Before David Carr was my favorite NY Times columnist, he was an asshole.
Carr's book, the Night of the Gun, is about that change, mostly. His story is one of the downtrodden man coming around to a sweeter life; classic. But what's also striking is Carr's self awareness. That in order to confront his past—which is muddled through drug addiction and time—he has to first fact check it using a reporter's toolbox, interviewing ghosts from his past, police records and medical files. One lesson, as it pertains to this week's theme: Memories can deceive and escape us because it's sometimes safer and easier to let them. And so, facing down the darker facts of one's life takes a type of courage seldom seen, but demonstrated, by Carr, in this book. — Brian Lam
I am not a gun guy. That is bedrock. And that includes buying one, carrying one, and, most especially, pointing one. I've been on the wrong end a few times, squirming and asking people to calm the fuck down. But walking over to my best friend's house with a gun jammed in my pants? No chance. That did not fit my story, the one about the white boy who took a self-guided tour of some of life's less savory hobbies before becoming an upright citizen. Being the guy who waved a gun around made me a crook, or worse, a full-on nut ball.
Still, there it was: "I think you might have had it."
We were not having an argument, we were trying to remember. I had gone to his house with a video camera and a tape recorder in pursuit of the past. By now the statutes were up, no charges in abeyance, no friendship at stake.
Donald is not prone to lies. He has his faults: He has wasted a gorgeous mug and his abundant talent on whiskey and worse, but he is a stand-up guy, and I have seen him bullshit only when the law is involved. Still, I know what I know—Descartes called it "the holy music of the self"-and I believe that I was not a person who owned or used a gun. The Night of the Gun had stuck in my head because it suggested that I was such a menace that my best friend not only had to call the cops on me but wave a piece in my face.
I didn't hold it against him—Donald was far from violent, and maybe I had it coming. I doubt that he would have shot me no matter what I did. But now that memory lay between us. Sort of like that gun.
Memories are like that. They live between synapses and between the people who hold them. Memories, even epic ones, are perishable from their very formation even in people who don't soak their brains in mood-altering chemicals. There is only so much space on any one person's hard drive, and old memories are prone to replacement by newer ones. There's even a formula for the phenomena:
R = e-(t/s)
In the Ebbinghaus curve, or forgetting curve, R stands for memory retention, s is the relative strength of memory, and t is time. The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived. I loathe guns and, with some exceptions, the people who carry them, so therefore I was not a person who held a gun. Perhaps in the course of transforming from That Guy to This Guy, there is a shedding of old selves that requires a kind of self-induced Alzheimer's.
In this instance, the truth didn't seem knowable.
I remember driving to a dark spot in between the streetlights at the rounded-off corner of Thirty-second and Garfield. Right here, I thought. This would be fine.
The Nova, a shitbox with a bad paint job my brother bought me out of pity, shuddered to a stop, and I checked the rearview. I saw two sleeping children, the fringe of their hoods emerging in outline against the backseat as my eyes adjusted to the light. Teeny, tiny, itty-bitty, the girls were swallowed by the snowsuits. We should not have been there. Their mother was off somewhere, and I had been home looking after them. But I was fresh out. I had nothing. I called Kenny, but he was plenty busy. "Come over," he said. "I'll hook you right up." In that moment of need, I decided to make the trip from North Minneapolis to South, from Anna's house to his.
I could not bear to leave them home, but I was equally unable to stay put, to do the right thing. So here we were, one big, happy family, parked outside the dope house. It was late, past midnight.
Then came the junkie math; addled moral calculation woven with towering need. If I went inside the house, I could get what I needed, or very much wanted. Five minutes, ten minutes tops. They would sleep, dreaming their little baby dreams where their dad is a nice man, where the car rides end at a playground.
Memory is the one part of the brain's capacity that seems to be able to bring time to heel, make it pause for examination, and, in many cases, be reconfigured to suit the needs of that new moment. Long before TiVo, humans have been prone to selecting, editing, and fast-forwarding the highlights of their lives. Even if every good intention is on hand, it is difficult if not impossible to convey the emotional content of past events because of their ineffability. Even in an arch me-as-told-to-me paradigm, the past recedes, inexorably supplanted by the present.
Memory remains an act of perception, albeit perception dulled by time, but it is also about making a little movie. Remembering is an affirmative act-recalling those events that made you you is saying who you are. I am not this book, but this book is me.
Episodic and semantic memory each lie in different ways, but each is eventually deployed in service of completing a story. Stories are how we explain ourselves to each other with the remorseless truth always somewhere between the lines of what is told. In this way, memory becomes not a faculty but a coconspirator, a tool for constructing the self that we show the world.
In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie writes about the "special kind" of truth that memory conjures. "It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also. But in the end it creates its own reality, its own heterogenous but usually coherent version of events, and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own."
I get his gist, but I'm not sure I give any more credence to my memories than to the recollections of others.
When I committed to write a reported memoir about my past, I proceeded on a few assumptions:
1. Every person's story has value, including my own.
2. My life is the one thing in the world I am the leading expert on.
3. If I am truthful, no real harm can come to me.
4. Keeping careful video and audio records of everyone I talk to will give the memoir a verisimilitude born of transparency.
5. I am a good man who did bad things, but I'm better now.
I had no understanding of the fundamental audacity of writing a memoir. I do now. It presumes a level of interest in my life that I had not historically displayed and also has an embedded promise that something will be learned.
Even with the gimmick of reporting, my addiction narrative arrives at some very common lessons. Too much of a bad thing is bad. Everybody laughs and has fun until they don't. If you don't sleep and eat, but drink and drug instead, you will lose jobs, spouses, and dignity.
And the lessons of the recovery narrative are important, but even more prosaic. In the ensuing chapters, you will be unsurprised to learn that once I stopped doing narcotics and alcohol, things improved. I got jobs, remarried, had a baby, and, of course, learned to love myself.
Junkies and drunks frequently end up putting a megaphone to their own pratfalls because they need to believe that all of the time they spent with their lips wrapped around glass, whether it was a bottle of vodka or a crack pipe, actually meant something. That impulse suggests that I don't regret the past-it brought me here to this nice, happy place-but I'd also like to squeeze something more from it.
Even if the conception of the memoir is venal, or commercial, or flawed, there is intrinsic value in reporting. For instance, in spite of what I believed, it was probably me who had the gun, not Donald. I can't say with certainty, but that picture began to cohere after some reporting. I called Joseph, a professor at New York University, who knows a great deal about the mechanism of human recollection, to ask him how I could have gotten such a signal event in my life so completely wrong.
"Well, the drugged state you were in is going to alter the way you formed memories," he suggested. "You could probably have misattribution. You have lots of pieces that are recorded and stick together by that experience. Perhaps in that situation the sticking mechanism was not working well, and so all the pieces were there, but it wasn't put together quite right.
"Especially under the conditions you were in, you could have faulty mechanisms of various kinds. Because those little pieces are there, when you retrieve the memory, you put them back together, and for whatever reason, the gun ends up in his hand. You can get Freudian about that or not." He added that so-called flashbulb memory of the kind that I had can be incredibly vivid and still be very wrong. "The other thing that may be relevant is something called state-dependent learning, where certain memories are processed only when you go back into the state in which they were formed."
I'd do almost anything to remember what happened on The Night of the Gun or the snowsuits, but that is a state I don't plan on visiting anytime soon.
Each time I would return from a reporting trip, I would go through a ritual. On-site notes would be transcribed, interviews logged, and then I would empty the digital audio and video onto my computer. In order to make sure that the accumulated data of my life did not tip over my computer, I would transfer the large audio and video files to an external hard drive. As the data accumulated, I began to think of that hard drive as all-knowing, a digital oracle that knew more about my life than I did, a device that told the truth because that was all it contained.
Even so, my past is a phantom limb, something I feel the presence of but cannot touch. John Updike called it part of our "dead, unrecoverable selves." When the past is shifted to the present moment, it is infected by a consistency bias that requires that all things fit together, whether they do or not. Examine your own family history and folklore if you don't buy it. How many of those stories are literally, exactly true?
Memoir is a very personal form of creation myth. Whether it is in the form of a book or something told across the intimacy of first date candlelight, the this-is-me, this-is-who-I-am story is a myth in the classic sense, a tale with personal gods and touchstones. It becomes more and more sacred as it is told. And perhaps less and less truthful.
Going back over my history has been like crawling over broken glass in the dark. I hit women, scared children, assaulted strangers, and chronically lied and gamed to stay high. I read about That Guy with the same sense of disgust that almost anyone would. What. An. Asshole. Here, safe in an Adirondack redoubt where I am piecing together the history of That Guy, I often feel I have very little in common with him. And that distance will keep me typing until he turns into this guy.
This writing was excerpted from his book, NIGHT OF THE GUN, where you can find the rest of the story (complete with happy ending).
Copyright 2008 by David Carr. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.