David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is autobiographical, with his addiction at the center of it. In a way, his use of alcohol and drugs may have been relatively benign at first, breaking him out of various patterns, and into a wider kind of life, but that’s the kind of thing that is benign for only so long. The title refers to a night that he got into a quarrel with someone over the phone, who warned him not to come over because he had a gun. Carr has been a journalist most of his life, and when he decided to write about his experiences, he also decided to approach it journalistically, by interviewing and recording people he’d known and interacted with during his years of excess. When he interviewed the guy with whom he’d quarreled, the guy said that HE didn’t have a gun, but he thought Carr might have had one. Carr had no memory of that, and didn’t like guns, so that seemed mysterious.
It so happened that the night in question he was also absconding from his apartment because he couldn’t pay the rent, and had called someone to pick him up. He stashed some things in garbage bags, met the friend in his truck, and (as the friend later told him in an interview) asked the friend to go into his apartment and remove his gun and drug paraphernalia. The friend did, and found both gun and paraphernalia. Carr’s memory was untrustworthy.
Carr did a lot of things in his late teens and twenties. He traveled around, took jobs in nursing homes and restaurants, among other things, and went to college some of the time. But a lot of what he did was drink and take cocaine. The cocaine led to dealing, and of course to friends and lovers too. And of course the cocaine escalated to smoking it, freebasing, and eventually needles. He had relationships with good women that he spurned for women with drugs, but ultimately for the drugs themselves.
In the meantime he had become a journalist, not exactly on a big scale, but enough to make something of a living at, and found that it was a calling for him. He really enjoyed tracking down people and finding out their stories. He was gregarious and aggressive, qualities a reporter needs, and that was something positive in his life when there wasn’t much else.
Things began changing when his significant other became pregnant. That didn’t stop either of them from alcohol or cocaine consumption, so that one day they were getting high when suddenly her waters broke–two and a half months early. They made it to the hospital where twin girls were born, both of whom had to be on ventilators (they weren’t able to breathe on their own) as well as various IVs and other attachments. Semi-miraculously neither of the adults had any horrible diseases, and the girls weren’t addicted to cocaine. They were able to go home with the junkie couple with various attachments that they still needed, and somehow they survived. Not because the couple suddenly became good parents, though they did make some effort, but because of friends willing to help, bringing diapers and food when needed, for instance.
Carr kept getting into trouble, and finally realized that he had to enter treatment. He did so, arranging for foster care for the girls. Their mother wasn’t yet ready for treatment and decided to go to Texas (from Minneapolis, where they lived) to get her breath, more or less. She didn’t come back very soon, and Carr didn’t send the girls to her when she asked. Once out of treatment he started on the 12 step path. He became a single father, though with a lot of help from his family, who would help with food and diapers as well as baby-sitting. His daughters had given him the push he needed to try for something better.
He tells a story of when he was in treatment and after 3 months was doing pretty well. He was invited to a wedding, wanted to go, and made arrangements. But the person in charge of the center wouldn’t let him go. He couldn’t absolutely stop Carr. Carr could have left, but wouldn’t have been allowed to come back, and the center was a good one. The man in charge was a no-bullshit person who knew all the scams, and wouldn’t let them pass. In later years Carr couldn’t remember why he eventually hadn’t gone to the wedding–until he interviewed the guy who had been in charge of the center. The guy said weddings were risky places for addicts, and he hadn’t felt Carr was ready. He told Carr he’d said to him, “Why don’t you just get those little girls high too?” That was the right button to push. Carr finally had people he cared more about than drugs, and that question scared him to death.
So he started working at rehabilitation. The mottos were corny, but he took them seriously, and started to pile up days of sobriety. Meanwhile he worked at whatever writing job he could dig up to support himself and his daughters. He eventually got a steady job in Minneapolis, and decided to also give up casual sex, since that didn’t promote the kind of atmosphere he wanted his daughters to live in. After that, much to his surprise, he met a woman with whom he had instant chemistry, and though they weren’t very similar–she came from a fairly well-to-do family, and was a Republican–she felt the chemistry too, and they got married.
This book roused some interesting feelings in me. I’d read about addiction–William S. Burroughs was one of my favorite writers for awhile–but this book brought up some of my own addiction issues. My life hasn’t been very similar to Carr’s. I was never a party animal, and though I like to write, I’ve never been a journalist. He has the kind of personality a good journalist needs. I don’t.
My addictions also differ in being legal. I used to smoke pot, as almost everyone did in my generation, but while I had some very enjoyable experiences with it, I eventually stopped smoking it because it brought up feelings of guilt. That’s because I wasn’t doing anything much with my life, and was using addictions to reading and smoking cigarettes to keep myself from feeling. I had an experience somewhat parallel to Carr’s: Influenced by a woman I was involved with for awhile I decided to go to nursing school, did so, got my degree, and started working. I wasn’t at all sure I could do the job, so I had to try quite hard, and found that my perspective changed: I stopped focusing on my “problems” all the time (and blaming others for them) and started seeing them in a different light. I had run away from relationships in the past from fear of commitment (how stereotypical is that?), and suddenly realized I didn’t HAVE to be with anyone, which paradoxically freed me so I COULD be. After some four years of working as a nurse I met someone online, there was immediate chemistry, though we were very different kinds of people, and I eventually moved from where I’d been living for more than 20 years to get married. The marriage wasn’t altogether blissful, but it did connect me with real life, however imperfectly. I also acquired step-grandchildren, whom I adored, and who adored me too, probably more because I was part of the environment than because I was anything special. A lot of that ended with my wife’s early death.
Her death shouldn’t have been a great surprise, because her health was never good. She had Lupus, a chronic immune system disease that severely limits what a sufferer can do. Unfortunately for my wife, we were living with a lot of drama pretty much the whole time we were together. Eventually it got to be too much, she had a heart attack and died, and things were suddenly different.
Having made an effort to change, and having made some progress at it doesn’t guarantee anything. Progress made doesn’t stay made without further effort. Carr found that out after 14 years of sobriety, when he found himself cleaning up after a party and taking a sip of the drinks he had mixed together. From there he backslid for several years, even trying cocaine again, and though he never got as self-destructive as he had been, he gradually realized he was in trouble, and had to start over again. He WASN’T normal, in the sense that he could take a drink or two and stop. For him it was all or nothing. And to keep from losing all he’d gained, it had to be nothing.
I corresponded with a friend a few years ago who has been in AA a long time. He had decided to stop participating in Facebook, and told me that he had had to work very hard to change, that the change had been glacial, but that once it DID start it was very real. What I take from that is he understood that he didn’t have it made, and chose not to do things that were unnecessary.
Sobriety must be, for someone who has become addicted, very difficult. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles are two famous musicians who were addicted to heroin. Both had to quit because of troubles with the law, and both immediately took up alcohol. A very different drug, but also a depressant. I’d guess that each switched one habit for another. That’s not sobriety.
Carr had gone from working on a paper in Minneapolis to one in Washington, DC, then magazine work, then work with the New York Times. You don’t get a much better journalistic career than that, and besides he had his wife and daughters. Part of him wanted to take the chance of losing all that, but the rational part told him not to. The story about addicts is that they’re always addicts, whether they’re indulging themselves with whatever they’re addicted to (and John Bradshaw, a psychologist popular in the 1990s, said that people can get addicted to ANYTHING) or not. Carr found that to be true for him. It’s true for me too.
After my wife died my grandchildren stayed with their paternal grandmother. Their mother, my stepdaughter, was torn up by her mother’s death. She tells me now that her mother and another friend had warned her to get ready for her death. She regrets she didn’t do so, but she didn’t want to believe in the possibility. Neither did I. She went overboard in a variety of ways, and wasn’t able to function as a mother. I thought it was wise of her to let their grandmother have them, but it still was terribly painful. She was very angry and demanding then, and eventually I threw her out. The expressed reason doesn’t matter; what I thought at the time was that as long as she stayed with me she’d never try to do anything on her own. I’ll never know for sure, but I think that may have been true.
Now she, her husband and their two children have moved in with me. We struggle, but I feel that if we stick together we can succeed. I think they agree.
Carr realized he had to start over again, using AA groups, taking the corny mottos seriously, and start building his sobriety again. He did that. He still knows that success isn’t guaranteed, and that of all the friends he had in the drug scene, he’s one of the few to come out the other side. How is it, he asks, that so many died or completely ruined their lives, while he came out with a great career and family? He doesn’t have an answer. Destiny is a funny thing, and something that we may have little control over. I wonder why my wife had such a difficult and unhappy life, while I always had friends and people willing to help when I needed it. I don’t know the answer either.
All either of us knows is that we have to try and keep trying, that success isn’t guaranteed, that you’re not defeated until you die, unless you let yourself be. And that’s always a temptation.