"That is the David Carr way": Erin Lee Carr on writing fearlessly on grief, addiction and her father

"Am I going to be as honest with myself as I need for my subjects to be?" the filmmaker and memoirist tells Salon

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published April 20, 2019 7:35PM (EDT)

"All That You Leave Behind: A Memoir" by Erin Lee Carr (Penguin Random House/Stephanie Geddes)
"All That You Leave Behind: A Memoir" by Erin Lee Carr (Penguin Random House/Stephanie Geddes)

Documentary filmmaker Erin Lee Carr is known for her incisive portraits of complicated, dark subjects: "Mommy Dead and Dearest," the HBO documentary that led the current media avalanche of attention on Munchausen syndrome by proxy victim Gypsy Rose Blanchard's murder of her mother Dee Dee; "Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop" and "I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter," both of which, like "Mommy Dead and Dearest," examine the intersections of technology and criminal law; and "At the Heart of Gold," premiering this month at Tribeca Film Festival, about the U.S. gymnastics team sexual abuse survivors whose powerful statements at the sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar captivated a nation in the midst of reckoning openly with the #MeToo movement.

In her debut memoir "All That You Leave Behind," Carr turns that incisive lens on herself and her relationship with her father, New York Times journalist and beloved media critic David Carr, who died suddenly in 2015 after collapsing at work. The elder Carr, 58, was a role model and mentor to many in the media — his own daughter included, though their relationship was much more complicated. And at 26, she, her sisters and stepmother had to go through the process of mourning David along with seemingly the entire New York media world and the industry as a whole, plus the legions of devotees of his work. There are many books about grief in the world, but few talk candidly about what it's like to find out your father's hospitalization had been tweeted out as breaking news before the entire family had even been notified.

Also present in the book is Erin Carr's own crooked journey through addiction and sobriety — another thing she had in common with her father, who chronicled his own trajectory in the memoir "Night of the Gun" — as she also made her way through launching a journalism career of her own with its own ups and downs, some of which were related to the substance abuse narrative and some which were not. There are stretches of sobriety and scary relapses for both Carrs, and Erin's filmmaker lens never fails to capture the terrified reactions of those closest to her in accounting for her own. Throughout the book she weaves in chat transcripts and emails between her and her father, bringing some of that David Carr voice we've been missing in the world back to life in one of its most intimate forms.

I spoke to Erin by phone earlier this week about how she made the switch from filmmaking to memoir writing, about how women's addiction narratives are received differently, and the challenge of writing intimately about a man known by many with the perspective only a daughter can bring.

As a filmmaker, because that's how I know your work, what made you decide to make this project a book instead of a documentary? And since so much of the book is also about your relationship to your father — not just as a daughter, but also in sort of an apprentice role as a journalist — did it feel like you were moving into his lane, so to speak, after carving out this other niche for your own work?

I think some of the genesis of the project was reading his email. He was a writer, and an unfailingly good one, so it made a lot of sense to try to look at this medium and put his writing into book format. That doesn't mean there wasn't deep trepidation on my part. My dad wrote a memoir; he wrote it when he was a celebrated columnist at the New York Times. You know, it is a pretty damn good book, and I was like, "Oh god, I'm trying to fill my dad's shoes. They don't fit; this is horrible. What have I gotten myself into?"

I was talking to my therapist and she likes to remind me that if I [think I] liked doing this stuff now, I like talking about him, I'm David Carr's number one fan, she's like, "Just so you know, you hated every second of the actual book-writing process." And I was like, "Yeah, you're right. I did."

So I love that my therapist reminds me of times past.

Writing a book is torture; having written a book is fantastic.

Yeah, exactly! And she's like, "Are you gonna write another book?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm gonna be making some more time for you."

Your films focus on these intense stories about intense people, who occupy morally ambiguous territory or have even committed criminal acts, and take an incredible amount of investigation into what makes these people tick. What was it like to turn that lens on your father, and at the same time, onto yourself?

Well, it basically was a moment of reckoning: "Am I going to be as honest with myself as I need for my subjects to be?" And I've gotten remarkably lucky in people confronting their own identity with me. I'm talking about Gil Valle and "Thought Crimes"; with Gypsy Rose and "Mommy Dead and Dearest." I thought so much about Michelle Carter and her mental health issues, and her meditating on suicide and girlhood.

And so when it came to these themes of alcoholism and tragedy and death, I kind of am uniquely suited to dive in. I think that my whole work is sautéing my brain in the darkest stuff imaginable, and I can do that because I'm sober; I don't drink anymore. I've seen some darkness; I've read "The Night of the Gun." I think that, as a kid, I was growing up and my father instructed us that we're not equal to our best or worst action. And so, I think that really plays in my films, that  I really don't want to be judgmental. I don't know what it's like to be these people, to go through this, and I just want to create moving portraits.

And the same way when I was writing about my dad. I think it would've been deeply easy for me to be like, "Yesss, he was amazing! I was the best writer. He wrote me all these emails. He never did anything wrong. I don't know what 'Night of the Gun is.'" I think that I had to challenge myself and write about the things that he struggled with, because that is the David Carr way. It's the full 360 version of who he is, not 180. It was still painful to write about a relapse of his, and write about when we fought, as is normal in a relationship. Whether it be a parent, or a boss, or anybody, conflict is how you grow.

And it's complicated, of course, by the fact that, at least within media circles, your dad was a very well-known person and personality, and so, there's already a layer of public knowledge about his personality and life. I would think that would be a bigger challenge than if your father was not a New York Times columnist who was read widely, who wrote his own memoir.

The book, as I read it, is three interlocking things: It's a tribute to a public figure who's legendary in our industry, and it's a personal memoir of daughterhood and grief, and it's also a chronicle of addiction and sobriety. I thought it was a really delicate balance that you struck, to not move too far into one or the other. What kinds of narrative or structural challenges did that present to keep those three threads in harmony?

I love that you got that. I love that it was something that you see as distinct threads. I mean, I really was battling with the fact that I'm not a famous person.  It's like, what do you want read after a long day of committing journalism? I want you to want to pick this up. I want for it to be exciting. How did you figure out a career? What David Carr secret sauce can you glean from this?

I want to make this readable, to not be just about stark grief because, thank God, not everybody has to deal with that.

So basically I would outline every chapter. I note-carded it like I note-card my films, and I worked with a brutal editor and my agent. We cut down the book some because I want this to be like, my films are a bit on the shorter side, [they're] sort of like whiplash: What did I just take in? What I can take away from this?

I wanted to use some of the skillset that I have as a filmmaker and as a communicator, and view this body of work that I am not an expert at in any way, and to use the tricks of my trade. And not be embarrassed. I think what was so cool was, I used to be so deeply embarrassed that I got fired from a job. You know? It was this deep secret from people that I never talked about. I love the email that my dad sent me after I was fired from Vox that basically said, "You've got this. They are wrong. You are right." And I think that if I can speak to anybody that's gone through it, it's just like, sometimes you get fired!

I'm not gonna play: I understand why they fired me. And it f**king set me on my path to be who I've become, even in the infancy of my career. I've only been doing this for not for long. I could've been at Vox for years. I was put on this Earth to make films, and sometimes you have to have people push you down to get back up.

Absolutely. It struck me that having this treasure trove of electronic communication from your father is a wonderful by-product of the digital age (which can also be a terrible thing). You have these Gchat transcripts, these email chains, and they function a lot like archival footage for a documentary. Which is kind of an amazing way to take parts of that format and put it onto the page, as well. What were some of the nuts and bolts of using that material? And how do you balance the enterprise of wanting to look at these emails as research and archival material, and the fact that this is a hugely emotional endeavor for you to go back and re-read these emails that you probably never thought in the moment that you would have to read in this way?

Yeah, I mean, I love that example you were talking about, like the Gchats and talk about the journey of self. And my dad emails me David Foster Wallace giving the commencement at Kenyon, and he explains that, he killed himself, but his writing on the journey of self — something you and I both deal with — is awe-inspiring.

I can't imagine being so smart and with it that I'm basically musing about my own selfish nature and that I gave it to my kid, in a Gchat, in relation to one of the greatest writers that we've seen. And so I put away my sadness as looked through this stuff, and said, "This is cool, this is interesting, and this is a way to put more David Carr in the world, and if I have to deal with crying while writing and eating bagels, then that's what I'm gonna do." That is a price that is worth paying.

And so, I basically got Scrivener and I tagged every single email like, "This is about alcoholism." "This is about musicians." "This is about writing." "This is about mentoring." And then, basically when I wanted to write about something, I was able to bring up, using these tags: "Picking the wrong boyfriend," VICE, [my father's] own writings.

First it was sad, and then it was this weird puzzle about this person I loved a lot, and it got less sad as time went on. And I would just send my best friends or my boyfriend and be like, "Look at this one. Isn't this one great?" And they're like, "Yeah, not everybody's trapped in your crazy book world."

There are reams and reams of narratives out there from men who are working through their feelings about struggling to feel like they've lived up to their father's expectations for them and their models of masculinity. And memoirs by daughters about fathers, I think, often tend to be different. They're gendered differently somehow.

Yeah, I literally talked about that today. My boyfriend — he's a reporter — and he was like, "Do you think the fact that you were raised by a single dad . . . Do you think that affects your concept of masculinity or femininity?" And basically, we were at a book event, and he's like, "Did it factor into writing this book?" And I think that yes, I am more direct and deeply ambitious, but in terms of feminism, that's good. To be a woman, harnessing some of these traits that my father inherited to me, made me have a masculine edge, but it can be taken even in more power as a woman. I don't have to be ashamed for wanting to make money, and wanting to write, and wanting to take up space. And I think there are so many people that would've been like, "You know, I'm 28, 29. I don't have a memoir in me. That's deeply self-indulgent." And while it is self-indulgent, somebody did ask me to do it, and I'm going to take up space.

He accepted so much of me, but what was I able to really do? And it's sort of a meditation on that. And even writing this, comparing myself to him; comparing it to his book and what the book did, and I know what his book did number-wise. I shouldn't know any of that. I'm not David Carr, you know what I mean? He had many years on me when he wrote it, still, but I hold myself up to this impossible standard.

That was a very spicy response.

That is a final act of trying to live up to him. That's a challenge you set up for yourself.

I signed up for it. I put myself out there by writing this book, and I can't be nervous when somebody doesn't like it. I mean, art is subjective.

Have there been negative reactions to it? I think this is tricky because there are so many people who knew, or felt like they knew, your dad, but of course they didn't know him the way that you and your family know him.

There was an amazing woman who professionally admired my dad, and met him a couple times. And she said, "This is hard for fans of David Carr, this book."


"It's painful to experience him as a parent that's driving drunk and putting his children in jeopardy." I think that, when you ask and you quiz people, killing your kids in a drunk driving accident, which is what could've happened, could have been one of the worst things to imagine. And we tend to forget these things because it almost stopped him, but it didn't.

I think that we expect a lot of memoirists. You're supposed to have these stories that exist and can live up to fiction. And real life is so flawed and scary and it doesn't wrap itself up in these neatly prescribed bows that cinema might. And so people are like, "Don't read the comments." I'm like, "But this is really interesting stuff. How often are you gonna get people reacting to you and your life in real time?"

So, the masochist in me reads every single word, and then there's an Amazon review saying, "I abandoned it on page 99." I was, "Oh my god. That's the cruelest thing you could've said!" It's not that somebody didn't finish it, but I mean, obviously the majority I've seen have been deeply positive, and people have finished it. And so when you have somebody like, "Don't talk about this, you numbnuts, but whatever."

[Laughs.] Well, so I'm curious about another thing, then. The thread of the book that deals with your own drinking and struggles with sobriety reminded me a lot of Sarah Hepola's "Blackout" —

I love that book, yeah.

Yeah, it's a great book about addiction and being a young woman working in media, and the pressures and the lifestyle that can go with that. 

And I know that at one point, you articulate the "work hard, play hard" reputation of VICE, which is also endemic through the media and a lot of creative industries, too. It strikes me as that is sort of a coded masculine way of talking about partying or substance abuse, to whatever degree that's in play. And I wonder if you've experienced or noticed any difference between how your story's received, and how for instance your father's was, as part of his mythology. Does our culture view women and men differently when it comes to these narratives of addiction, recovery, sobriety, and the honesty that has to go along with that?

Yeah, I mean, I really feel strongly that men are given the benefit of the doubt. There's a before and after. There's "he had a problem, but now he's fixed." I think that a lot of literature lends itself to that, and when women communicate about their alcoholic lives, they're marked forever as "messy."

Messy. Yes.

As incoherent, that they did and said things that cannot be taken back. This sort of weird misogyny that underlies it. So I basically sent the book, before I finished, to my editor and to a couple of trusted people, and I said, "Will this affect my ability to get jobs? I'm a documentary filmmaker. I love what I do. It is at the heart of my joy in this life. I can't write this and not be able to get work, because people think I'm unreliable."

And everybody was like, "No . . .  It's so clear, the demarcation that is a before and then a reaction to grief, and you're sober now. No, you will not have a hard time finding work."

But I got scared, because basically, I saw that people have such genuine anger when it came to women talking their — again, with the self-indulgence. That this is repetitive. Why are you talking so much about blackouts? You don't even remember it. Da-da-da. I mean, female alcoholic writers need to be given the same benefit of the doubt.

I did not want to let that fear guide me. So I tried to write about it as honestly as I could, and that means writing about drug use. Did I really want people to know that I like cocaine a lot, in the former addicted life? No.

But that is the truth, and I think it's really interesting. I mean, Scott Simon, the NPR guy, was like — he put it in a very Scott Simon way, which was very polite, but it was basically like, you were a crack baby, why did you do cocaine?

What's going on here? And he just was like, "Why?" And it's just such a complicated . . . I don't have a neatly . . . It made sense to my brain when I did it, and so I did more of it, because that's addiction.

When you were mentioning earlier about the person, the acquaintance, who read the book and said that reading the part about your dad driving drunk with the kids in the car was really hard to read, and I thought, yeah, but he wrote in his own memoir about the moment of leaving you guys in the car when you were little.

When you write about it from being that kid. It's one thing to hear him talk about it. But then you're putting yourself in the perspective of a kid in his car. That's who you are in the story. It's kind of a different emotional experience.

It's true. It also just, to me, speaks to this idea that it's easier to forgive men when they write about these things. That was a thing that he did, but it's almost like you absorb that into the person that he is. But women still have to answer for every part of that along the way.

So, how do we change that, is my question.

That's what books like this, I think, start, but I think maybe also being honest about confronting the difference instead of... I don't know. Women are often socially conditioned to apologize for ourselves, and even past the point where the genuine apology has been extended. Like, apologize for living, basically (laughs). Yeah, we need to stop doing that.

Yeah, it's like, "poor men," and I think that men are not the only ones that make mistakes.

And as we continue to write about our careers and our attempts at motherhood . . . That's what I really appreciate with writing that I'm coming into contact with. There was this genuine sense that everyone that is nice and good is able to have [babies], and I think there's been a real reckoning in the last couple of years that maybe that's not true. And maybe that — this is a completely different tangent — but I love the honesty that has emerged while I've become cognizant of women writing about these issues, and about what they're feeling and thinking. Women have always written about issues, but I think we're having a unique moment of transparency that feels important to continue.

Absolutely. I wanted to ask you about the Sad Girl's Guide, the Google Doc that you write about putting together that gives advice for women who have lost a parent. Has that been something that you've continued to develop and share, or was that more of an artifact of a period in time when it was a useful tool for you?

I sent it to my friend that lost their father, and I didn't get a response. I think it was maybe a year ago, and I realized at some point, maybe this stuff needs refiguring. So, anybody who wants it, it is available to, I just redact the names. I don't know, I think there's some great advice in there.

I think that it's hard to build those things because you don't know what the person is going through at that moment, and of course, they have the choice not to read it.

But I wanna be so tender toward the person in this moment and not ascribe a way of being to them, when they're just figuring out how they're going to go through their grief. Not everybody crowd-sourced information like me. Maybe they want to figure their out own process before getting someone else's? That's what makes us all unique snowflakes, that we all feel differently about these things.

Have you thought about developing that into a book, as well?

I don't know. This is my beautiful grief book.

Somebody had brought that up to me, and I think that there is something super — I don't know — really important about the varying of opinions as it comes to this. Every person, how they got through loss, or how they're getting through loss, is different. I don't know. It's a good idea.

I want close with one question, and this sort of feels obligatory, and you've probably been asked this a bunch already, so I'm sorry. But I think a lot of people who are either in the media or are media junkies have found themselves thinking, in the Donald Trump presidency, in the thick of the Donald Trump age, it sucks that we don't have David Carr writing about how all this entire shit show has gone down. What do you think that he would think or write or say about this intensely bizarre media moment that we're in?

So, I've given a lot of thought to this, and I think he'd be profoundly disappointed with how disjointed it came to bear that all Americans were. That somebody who participated in abject racism and sexism would be elected to the highest office in the land.

I mean, he would have to be careful about objectivity, in terms of his reportage from a New York Times standpoint, but I think my dad was an optimist. He believed in the good of people. He believed in second chances. He believed in women going places and being ambitious, and so, when that happened, I'm sure that if he exists somewhere in the ether, he f**king flipped out.

There is the sort of media part that I'm sure he'd have an incredible take about, why the media and CNN and MSNBC and FOX News — they were our electorate, and they, in fact, elected this person. I never want to speak for him because he's not here, but as somebody who has studied him pretty carefully in life, and in this after-experience, there would be this disappointment, but then there would be intellectual vigor and investigating and why.

I wish I didn't have to write this book; I wish he was here doing these things. I think he'd also be really proud of the New York Times. He'd be really proud of their reporting, and he was such a lion for the institution. And they have remarkably stepped up to the plate when it comes to combating false news, and their reporting on sexism and the #MeToo era. He [would be] like, "Whoa, you guys are killing it."

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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