Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gunning for the Past

On the heels of my reading about forgiveness and Kathyrn Schultz's TED Talk about regret, I decided to reread a book I first picked up in 2008--David Carr's The Night of the Gun (2008).

Carr is a well-known journalist who is also a recovering addict.  In his 20's and 30's, he struggled with a serious addiction to cocaine and, years later, he suffered from alcoholism as well.

His book, The Night of the Gun, is an interesting one.  Carr admits that he finds the genre of "junkie memoirs" distasteful, so his premise in writing his own memoir is a bit different.

Carr poses the fundamental question, how accurate is memory, really?  What does it mean to go back and tell the story of our own past, with all its sordidness, pain and regret, as if what we are relaying is necessarily "true"?  Given his own unreliable perspective, Carr opts to research his own past: to go back and find former friends, lovers and employers and document what they remember about him and about the episodes of his life.

The title of the book foregrounds this dilemma.  Carr clearly and distinctly remembers an incident from his past, when he got into a serious argument with a friend.  Carr remembers that when he subsequently showed up at the friend's apartment, the friend threatened him with a gun.

When he questions the friend about this episode twenty years later, however, the friend corrects him: it was Carr who showed up at the apartment with a gun.

Carr didn't know that he had ever owned or carried a gun.  As he remarks, "I am not a gun guy.  That is bedrock.  And that includes buying one, carrying one, and, most especially, pointing one" (11).

Carr argues that "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" (11).

Imagine his surprise, then, when, in the process of interviewing another friend, that friend remembers how, when he arrived to pick Carr up that night, Carr sent him back to pick up some of his possessions from his apartment:
"I went back into your place once you'd taken off.  You sent me back to get a gun that you'd left there... [...] You were worried about the cops going through the place, and so you'd asked me to go back and get some things that you had stashed.  you had, I htink, a .38 special... I don't know where you got it." (14)
Carr thus wonders, "if I was wrong about the gun, what else was I wrong about?" (14).

Like most of us, he was wrong about quite a few things he remembered, because that is the way memory operates, even if you aren't drunk or high at the time that the events themselves have occurred.  And yet, memories shape our sense of ourselves--they are how we structure and organize our personal (and public) narratives and connect past to present.

What does it mean to have been a cocaine addict who eventually got clean, raised twin daughters as a single father, got married, and pursued a highly successful career as a journalist?  The meaning that Carr draws from his own story is shaped by his memory of what he did and how he changed.

And yet, that memory is highly unreliable.  Among other things Carr realizes as he researches his past, he discovers that he actually went to rehab 5 times, not 4, and that the perspective he had about his own sobriety as it unfolded at the time was by no means shared by others.

He knew he was a mess.  He didn't realize how much of a mess he actually was.  He knew his friends and family did their best to support him.  He didn't realize how much support, until he began to see his own life through their eyes, via the mechanism of shared memories.

In the end, Carr doesn't say a lot about regret, really, although it is one of the key underpinnings of the text.  He acknowledges that, when it comes time to interview his twin daughters, he is far more anxious and uncomfortable--because these are the episodes in which regret will be writ large.

As Carr points out, in the case of "the night of the gun," although the memory "lay between" them, he "didn't hold it against" his friend that he had, as Carr mistakenly thought, pointed a gun at him: his friend "was far from violent, and maybe I had it coming.  I doubt that he would have shot me no matter what I did" (12).

In the case of his daughters, however, the feelings are very different.  Carr admits that "[m]uch of the collateral damage that went with the life I chose landed on" one of his twin daughters.  The other daughter remembers a time when she and her two sisters ended up riding in a car with their father, who was intoxicated.
"We got in the car, and you seemed out of it, but I thought you were tired.  Maddie whispered to me, 'I think Dad's been drinking,'".  Maddie was eight years old at the time.  "I was like, 'No!  What are you talking about?  Shut up, don't say those things! That's not true.'  Meagan was like, 'I don't know, Erin, I'm a little nervous about it.'  We were still in New Jersey, I think only, like, twenty minutes from the house.  We had to pull into a gas station, and you didn't see an oncoming car, and we were, like, this close to hitting it.  That's when everyone knew for sure that you were just completely ass-faced drunk.  It was the most irresponsible thing you could ever do." (361)
As Carr acknowledges, "She is still pissed.  And I am still sorry" (361).

I think that, like Carr, everyone--whether they are recovering cocaine addicts or stone-cold sober teetotalers--has regrets like that, stemming from memories that they perceive very differently in hindsight or when viewed through the eyes of others.  Events that they know others are still pissed about and things that they are still--and always will be--sorry for.

In the end, I think that's what makes Carr's memoir of addiction and recovery relevant reading for all of us.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."