David Carr’s Doubt

The strange thing about death is that most of us cope by talking about ourselves. So it was on Twitter last night as word spread of the passing of New York Times media columnist David Carr; a nearly unending stream of expressions of grief mixed with personal anecdotes of a figure so clearly beloved.

I thought, though, the most poignant words came not from Carr’s journalistic colleagues, but rather from one of those to whom he, and all journalists, ultimately answer: a reader. From the comments on his obituary:

It’s not just that I loved him. I trusted him.

Over the last decade, as journalism has been going through a wrenching change brought on by its intersection with technology, Carr has been a touchpoint for people on both sides. To journalists, he was one of them; to techies, he at least seemed willing to listen, and maybe even adjust, and hopefully bring his profession along with him. Everyone trusted him.

Carr, though, was not always so trustworthy; if you have not, you must set aside time this weekend to read Me and My Girls, an adaptation from Carr’s book, “The Night of the Gun.” The book is the product of Carr applying his considerable journalistic skills to a surprising subject: himself, and his descent into drug addiction. The story is gripping, the narrative surpassed only by the lessons to be learned:

When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception. How is it that almost every warm bar stool contains a hero, a star of his own epic, who is the sum of his amazing stories?

If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true, but as a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I’m inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together. We tell ourselves that we lie to protect others, but the self usually comes out looking damn good in the process.

That, right there, is the root of his readers’ trust: Carr had doubt, a result of his deep self-awareness and the intimate knowledge of his own failings, and was thus far closer to the truth, whatever that might be, than most of us. It’s so easy to be certain, to think you know the answers. It’s comforting, even as it blocks the pursuit of knowledge. Uncertainty and questions, though, are uncomfortable and humbling, yet freeing.

Carr long ago lost any illusion that he knew it all. He wrote of his time in treatment:

Eden House was a long-term therapeutic community, the kind of place that brimmed with slogans. This was the main one: “The answer to life is learning to live.”

This is the point where the knowing author laughs along with his readers about his time among the aphorisms, how he was once so gullible and needy that he drank deeply of such weak and fruity Kool-Aid. That’s some other story. Slogans saved my life. All of them — the dumb ones, the imperatives, the shameless, witless ones.

I lustily chanted some of those slogans and lived by others. There is nothing romantic about being a crackhead and a drunk — low-bottom addiction is its own burlesque that needs no snarky annotation. Unless a person is willing to be terminally, frantically earnest, all hope is lost.

That slogan – “The answer to life is learning to live” – struck me as many journalists passed around one of Carr’s most famous pieces of advice:

Keep typing until it turns into writing

There it is: the Eden House slogan applied to journalism. If you don’t know how to live, just get busy learning how to live. If you don’t know what to write, just get busy typing. And if you don’t know the future of journalism, or anything really, just get busy asking questions with frantic earnestness.

Rest in peace.