The Sunday Magazine

Erin Lee Carr remembers her brilliant, loving father whose addictions scarred her childhood

David Carr, the celebrated media critic for The New York Times, died suddenly at the age of 58, leaving behind a legacy as a journalist, mentor and father. His daughter, Erin, sees her new memoir, All That You Leave Behind, as a continuation of his spirit.
Erin Lee Carr's new memoir, All That You Leave Behind, explores her close and complicated relationship with her father, a renowned media critic for The New York Times. (Stephanie Geddes and Ballantine Books)

When Erin Lee Carr was 22 years old, suspended over the Atlantic Ocean en route to her first adult media job, her father sent her an email.

"You are a Carr, and that is a complicated wondrous inheritance," he wrote.

Her father was the late journalist David Carr. As a critic for The New York Times, he wrote about the changing face of media. He also wrote about his history of addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine in the remarkable book, The Night of the Gun.

As Erin began her career as a documentary filmmaker, she and her father spoke often about working in media, and about her own struggles with addiction.

Then on Feb. 12, 2015, at age 58, David collapsed in the newsroom of The New York Times and was pronounced dead later that evening.

After her father's death, Erin started going back through nearly two thousand emails and messages he had sent to her — trying to come to terms with her loss and how to face the future without him.

She spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about All That You Leave Behind, her new memoir about their close and complicated relationship.

Here is part of their conversation.

David said that everything good in his life began with you and your twin sister. How do you think your birth changed your father's life?

I think that it was this incredible wakeup call for him. He was a violent drug addict, by his own admission, and he knew that he could ruin his life. But the fact that he had brought two children into this world, and now we were at risk of being ruined as well, finally was the thing that caused him to say, "Maybe I should get sober."

New York Times columnist David Carr is shown at an event in February 2015, just hours before he collapsed in the newspaper's newsroom. (Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images)

He writes about it in The Night of the Gun. He really needed to go get high in a crack house. He put us in our snow suits and left us [in the car]. It was probably for a couple of hours. When he came back to the car high, he realized what he had done. He talked about questioning if God would forgive him or not if we had died.

There's this big moment, when you read that book, of putting yourself in his shoes. But now you're hearing from the baby in the snow suit.

When I read his memoir, I got the feeling that things could have gone the other way quite easily.

When you when you get to a certain level of addiction, as my dad had done, it's really hard to go back to a normal life. He had been in five rehab facilities at that time. He was diagnosed as a narcissist. There were levels of psychopathy. I mean, he was he was the guy that you never want to hear from again.

And the fact that in not a long amount of time, he was able to go from that guy, to an esteemed critic at The New York Times ... it's an incredible transformation.

How do you think he did it?

I think that he had this ferocious energy. Whether it be drugs or journalism, he was going to crank it up to 11. So when he finally put away the things that were making him not present, and turned all of his forces on journalism, on criticism ... He wanted to be a force on the national media scene, which he accomplished.

When other people were out drinking and turning off their brain, he was still tweeting, typing, talking. He was always coming up with ideas. I remember two weeks before he died, he called me. He was at The Times full-time. He was teaching a class at Boston University. And he was like, "You know what, I would like to do a podcast. Do you think I should do a podcast?"

When did you start to think that perhaps you had a problem with alcohol?

I drank only a few times in high school, but I drank to blackout every single time. Then when I got to college, I had access to alcohol in a real way. I noticed that I was always drinking more than other people around me. I was always watching the bottle, making sure that I had my own stash. There was this squirreling-away mentality that I always had with alcohol.

When I moved to New York in my '20s and I started working in media, it was just a free-for-all. I found myself, most nights, drinking myself into a blackout. I was able to go to work. But was I doing the best possible work? No.

[My dad] watched me, and tried to guide me. In the London email that you mentioned, he says, "Mistakes of excess and hubris will follow you." He was scared.

Although her father is gone, Carr says, 'I think he really would like the book because it's honest and it's about him.' (Bennett Raglin/Getty Images)

Was it scary to talk to David about this? Did you want to hide it from him?

I just think, like most listeners, you never want to disappoint your dad. I felt like on a routine basis, I was not living up to the myth of the baby in the car. He got sober for us. He turned his life around, and here I was, not living up to the grand story that we had envisioned for ourselves.

I approach this with a certain amount of trepidation because it's hard to talk about in all our lives, but that's about the funeral and the grief. You went to the wake, and then you got very drunk afterwards.

I was going to do a speech at the funeral, and I just melted under the pressure. I watched it in writing the book, and it doesn't even look like me. I can't even speak. My face is so bloated and sad. Tears are leaking down my face. I think it's vaguely inappropriate that we are supposed to mourn these people right after they die. It's just this weird part of culture that persists, and I frankly didn't handle it well.

One of my only coping mechanisms at the time was to drink, and I had this pass to do so. Nobody was going to yell at me. My dad wasn't around to say: "Enough with that." I had lost my father, and I was going to drink.

The thing about drinking is that it tends to round off the sharp points and cloud your feelings. One of the great things about it, I guess, is that it softens everything but the worst part about stopping drinking is that you get your feelings back. What was that like after his death?

The best and worst thing about not drinking is getting your feelings back. My therapist said, "I cannot treat you if you are an active addiction. Your grief will be prolonged." So I went back to the secret society and admitted powerlessness.

I wanted to live the life, and be a part of something that my dad was proud of.- Erin Lee Carr

Now I had a reason to be sober. I wanted to live the life, and be a part of something that my dad was proud of. Instead of trying to please him, it was now a reason to be.

What was it like to write this book without being able to talk to your dad about it?

I emailed him after he died. I texted him. I would talk to him. If I could continue trying to talk to him, maybe I would get an answer. I really wanted to know what he thought about it, and it is a great tragedy that I even had to write it.

I think he really would like the book because it's honest and it's about him. And he said that the one thing that he thought he was really, really good at was being a father.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.
In 2012, Michael Enright interviewed David Carr at an event sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation. (Roger Cullman)

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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