Because he said The late New York Times columnist David Carr was a media rock star, but behind that lies the story of a man who overcame deep struggles with drug addiction to raise twin baby girls on his own — and built a spectacular journalism career along the way. Here’s why his remarkable life, largely shaped by parenting, has inspired so many.
A few years ago, as I watched the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, I was struck by David Carr, the columnist and media critic who emerged as the face of the paper. His was an incredible story. Carr, an internationally revered journalist and gifted writer who had recovered from drug addiction to build a successful, high-profile career at one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers, collapsed in his Manhattan office on Feb. 12, and was pronounced dead in hospital. He was 58.
He was a character, to be sure, with a ragged, worldweary voice and a personable, wryly funny demeanor that seemed inviting and disconcerting at once. The way he spoke was colourful and snappy, almost poetic. He definitely came across as a force to be reckoned with.
Learning he had once been a crack addict was astonishing. Could there be a more compelling story than a recovered drug addict going on to become a prominent figure at the esteemed New York Times?
Shortly after watching Page One, I read Carr’s personal memoir, The Night of the Gun, in which he undertook to report, using journalistic means, on his own life, including the ugly years of severe drug addiction – and parenting while in the throes of addiction. It was a gripping, painfully honest account of the desperation and destruction wreaked by addiction.
There was much darkness, but the beauty would emerge as he recounted his journey to recovery and achieving great success as a journalist.
His story drew me in immediately. As the child of an addict, it was endlessly fascinating to read such an honest account of an addict’s struggle — particularly one who is also a parent, and so obviously talented and intelligent. I couldn’t put the book down, and cried as I read.
One of the most wrenching points in the book came when Carr described leaving his twin babies alone in the car on a cold winter night while he went into a crack house for drugs. He didn’t mince words, or make any excuses. The pain is palpable, and I’m sure it’s pain and guilt he carried with him for the rest of his days.
I certainly couldn’t bring the twins in. Even in the gang I ran with, coming through the doors of the dope house swinging two occupied baby buckets was not done. Sitting there in the gloom of the front seat, the car making settling noises against the chill, I decided that my teeny twin girls would be safe, that God would look after them while I did not.
I got out, locked the door and walked away. Inside, a transformation — almost a kidnapping — got under way. The guilty father was replaced by a junkie, no different from the others sitting there.
Carr’s style, written and verbal, vacillated from raw honesty to acerbic wit to graceful, elegant prose.
In The Night of the Gun, Carr fully pulled back the curtain on the brutality of addiction, yet left no doubt as to how much he loved his children, and spent the latter part of his life being that loving and attentive father.
When I learned of Carr’s death, I became quite emotional. I turned to social media and declared The Night of the Gun “the best thing I’ve ever read.” That wasn’t hyperbole.
The contrast of beauty/darkness of the descent into and recovery from addiction is inherently compelling – add Carr’s distinct, engaging voice and his gift for storytelling and it’s a tale of redemption that will stay with me always.
David Carr was an essential voice – authoritative, analytical, critical and unfailingly vivid — in the industry, a tough, rapidly changing media landscape.
I looked forward to his “Media Equation” column every Monday. I showed the Page One documentary to my first-year journalism students some years back. We discussed Carr and the significance of his role, and I could feel a surge of excitement in the room as they too were struck by Carr’s passion and eloquence. For many of those students, it reaffirmed their decision to pursue journalism.
And in his columns, Carr never failed to deliver a take that was insightful, informative, incisive and at times, searing and ruthless. He was considered a “reporter’s reporter,” a sort of media rock star – not that he ever behaved that way or felt any sense of entitlement – quite the opposite, in fact.
“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve,” Carr wrote in his book, “but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”
This, as so much of the book, resonated with me. I often feel, as many women do, that sense of “pulling off a caper.” I often ponder the brilliance of my journalism colleagues and wonder, how did I get here? Where do I fit in? Do I really belong?
After more than a decade of working in the industry, I’m still asking myself those questions, and have a sense of wonder and gratitude.
David Carr was a survivor, as am I. To me, his story exemplifies the wonders of the human spirit, and what it means to be resilient. He once described his story as “either charming or horrible, depending which part of the book you focus on.”
Well, it’s definitely both, and that goes a long way, I think, toward explaining the personal connection I felt to someone I knew only through video, his columns, memoir and tweets, as well as my intensely emotional reaction to his sudden death.
David Carr died too soon. He still had so much to contribute. We still needed him. But in his lifetime, he left a body of work and an impact that will be remembered. The value of his work in media is unquestioned.
In my mind, though, Carr’s greatest legacy is the personal redemption he achieved — getting to see, through a sober lens, his children become adults, enjoying his marriage and quite evidently having a lot of fun with his work as he rose to the top, a clean and intensely focused but no less fascinating and fascinated man.
Also worth noting: in the early stages of Carr’s efforts to rebuild his journalism career, he documented the ins-and-outs of his daily life as a single (recovering addict) father of two lively twin girls in a regular column for a Minnesota-based parenting publication, Family Times. It was titled “Because I Said So.”
David Carr’s story is so much more than his well-deserved praise and accolades as an important and influential voice in journalism. It’s a complex narrative about parenting, love, suffering, despair and renewal – and limitless possibilities.
“Everything good and true about my life started on the day the twins became mine,” Carr wrote, a particularly poignant perspective that surely many parents would share. His voice is greatly missed.
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