OK, so we all know I’m a sucker for a good addiction-and-recovery memoir, and this is a good one — journalist David Carr’s story of his disastrous slide into drug addiction, his difficult recovery, and his effort to raise his twin daughters alone while in recovery and also having a brush with cancer. But what raised this far above the run of the mill addiction memoir for me is the way the story is told.
The “night of the gun” referenced in the title is a story from the worst depths of Carr’s drug-using years when, as he recalls it, a good friend of his ended up pulling a gun on him. Except that when he went back years later and talked to his friend about it, his friend remembered the story the other way around — it was Carr who pointed a gun at him. Realizing that his own memory of such a crucial moment in his life could be flawed shook Carr — and made him question the whole project of writing a memoir. Instead of writing his memories, he chose to approach his own past — events now twenty years behind him — like he would a news story he was covering. He used his journalistic skills — interviewing, seeking out primary documents — to uncover his own story. The result was, to me, a fascinating book that said as much about the flaws and limitations of memory and the way we construct our stories, as it did about addiction and recovery.
I’ve ranted a bit this year about memoirs that were written too soon, too close to the experiences they portray. The passage of time allows you to see events in perspective, but of course, it also blurs memory. Carr doesn’t mention James Frey by name in this but he makes it pretty clear that he thinks A Million Little Pieces and similar memoirs are flat-out lying about the author’s ability to remember events and conversations that not only happened years earlier but happened while they were drunk, high, or in withdrawal. Taking the exact opposite approach, Carr lays out for his readers the fallibility of his own memory and, when his investigative work uncovered conflicting versions of a story, simply places them side by side and admits he can’t be sure exactly how things happened. His portrayal of his own younger self is unflinching, including not just the “cool” details about using and recovering but also his abuse of his girlfriends during his drug use, and the reasons why the mother of his children still believes that he stole them from her. It’s not always a pretty picture, but it does have the feel of unflinching honesty. For a reader like me who finds memory and storytelling even more fascinating than addiction and recovery, this was a book I found impossible to put down.