My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you’ve read other addiction memoirs, the bare bones of Carr’s account are pretty familiar; he did drugs and kept most things together until the moment he got in too deep, couldn’t control himself and everything went to hell. He could only recover with the help of his community and the inspiration of his newborn daughters. But while many addiction memoirs tell a similar story, Carr’s got another trick up his sleeve: his conceit is that he can bring journalist’s investigative tools to his own spotty memories. It makes for sobering reading and an interesting case study of the purposes of memory. It also makes an argument for the validity of publicly funded treatment centers for addiction, though the numbers are a bit squiffy.
Carr tackles his life in loose chronological order. Mostly he zigzags across time to find discrepancies between his version of events and what evidence of the past that he can find. Common sense says that an addict refits and rejiggers everything in order to get more supply. Carr shows that he did the same thing even when he stopped using, even as he went to meetings that were meant to remind him of his powerlessness over alcohol, and a wealth have studies have shown that all of our memories are more slippery than we might hope.*
For me, that word–conceit–is the key. Of course it means “something that is conceived in the mind,” but can also mean a sort of solipsistic self-interest, as in “she is so conceited.” The addiction memoir always faces a rough paradox; being an addict is all about being yourself, keeping yourself supplied with drugs or alcohol or power or sex or whatever else. You are the center of your own attention. By Carr’s own admission, the most effective parts of his treatment program had to do with refocusing his attentions and energies on other people, in particular his daughters. And yet he is writing a memoir, a collection of his thoughts on–guess what?–himself. Is he just substituting the attention he gives himself and the attention he might get from an audience for chemicals? Most cynically, isn’t the memoir just another example of me generation thinking? That the most successful of us are the one who can occupy the spotlight or get paid for thinking about ourselves and expressing ourselves, and sneaking a story about yourself in the back door by calling it a warning to others, or some such thing, is just a means to those same ends? More broadly, is talking about yourself or your problems a solution for those problems?
Me generation or not, sometimes the cure has to contain a little bit of the poison. And if David Carr talking about his life can help him work at his problems and addictions, that’s an unequivocally good thing, beyond any social value of getting the word out about addiction or whatever.
As for me giving it three stars, I felt like it should have been edited more extensively; the prose can get ornate without maintaining clarity, and he repeats rather than develops the theme that our modified memories are the means we use to build our images of ourselves.
*this is not anything earth-shattering if you’ve read Proust or psychological studies on memory, but then, few people (myself excluded) have time for that. If people get hooked because of the prurient appeal of reading about a drug addict and then end up thinking about their memories, so what?