’s all this really weird custom-made slang. When we first met, he talked about ‘adjacencies.’ ” David still uses that one, actually, as in, Eva Braun was adjacent to a greater evil, Adolf Hitler. “To people who don’t know him,” says Andersen, “it’s, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ ”

With Woody Harrelson at Sundance in January 2008.Photo: Courtesy of David Carr

Ten years ago, the Times wouldn’t have considered hiring an alt-freak like David Carr. Forget about his personal history: Professionally, he’s a throwback, more gonzo than Ivy League, and as talented as he was, he’d never worked at a daily paper. What suddenly qualified him to write for the Times about … business? And what, for that matter, made a job at the Times appealing to David? As editor of both the Twin Cities Reader and the Washington City Paper, he’d spent much of his time tossing darts at the mainstream media. He’d worked briefly at a dot-com (Inside, where Andersen employed him), and then for New York and The Atlantic Monthly. But suddenly David bolted for the Times. At the beginning, whenever I ran into any of his new colleagues, they’d all say the same thing: That guy is weird. The first time I visited him there, we spent almost all our time standing on the smoking deck, hanging with Jayson Blair and Lynette Holloway, two people about as estranged from the Times company as you could get (even at that time, as smokers and African-Americans). Jayson, too, was a coke addict in recovery. His career took a slightly different trajectory.

David and I take the elevator up to the culture floor and stop by his desk. In his in-box, there’s a note from Scott Rudin, the film producer, complaining about his column on independent cinema. “He tells me I’m a gullible nitwit,” David says. “There’s a case to be made.”

But here’s the truth of the matter: David loves this shit. He loves getting notes from Scott Rudin, loves getting those 450 e-mails, loves having defendable real estate in the Monday paper. One of the striking things about David’s description of crack in The Night of the Gun is the sense of omnipotence he associates with it—how it makes you “feel like the lord of all you survey.” When he left New York Magazine for the Times, he told me that one of the main reasons was that he wanted more juice, wanted people to quarrel with him and fear him and read him widely and return his calls in five minutes flat.

We have lunch, then head off to a meeting with the “Web fairies,” as David likes to call them, who’ve been designing the Website for The Night of the Gun. “God, that’s so pretty,” he says, admiring their handiwork. And it is. They’ve assembled a great-looking collage of photos and documents and Errol Morris–like video clips. David watches them, adds notes. Then he realizes there’s a potential conflict of interest chug-a-lugging toward him: The Times Magazine is going to want some of this stuff for its own Website. “Have we discussed issues of hosting?” he asks the fairies. “I mean, we’re supposedly all one family, and we have what they want … ”

“Give them as little as possible,” says one of the fairies.

David shakes his head. “They’ll eat me alive.”

The surprising thing about David’s transition to the Times, in the end, isn’t that the institution has managed to absorb him. It’s that he’s managed to absorb the institution as much as he has. He really wants to be a loyal company man. Which makes sense—as one of seven kids, he has a sense of family loyalty, and as a guy in recovery, he probably appreciates the ritual and structure. Most profoundly, The Night of the Gun shows that journalism is the thing that most helped David climb out of his hellhole, apart from his daughters. When the Times offer came along, David says, he sat before the assistant managing editor, Al Siegal, swearing he understood that “the needs of the many outrank the needs of the one.”

“It’s interesting,” says Sam Sifton, the Times culture editor. “When you come to the paper from a nontraditional background, as David did, you’ve got to make a choice when you walk through the door: Do you buck convention and play the hot dog, or do you sit down, respect the institution, and work your ass off?” David, he argues, has done the latter. “You look at that guy,” he says, “and he is, in his own way, a perfect Timesman.”

When David talks about the Times, he talks about it with real love and reverence. (“I think it’s one of humankind’s greatest institutions,” he tells me.) But how long could a guy like David actually sustain a life in a gray flannel suit? It’s hard not to notice the timing: In 2002, he went to work at the Times. In 2002, he fell off the wagon. “I had some issues of adjustment going to work there,” he acknowledges. “In the old building, there was sorta something that lived in the elevators. And let’s just say it wasn’t completely life-affirming.” He thinks. “I guess I also felt as if I’d picked up my dad’s briefcase, a briefcase full of adult concerns and adult responsibilities—and shouldn’t somebody more qualified have that briefcase?”

Carr with his three children outside his Montclair, New Jersey, home in 2005.Photo: Courtesy of David Carr

David says that everyone at the top of the Times masthead has had nothing but fine words to say about The Night of the Gun. That’s not hard to believe. His book is great. But one can only imagine how Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, first reacted when he heard that David was going to write an addiction memoir, rather than a book about, for instance, Iraq or globalization or the CIA. (Shortly before the excerpt ran in the Sunday magazine, Keller told him, “It’s going to take a few days to work its way through the python.”) David’s wife, Jill, is fond of saying (correctly) that David personifies “go big or stay home.” Yet that’s just what David did the first day the magazine started whipping through the Times Building. He stayed home.

“There’s something incredibly crass about what I’m doing,” says David, when I see him a few weeks later and ask why he hid. “There’s a whole crew of people—not just editors but reporters—that bring great credit to the institution without drawing attention to themselves. There’s something amazing and wonderful about that.”

Discretion and modesty are values that David admires, clearly. And he promised a certain discretion when he entered the building. But now, here he is, drawing attention to himself. As an addict, David certainly had no trouble describing himself as a narcissist. (The title of Chapter 21: “Diagnosis: Narcissistic Asshole.”) Now here he is, doing the most narcissistic project a journalist could possibly dream of, an exposé of himself. But what would you do if you had a stroke of genius about how to tell your own story? “The biggest reason I wrote the book, when I think about it, was that I had read others like it and thought I could do a better job,” he wrote me the Saturday morning the Times Magazine was landing on people’s doorsteps. “So I am working to enrich a modern or post-modern subgenre that prolly shouldn’t exist. In the first place.”

So if journalism got him out of his hellhole, it’s also, in some sense, allowing him to peer back down it again. David could have written a book about anything. But he chose his own tale. It’s a clever way of having his cake and eating it, a way of calling attention to his past bad behavior without actually reprising it—Look, Ma! No crack pipe!

Carr fell off the wagon after he went to the Times. “In the old building, there was something that lived in the elevators. And let’s just say it wasn’t completely life-affirming. I guess I also felt as if I’d picked up my dad’s briefcase, full of adult concerns and responsibilities.”

“Now I have to live this,” says David. “Now I have to be that guy.”

Maybe truth-telling is, for him, its own compulsion, like injecting coke. It makes it easier to live with the uglier, more dangerous parts of yourself. “He couldn’t survive without telling people the truth,” says Jayson Blair, who e-mails David from time to time. “It’s the way David has to live. It’s who he is. I don’t think there’s a middle ground.”

No middle ground: This is precisely what defines an addict, isn’t it? David’s best friend, Ed Nagle (“Fast Eddie” in the book), says it’s this quality that still draws him to David, even as a sober man. “He never throws up his arms,” says Nagle, “and says, ‘We’re done.’ ” David still closes down restaurants at 3 A.M. He still goes on concert binges (like Bonnaroo), still crams in nine holes of golf and a fishing expedition in a single afternoon. He plays in an extreme way. And he tells stories in an extreme way. So did Jayson Blair, for that matter, another recovering addict for whom there was no middle ground. The difference is that Jayson delighted in lying and David delights in telling the brutal, bitter truth—the difference, perhaps, between disgrace and grace.

I have asked David to go to the New York premiere of Mamma Mia! with me. He has no reason to go, professionally, but it’s the only interesting red-carpet event this particular week. My initial interest was in seeing him in all his fan-boy glory, doing his thing. (During Oscar season, David transforms into the Carpetbagger blogger.) But I realize, as we’re sitting in the audience, waiting for that room to go dark, that there’s an additional benefit to being here tonight: We’re seeing a chick flick. “There’s a lot of weeping when I go to the movies,” he tells me. “When the Zamboni crested the hill in Ice Princess … ” When the movie’s over, he tells all the Universal executives he liked it, “and I’m not your demo!”

The Night of the Gun may be a supremely honest book. But there are some things that even David wouldn’t or couldn’t find a way to share, and all of them, more or less, have to do with women. In some cases, he’s protecting them. Like the twins, for instance. David tells us at the end of the book that “much of the collateral damage that went with the life I chose landed on Meagan,” but he doesn’t go much further than that. He’s her father, and there are limits.

But in some cases, David’s omissions aren’t about protecting the innocent; they’re about preserving the integrity of the author. Certain female characters dropped out of the book because he couldn’t find a way to write about them without looking like a creep. He mentions an HIV-positive woman, for instance, whose affections he toyed with, then hurt. “I’d have had to see her”—for an interview, he means, for the book—“and she hates my guts. She said, ‘You want me to say you’re a nice guy. You’re not.’ ”

To any woman who knows him now, these reports of insensitivity and misogyny are pretty shocking. David’s always had lots of female friends. He’s surrounded by girls at home. Most of all, David adores his wife. Meet her once and you get it: She’s his equal and opposite number, funny in similar ways, no-nonsense in similar ways, very smart. If you aren’t in a decent relationship yourself, a night out with the two of them can send you straight to the liquor cabinet.

So the transition from jerk to great husband is, in my book, the real redemptive story in David’s life, even if it’s a less dramatic one than kicking a coke habit. And he never fully explains how it happened in The Night of the Gun. He says he fell in love, simple as that. Maybe. And maybe time, maybe sobriety, maybe the help of therapists, maybe the cancer. He has no patience for the question, ultimately—the answer doesn’t involve great yarns, his favorite currency, but internal shifts. “Didn’t Freud say that Irish people are generally immune to psychoanalysis?” he asks.

But David isn’t above a bit of depth psychology. “Carl Jung suggested that until we embrace both our masculine and feminine sides, we can’t be made whole,” he writes. “For all the testosterone I have deployed in my affairs, I experienced salvation in expressing common maternal behavior.”

But that was the first time around, right? His girls saved him. In fact, lots of women saved him. The lawyer who helped him get custody of his twins was a woman—she more or less taught him how to parent. His therapist after he sobered up was a woman. His mother came by every week to do laundry and fill the fridge. His sister Coo spent long stretches at his place to take care of the girls. He writes lovingly about his twins’ day-care provider, a hugely meaningful part of their family. A woman too.

But by the time David started drinking again, a lot of those women were dying or gone. His book is filled with female ghosts. His mom died of lung cancer. The day-care provider died of cancer. Coo died of an aneurysm. His daughters were teenagers, in full independence mode, and no longer required his ministrations in quite the same way. And the Times, he says, may be the one workplace in his life where he has no office spouse. In fact, he seems to have few female confidantes these days. In the first draft of his book, he thanks virtually no women in the “work” and “life” sections of the acknowledgments. “I know, I know, I stared at that list and said, What a sausage fest, ” he says. “It’s unbelievable.”

So maybe David wrote this book because he missed his inner monster. But maybe, you know, he just wanted to talk. The confessional’s a pretty girlish art form. And his excerpt certainly got female attention. The day it first started to snake through the magazine’s editorial strata, he told me, “No dudes want to talk. All women.”

His brother John has a vivid memory from twenty years ago. It was just before David bottomed out and showed up at his parents’ house at 3 a.m., twins in his arms, heading to rehab for the fifth time. David was still running wild then. “I remember very clearly my mother saying, ‘I want David hurt so bad he changes, but I don’t want him to die,’ ” says John. Years later, at their mother’s funeral, John remembers looking around the church at all her children. “The joke among us was that she loved me the best,” he says. “But you know, there was a good chance that David was that guy.” Inspiring desperate anger followed by the deepest love—that seems to be the theme and general arc of David’s life. There’s probably still a monster rattling around inside somewhere. But who would David be without him?

What Do Crack Cocaine and Journalism Have in Common?