When New York Times media columnist David Carr died suddenly of previously undiagnosed lung cancer in 2015, he left behind a legacy as a journalist, a mentor and a father.
"He was so good at inspiring confidence in you," daughter Erin Lee Carr says. "He had an ability to spot talent in a way that I've seen sort of unrivaled — whether it be Ta-Nehisi Coates or Lena Dunham or his colleague A.O. Scott at the Times."
But David Carr's role as a mentor to his daughter was complicated by his addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine. His 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, describes how, earlier in his life, he put Erin and her twin sister Meagan into foster care before eventually getting sober.
In the memoir All That You Leave Behind, Erin, now a documentary filmmaker, writes about how her father's past affected her life, and how she dealt with her own addiction to alcohol. She sees her book as a continuation of her father's spirit.
"He talked about life being a grand caper and that we hope it doesn't end soon ... " she says. "The book is about extending the caper."
On how writing the book was more painful than cathartic
Making films is a collaborative experience and that's what I do for a living. And writing is this intensely solo activity. And so I was with him in a way. I was next to him, next to his words, I listened to almost every interview he ever did. I really wanted to educate myself in all things David Carr, not just the father which I experienced. But I found it to be so painful to, like, to get access to him in his words in these emails and yet not have him anymore.
On telling people about her father's history of addiction
I don't think he thought that I was going to tell anybody about it. He never said, "This is something to be ashamed of." But he sat my twin and [me] down and said, "This is your story, but you have to be really careful about who you tell it to." And he talked about that you can't trade it for intimacy or things like that. I was a little kid. But what I understood from the conversation was that I had a very different origin story than that of other kids I knew growing up, and how that made me different I wasn't sure. I just knew that he was sober now and he was able to take care of us.
On learning about her father's past, including the time when he left her and her twin sister alone in a car while he bought drugs
When I was in high school I knew that my dad was writing a book and I knew it was going to be about his former life as someone who was addicted to crack. He came upstairs and he had this big pile of pages and he was kind of handing it to me as if it were like a hot potato, like it was radioactive. He said, "This is the book. I need you to look at it. You have two weeks. If there's anything in there that makes you horribly uncomfortable, I will take it out. But I'm going to tell you, it's rough."
Maybe he had told me [that] story before, but to see it written in the book in that way was a completely different experience. I sort of choked on the emotion — like, I thought how close I came to not being there anymore. It really made me think about his story differently. It wouldn't be the last time he would put my life at risk because of drugs and alcohol. We said something in my family: That drugs explain everything, and excuse nothing. So we had to reconcile that he was still the person that left us alone.
On her own alcohol addiction, and her father encouraging her to get sober
I felt really unlovable. Being a part of the origin story of being these miracle babies that were able to grow up and be healthy and live their own lives, I thought it was not going to go well, like there was going to be a turn in the story. ... It wasn't until I was fired in 2013 when he sat me down and said, "You have two options in front of you: One is the path of alcoholism and insignificance, and two is you stop drinking and you see who you can become."
On relapsing after her father's death
The six months after he died I would have this push-pull of: Should I drink? should I not? ... On the six month anniversary of his death, it was one of those nights where I could not hold it back and I drank so much the next day I felt like killing myself. And I just had a moment of reckoning, saying, "This is not the life that my father would want me to live. And he's not here anymore, and I have to try to make him proud. And so why don't I just try to do a day without alcohol again? OK. I'm going to try a week without it. Now I'm going to try a month."
It's that sort of age-old adage of "a day at a time," but this time, I took it very seriously, because I was trying to work towards him, what he did. I couldn't get sober for him, but he was a part of my decision to get sober, and I've been sober since Aug. 23, 2015. And it is crazy what has happened since then, once I stopped putting substances in my body. I mean, I could not have written this book if I was drinking. There is no way. I would have blown through every edit deadline imaginable.
On finding her artistic voice and professional path in the years since her father's death
It's painful that so much of my life and in making films has taken place after he died, and at an exponential rate. My boyfriend at the time said, "You're always asking your dad for advice, like, do you ever just wait a beat and think about what you have to say before asking him?" And I thought that was really insulting. And I was like, "Well, if you had access to David Carr, how could you not use it?" ...
But just being able to call him and ask him a question — I mean, he was brilliant. ... When I no longer had that, yeah, the only voice I could really listen to at that moment was myself. And so I think that he had to leave and pass away in order for me not to rely so heavily on him. But ... I would completely rather [have] him be here and me have no work. I think that it is the most profound loss I will ever experience and nothing that has happened outweighs the pain of him being gone.
Roberta Shorrock and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly said Larry Nassar worked at the University of Michigan. Nassar actually worked at Michigan State University.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Erin Lee Carr has written a memoir about being the daughter of David Carr, The New York Times' media columnist who had a large and devoted following, including me. He died in 2015 at the age of 58 of previously undiagnosed lung cancer. The Times' executive editor Dean Baquet described David Carr as the finest media reporter of our generation. David Carr was described in The Times as, quote, "a supreme talent scout, a mentor to young reporters and a blunt critic of those who didn't measure up," unquote.
He also served as a mentor and critic for his daughter, Erin Lee Carr. She writes that her role as daughter and mentee was sometimes in conflict. David Carr wrote a memoir in 2008 about how earlier in his life, he was addicted to cocaine and alcohol. He was still addicted when Erin and her twin Meagan were born. Their mother, who was also addicted to crack, left soon after they were born.
David knew he had to get sober. He went into recovery, putting the twins in foster care until he emerged. Erin writes about how his past affected his life and her life and how she dealt with her own addiction to alcohol. She's now a documentary filmmaker. Her new documentary "At The Heart Of Gold" premieres Friday on HBO. It's about the women who were sexually assaulted when they were young gymnasts under the care of Dr. Larry Nassar.
Erin Lee Carr, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you for writing your memoir. I was a great fan of your father's. And it's very interesting to hear your story and to hear about your relationship with him. I want to start by reading the quote that begins your book, a quote from your father from December 2014. And the quote is, "you know I'm not going to live forever. I won't be holed up in some hospital bed, dying slowly of lung cancer. You will be the one to put the pillow over my face, right?" So was he kidding?
ERIN LEE CARR: I think he was half kidding, you know, and then half being very direct with me about how he wanted the end to go. And he was somebody that suffered through many, many health issues - you know, Hodgkin's lymphoma. And he was a lifelong smoker. And so he was a smart guy. I think he knew that, you know, something - he was not going to live forever, as I say. So I think that he wanted to make sure there was a member of the family that would do what needed to be done.
GROSS: Why you?
E CARR: I think because we were very similar. My twin is a mental health worker, so she, obviously, was not going to be the one to do that. And I think it would be fairly traumatic to ask your 18, 19-year-old - at the time - or our little sister Maddie - to do it. So I think that I was the, you know, the best possible option for the job. I guess that says something about me. I probably - I don't know. I don't know if I would have. Probably not.
GROSS: Well, you were very close to your father. You relied on him for advice. He helped you start your career. And you were just close. Did writing the book after he died and immersing yourself in his life and in your relationship help you through the grieving? Or did it just immerse you and put you deeper into the grieving?
E CARR: I think it was the latter, honestly. To - making films is collaborative experience, and that's what I do for a living. And writing is this intensely solo activity. And so I was with him in a way. I was next to him, next to his words. I listened to almost every interview he ever did. You know, I really wanted to educate myself in all things David Carr, not just the father in which that - you know, in which I experienced.
But, you know, I found it to be so painful to, like, to get access to him and his words and his emails and yet not have him anymore. You know, I think that at the end of it, as I sit here talking to you, I get to hold this book. And I get to think about it as, like - as a way that I worked through my grief. But it just - I didn't find the whole thing very therapeutic.
GROSS: Are there things that you learned about him by talking to other people about him, by listening to other people's interviews about him, that you didn't know and that you wish you could ask him about?
E CARR: You know, I wish I could have known what he thought about the #MeToo era. I think that he raised my twin and I to be loud feminists. There's so much complication as it relates to that. And, you know, it's so fascinating as, like - as being a woman in media and figuring these things out as survivors come forward. You know, I want to ask him about Trump. I want to ask him about all of these things. And yet I have to sort of work through and put the puzzle pieces together of former interviews that he did to answer present-day questions.
But I think I learned a lot more about - he was so good at inspiring confidence in you. He had an ability to spot talent in a way that I haven't - that I've seen sort of unrivaled, whether it be Ta-Nehisi Coates or Lena Dunham or, you know, his colleague A.O. Scott at The Times. You know, this isn't just a way to name-drop. But like, he saw things in these people and even in me. I was his kid, so it was really bias.
But when I was fired from a job, you know, he wrote me an email saying, like, they are wrong, and we will prove it. You know, I think that it's just - he had such an ability to make you believe in yourself.
GROSS: You tell the story of when you were 8 years old and you were talking to your new friend. And it sounds like you didn't have many friends at the time. And you called your stepmother Jill. You called her by her first name. You didn't call her mom. And so your friend questioned you, like, why are you calling your mother - or your stepmother - by her first name? And then you told - you were 8. And you told your 8-year-old friend the story of how your father and your birth mother were drug addicts when you were born and how your birth mother still was. And then what happened?
E CARR: So after I told her that they were drug addicts - and I knew that it was sort of a dangerous word. But I thought that it was, potentially, a way to become closer. I didn't - I thought it was like sharing a secret, you know? And so my dad - because this was such a new time in my life to have a friend over, he wanted to help me out. And so he popped his head into the room and said, do you want to go to McDonald's? And, of course, we said yes.
And so when we went out to the car and this little girl Alex (ph) saw that my dad was the one that was going to be driving, in a very smart way, she was like, I'm not getting in a car with you. And I think that that - you know, I immediately turned beet red. And I was like, oh, my God. I shouldn't have done that. And, you know, my dad said, I guess we're not going. Alex's (ph) parents were called. She was picked up. And I went upstairs, deeply fearful about what was going to happen next. And my dad called me downstairs to have a talk.
GROSS: Yeah. And before we get to that talk, I just want to clarify - your father was no longer a drug addict at the time (laughter). Like, he was sober. Your mother still was, but she was gone. She was absent.
E CARR: Right.
GROSS: So what was the talk that your father gave you after you had told your friend that your parents were drug addicts when you were born and she declined to get in the car with your father?
E CARR: Well, I don't think he thought that I was going to tell anybody about it. I don't know if he - he never said, you know, this is something to be ashamed of. But you know, he sat my twin and I down and said, you know, this is your story, but you have to be really careful about who you tell it to. And he talked about that you can't trade it for intimacy or, you know, things like that. You know, it was - I was a little kid. But what I understood from the conversation was that I had a very different origin story than that of other kids I knew growing up. And, like, how that made me different, I wasn't sure. I just knew that he was sober now, and he was able to take care of us.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Erin Lee Carr. Her new memoir, "All That You Leave Behind," is about her relationship with her father, the late David Carr, a great journalist and media columnist who wrote for The New York Times. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Erin Lee Carr, and her new memoir, "All That You Leave Behind," is about her relationship with her father, David Carr, who was best known as a New York Times media columnist. And his column would appear every Monday in the Times.
You write about a moment in your memoir that you - that's a turning point in your father's life. You describe it as his moment of reckoning. And this is the moment when he realized he needed help and had to go into recovery. And it involves you and your twin sister when you were babies. So your father told this story to Dave Davies on our show when Dave interviewed your father for FRESH AIR after the publication of your father's memoir, "The Night Of The Gun."
So here is Dave Davies talking to David Carr about the incident that made him realize he needed to get sober and get help.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: And when did you know that you had to do something and get yourself into a program?
DAVID CARR: There was this night when Anna was busy. She was out somewhere. And I was at home, and I was watching the girls. And they were probably, I don't know, 8 or 9 months. And I was out of drugs. And I was not the kind of person that would leave them home, but I needed to go somewhere. So they came with me, and I left them parked in the car while I went inside for what was supposed to be five minutes and probably turned out to be more like two hours. And when I came out, I didn't really know what I would find in that car, you know? Two babies alone in a crummy part of the city, cold night, tucked in their snowsuits.
And I opened up the door, and I could see their breath. And I just - you know, if there's any kind of moment, that was when I just said, you know, I'd been a bad husband. I had been married earlier in life. I never married Anna. I had been a bad sibling. I had been a bad son. I had been a bad employee. There was nothing really in my upbringing that suggested it'd be OK to be a bad father. I was raised, and raised well by wonderful parents. And I just got a clear feeling that I was up to something that God would not easily forget.
GROSS: That was David Carr talking to FRESH AIR'S Dave Davies in 2008, and my guest is Erin Lee Carr, who's written a memoir about her life and about her relationship with her father. It's called "All That You Leave Behind."
So Erin, in your in your father's memoir, he writes about that incident, (reading) I decided that my twin girls would be safe, that God would look after them while I did not.
When was the first time you heard that story about him leaving you and your twin, as babies, in a car for a couple of hours while he went and scored drugs?
E CARR: When I was in high school, I knew that my dad was writing a book and I knew it was going to be about his former life as someone who was addicted to crack. And, you know, he came upstairs, and he had this big pile of pages. And he was kind of handing it to me as if it were, like, a hot potato, like it was radioactive. And he said, this is the book. I need you to look at it. You have two weeks. If there's anything in there that makes you horribly uncomfortable, I will take it out. But I'm going to - you know, I'm going to tell you, it's rough.
And maybe he had told me the snowsuit story before, but to see it written in the book in that way, you know, was a completely different experience. And it - you know, I sort of choked on the emotion. Like, I thought how close I came to not being there anymore. And I think that it really made me think about his story differently.
GROSS: Because he put your life at risk.
E CARR: It wasn't - wouldn't be the last time he would put my life at risk, you know, because of drugs and alcohol. We had a sort of - we said something in my family, that drugs explain everything and excuse nothing. And so we had to reconcile that he was still the person that left us alone. You know, like, part of me, it's just like, why didn't you leave me at home? You know, I think that it's just, like, there's so much scarier things that can happen in that car.
And I just, I don't - it sort of still confounds me that I am the kid in that snowsuit. But I think that it's sort of a miracle and that we are still here because - even our birth, like, my twin and I. I was born 2 pounds. You know? There was very - it was grim. There was very little shot that this was going to work out. And against most odds, I'm sitting here talking to you about it.
GROSS: You know, as we talk about your father, who was one of my kind of journalism heroes, I keep trying to imagine, what would he make of this conversation? (Laughter), like, is anything we're saying, like - like, if he's listening now, is (laughter) anything that we're saying - my questions or your answers - like, upsetting him? So I can't imagine, you know, what you went through writing the book, asking yourself that question, probably.
E CARR: It was just so cool just to hear him in the headphones in this room that we're sitting in, that he gets to be a part of this. You know, I love hearing his voice. Like, I started to tear up when I was listening to that story. And that's a very traumatic story. Like, that is not something that I'm proud of or that I like to talk about, you know? But it's just, like, just to even hear his voice and talk about that he was raised well - and I'm like, you know what, Dad? I was raised well too. You know, you were not a bad parent. You were a fantastic parent. And so I think that, like, I can feel him sort of smiling at that. He's like, you know, like, kind of, like, wiping the sweat off his brow and be like...
E CARR: Don't tell them too much but don't tell them too little. Make it interesting, you know? But he's just, like - he talked about life being a grand caper and that we hope it doesn't end soon, you know? And so I think that this is - the book is about extending the caper.
GROSS: Your father had a relapse after 14 years of sobriety. So I guess that would make you around 14. So he was driving drunk with you, your twin and your baby sister in the car. And you were very upset about this. I mean, he wasn't driving well. Like, he was swerving a lot. It worked out OK, but you were just lucky. And you were very upset. You were very angry. But by this time, you were drinking yourself. You'd started drinking. I think you'd started drinking already. You were...
E CARR: No. So...
GROSS: Not yet.
E CARR: That happened before I ever touched alcohol. That was around 14. I started - I took my first drink at 16.
GROSS: So - and you quickly became, like, a blackout drinker. So, like, you knew what the consequences could be. You'd seen it firsthand. You'd heard stories about it. Your father had told you about it. Did that affect you at all when you started to drink a lot?
E CARR: So I have a genetic predisposition to alcohol. The first time I drank, I went back for more. And I was secretive about it. And I drank until I threw up everywhere. And so if I had - you know, my first drink led me to realize - why - like, I really like this, but I like it in a way that other people don't like it. And so my sort of dalliance with alcohol was sparing at first - I - a couple times in high school, always to excess.
And then when I got to college and it was suddenly something that was available to me - I went to a Big Ten school. And there just - like, beer appeared magically in front of me. And I thought it was incredible. And it was so exciting. And I always blacked out, and I always felt embarrassed the next day. But I could, like - in my youth, I just shook it off. This is what happens. This is a part of being young. It's funny, you know? They - my friends called me Autopilot Erin. You know, it became this sort of mantle that I wore almost proudly.
GROSS: When did your father become aware of your drinking? And what did he say to you about it?
E CARR: What pops out to me when you asked that was there was a screening at Gawker for "Page One: A Year In The New York Times" (ph), the documentary in which my dad was in. And there was a open bar. And that was always the kiss of death with me. And I drank and I drank and I drank. And in the middle of the Q&A, when he was answering a question, I, like, kicked over not one but a couple of bottles of beer that I had at my feet as I was trying to leave to go to the bathroom. And I just - I felt him. Like, I saw his withering stare. He saw it was me. And I was like, you know, this is not going to be good.
And so, you know, I had another drink because I was nervous about what was about to come next. And he took me aside and he said good night. And he didn't say anything. And I said, OK, like, maybe it - maybe I'm imagining it. And he called me the next day. And he said, you know, you're uninvited from these things. It is not an excuse. These events are not an excuse for you to embarrass me and drink yourself to a blackout. And I won't be a part of it, and I won't watch it. And you are - you're done.
GROSS: What effect did that have on you?
E CARR: It was, like, the shame that I mentioned but cranked up to this insane volume where it drowned out all of my other thoughts. I - you know, I felt really unlovable. I - you know, being the - a part of the origin story of being these miracle babies that, you know, were able to grow up and be healthy and, like, live their own lives, I thought I was - it was not going to go well. Like, there was going to be a turn in the story. And so I think that I just sort of, like, stayed away from him awhile.
And I never thought that he was wrong, though. That's the thing. I knew that what I was doing was, you know, not unforgivable by any means but, like, you know, couldn't I have enough self-control while at a work event with my father to cool it, you know? And like, that's the thing. No, I didn't have it.
And so I drank to excess but not around him. And it - you know, it wasn't until I was fired in 2013 when he sat me down and said, you have two options in front of you. One is the path of alcoholism and insignificance. And two is, you stop drinking and you see, you know, who you can become.
GROSS: My guest is Erin Lee Carr. She's written a new memoir about her relationship with her late father David Carr, who was a New York Times media reporter and columnist. After a break, I'll play her a clip from my interview with her father about his sobriety. And we'll talk about what he said. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "ALL BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Erin Lee Carr. Her new memoir "All That You leave Behind" is about her relationship with her late father David Carr, who was a media reporter and columnist for The New York Times. He died in 2015 at the age of 58 of previously undiagnosed lung cancer.
He wrote a 2008 memoir about how he had been addicted to crack earlier in his life. He got sober soon after Erin and her twin sister Meagan were born. When we left off, we were talking about how Erin had become an alcoholic. She'd given up drinking but relapsed before her father died and continued drinking for a few months following his death. She's been sober ever since.
I'm wondering what impact it had on your drinking to go through your father's death and try to kind of survive afterwards.
E CARR: So I was sober for nine months when my father was alive. And so he got to experience a version of me as a sober person. And I, like, thank whatever God is out there that that was a part of something that he saw. And I relapsed for the most simple of reasons - that I was bored, that I was really - I was sick of staying home every single night and watching a documentary and, you know, being near my friends as they got to enjoy alcohol.
And I just - like, it was just this jealousy that sort of burned me up. And I said, you know, I'm 25. I don't have alcoholism. This is just me trying to mimic my dad. Like, I can drink with moderation. And within a month of me trying alcohol again, I was found unconscious by my sister in my bedroom. And so that, to me, completely proved that I cannot be a normal drinker.
And so even knowing that as I head into his completely shocking death, I could not get through it without alcohol. And so the night he died, I drank. His funeral, you know, I was high during. And, you know, that's - I hate bringing it up. But I think that anybody who goes through loss, like, it's not like - oh, the second, you know, he was gone, I got sober. And like, that's how this goes. Like, there's so many people that can get through the death of a parent sober, but I just was not one of them.
GROSS: But you've been sober.
E CARR: Yes.
GROSS: I mean, you've been sober for - since not long after he died. Is that fair to say?
E CARR: Yes. So basically, the six months after he died, I would have this push-pull of, should I drink? Should I not? I know that I have alcohol issues. It's called the debate society where, you know, you're trying to figure it out. And on the six-month anniversary of his death, it was one of those nights where I could not hold it back. And I drank so much, the next day I felt like killing myself.
And I just had a moment of reckoning, saying, this is not the life that my father would want me to live. And he's not here anymore. And I have to try to make him proud. And so why don't I just try to do a day without alcohol again? OK, I'm going to try a week without it. Now I'm going to try a month. And it's that sort of age-old adage of, a day at a time.
But this time, I took it very seriously because I was trying to work towards him, what he did. And, like, I couldn't get sober for him, but he was a part of my decision to get sober. And I've been sober since August 23, 2015. And it is crazy what has happened since then, once I stopped putting substances in my body. I mean, I could not have written this book if I was drinking. There's no way. I would have blown through every edit deadline imaginable. This book...
GROSS: Plus, you have a documentary premiering on HBO on Friday. Yeah.
E CARR: Yes.
GROSS: So I interviewed your father in 2011. And knowing about the addiction problems that he'd had earlier in his life and knowing that he'd been through - you know, through rehab, I asked him - you know, like, some 12-step programs ask you to look to a higher power, whether that's literally God or something that is a higher power for you, for help because you can feel helpless without that. So I asked him if he had a higher power that he looked to to help get and stay sober. And here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
D CARR: One of the things that I'm doing is praying, which seems like a really uncomfortable, unnatural activity for me. It's - to whom? To what? About what? You know, I have a prayer that - in my wallet that I'm saying. And I feel like a complete fraud while I'm doing it. But it's the act of acknowledging that there may be something else out there.
And so it isn't - I haven't really thought it through, but I think the behavior and the activity will sort of lead to something good - anything that sort of gets me into a place of something less than self-obsession and gets me into a place of some humility, not even acknowledging a higher power but that other people exist and they're not here as an extension of my world.
GROSS: Can I ask what the prayer that you're keeping in your pocket is?
D CARR: Sure. Let me look at it. It's really full of, like, thees and thous. And I think it's the prayer of Saint Francis, what it would be known programmatically - again, no names mentioned - as kind of a third-step prayer. I'm not comfortable reading the whole thing. But what it talks about is to offer yourself to God, to build with you as God would see fit.
And then the important part to me is, to relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will. And then it goes on to say, take away my difficulties - of course, everyone prays for that; we all do - and that victory over them will bear witness to a power greater than yourselves - and just says, may I do thee well always. I don't really know who I'm talking about when I say those words, but I sort of feel good when I do.
GROSS: I can understand that.
OK, so that's David Carr on FRESH AIR in 2011.
Erin, hearing that reminds me of an email that your father sent to you after you asked him for advice on something to read. And he said, read David Foster Wallace giving his commencement address. He killed himself, but his writing on the tyranny of self - something you and I both deal with - is awe-inspiring. And the tyranny of self is the same thing that he refers to in the clip that we just heard - wanting to be relieved of the bondage of self. Is that something you talked to each other about a lot? And what does that mean to you, like, the tyranny of self or the bondage of self?
E CARR: So he saw him and I as selfish people, and it was up to us to figure out how to get outside of ourselves. You know, he molded me to sort of look like him and act like him, but he didn't want me to inherit his character defects. As an adult person, I think he really wanted to figure out himself and become a better man. And that was a way that he worked through that, and he wanted to remind me to do the same.
GROSS: OK. But you also write in your memoir that he said looking at you, his daughter, is like looking into a dirty mirror. What did that mean to you? What was he saying?
E CARR: You mean you haven't said that to somebody?
GROSS: (Laughter). What was he trying to say?
E CARR: Like, I really regret putting that in, but (laughter), I think that he said to me, looking at you is like looking into a dirty mirror because he saw the sort of hater, biting, cynical way that I comported myself to be a version of him. And he hated it. And so I think that when he said things like that, it was almost like he would spit it out the side of his mouth. You know? Like, he just had this reflexive way to really cut you to your core. But, like, you know, I've talked to his friends who've been on the receiving end of such sort of statements and said, you know, he talked to you like that because it was real. It's what he really thought.
But if the criticism was so challenging, I do believe that, like, the love and, like, how he cared about me and, like - this book is full of things. That is one sentence he said to me that was really bad. But, like, thousands of times, he said, like, you are the one true thing in my life. You know? And I don't know how many parents say that to their kids. So, like, I need to say that that was really painful, and it stuck with me, obviously. But, like, I don't forget all of the incredible things he said who made me who I am today.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Erin Lee Carr. Her new memoir, "All That You Leave Behind," is about her relationship with her father, the late David Carr, a great media reporter and columnist who wrote for The New York Times. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Erin Lee Carr. Her memoir about her relationship with her father, the late journalist and media critic David Carr, who wrote for The New York Times, is called "All That You Leave Behind."
How worried were you about his health before he died? It sounds like you could tell his energy was waning, and he had so many health problems. I mean, he'd had Hodgkin's disease. He had radiation around his neck, which left his neck muscles weak, for the Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had, what, necrotic pancreas? So he only had, like, part of his pancreas left. He smoked 48 cigarettes a day. He had diabetes. I mean, I remember him, when I interviewed him, him enumerating this list of body parts that didn't exist (laughter) anymore because he'd had so many, like, surgeries and stuff.
And right before he died, his doctor found a shadow on his pancreas, but they took a look and there wasn't a problem with his pancreas. It turned out he had lung cancer that had gone undiagnosed because I guess the lung X-ray wasn't showing enough? You know, didn't expand enough to show where the cancer was. But could you tell at that point that there was, like, something seriously wrong?
E CARR: So my father did not look good in the months before his death. But there - me, especially, I felt like I couldn't ask him about that. He would volunteer information about his sort of health status, but it was really an annoyance. Like, he loved working. He loved talking to people. He loved going to work. And so it was, like, that this medical stuff was taking him down. Was, like, this deeply aggravating thing. And we just weren't able to talk about it as a family, like, what happened if you weren't here anymore? There was reason to have that discussion. But he was so much a core part of our family and, like, my reason for living that I wasn't able to conceptualize a version of life where he wasn't there.
GROSS: You were with him the night he died 'cause he moderated a panel discussion, and then - which you attended. Then he went back to his office to get his knapsack. You went home, and then you got the call that he'd collapsed at The New York Times. And they found him unconscious. And when you got to the hospital, the executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, told you that he was gone. And then you had to ID the body at the morgue.
And you write in your book that the image of your father in the morgue, you just couldn't get it out of your head. It's been a couple of years. Have you been able to get that image out of your head?
E CARR: No. There's no way. I think that it's really sad that that is what I have, an image that I have, that I share when I think about my father. But that is the reality of death. And I think that it just - I saw what he was like the night he died, and so I really felt strongly about saving my sisters from that viewpoint. It's almost like I had already seen it so it would be OK to see it another time. But I think that, you know, it was the wrong decision. I think, you know, you want to be brave, and you want to be strong. But you also, I think, need to protect yourselves in these moments. And you know, I wasn't able to do that because I wanted to everything for him and be helpful. But it just was the wrong decision.
GROSS: Did you want to be tough for him, too, to show that you could take it?
E CARR: I mean, absolutely. I think that, you know, I was - is my father's kid. But like, you know, in the directness and honesty and gruffness that he embodied, I wanted to be a version of that. And so, again, it was participating in that sort of - that archetype. And you know, it's just - that's not honest. That's just projecting myself.
GROSS: Your father was an advocate of Twitter. And you know, he wrote about it, and he really knew how to use it. I mean, your father was so funny and had such a gift for language. So you know, he could write great - profound and not - you know, and trivial tweets that were really entertaining or informative. And he had a gazillion followers. I forget precisely the amount, but gazillion will (laughter) - is a good approximation.
But Twitter had a very kind of disturbing part of the story of your father's death because somebody at the Times, who didn't realize that the family hadn't been informed yet tweeted the news that he was found unconscious. And so like, I think the story - you knew - you had learned that the story was out before people in your family knew, and you found that incredibly upsetting. And so in this era of social media, I'd like to hear about the impact that had on you.
E CARR: So when a friend texted me - when I was at the hospital after I'd been informed by Dean that he had died, I got a text saying, you know, I heard some scary news about your dad; I hope it's OK. And I was so furious. What an invasive, insensitive thing to do.
And I think that, like, you know, David Carr - he was this person that cultivated sort of, like, a cult following. Like, people loved him. And so it wasn't surprising that people wanted to check in on him when they'd heard something scary. It just - I didn't understand why anybody was trying to talk to me about it. I needed to call my sister. I needed his family, his brothers and sisters, to know. And I didn't care what you had to think about it. I just - I didn't - this was not about you.
And it was - I began to dissociate that night because I couldn't understand that there was this NPR or New York Times alert that somebody had died, and it just happened to be my dad. And every time I looked at my phone, it was like, is it his brother? Or is it my boss? I don't - do I need to pick up these phone calls? Why do I have to take care of other people's grief while I'm moving through my own?
GROSS: So I want to talk about the work you're doing now as a documentary filmmaker, but first we have to take a short break. Let me reintroduce you here.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Erin Lee Carr. And her new memoir, "All That You Leave Behind," is about her relationship with her father, the late David Carr, a great journalist and media columnist for The New York Times. It's also about her coming-of-age and about her alcoholism and getting sober. So we'll be right back after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Erin Lee Carr. And her new memoir, "All That You Leave Behind," is about her life and her relationship with her father, the late journalist David Carr, who was a media columnist, among other things, for The New York Times.
So you've been making documentaries for HBO, and the latest will premiere on Friday on HBO. It's called "At The Heart Of Gold." And it's about Dr. Larry Nassar, who worked with young female gymnasts as young as, like, 6 years old as, like, an Olympic coach and doctor. And we learned, you know, after years of doing this work, that he had sexually abused many of the young female athletes who he worked with.
During his medical exams, he would insert his fingers where they shouldn't have been, saying it was a kind of manual manipulation that would help with other problems in their body, including, like, their ankles and - you know, which is just preposterous. And he did some of the medical work in his basement. He masturbated in front of these young girls. He was clearly sexually aroused during these exams.
And you have interviews with the girls who are now adults. Why did you choose him as a subject?
E CARR: So I didn't choose him as a subject. I choose them. I chose the survivors...
GROSS: Well put - yeah, right.
E CARR: And I think that these are not yet women. You know, I speak with Chelsea Zerfas, who at the time that I interviewed her - she was 15. And she was figuring out and processing in real time what happened to her and, you know, if she can trust adults. And so as a journalist sitting down with her - and I had the benefit of being a woman and her perpetrator was male - but it really was figuring out, how can I interview somebody without retraumatizing them? What is a way to ask this sort of very specific - and, like, just even hearing you say the words about what he did - I mean, it makes my blood boil. It's like, is it OK to ask her about this? And ultimately, it was. But I really wanted to not focus on Larry Nassar, but focus on the women who were figuring out what happened to them and, you know, what - how they were going to confront the abuse in court and in their life after the fact.
GROSS: Yeah. And, you know, it's a range of reactions from feeling really damaged to saying things like - you know, like, we're all here. We're all surviving and doing good work. And you're nothing now, Larry Nassar. So it's just - it's - everybody deals with it in their own way. You know, you're very close to your father. You relied on him for advice. He helped you start your career. You were always concerned about being in his shadow or not living up to his expectations. Did his death kind of force you to figure out who you are, independent of him?
E CARR: You know, I think about that a lot, and it's painful that so much of my life and in making films have - it's taken place after he died, and at an exponential rate. And so I think about kind of like, you know - my boyfriend at the time said, you're always asking your dad for advice. Like, do you ever just sort of wait a beat and think about what you have to say before asking him? And I thought that was really insulting. And I was like, well, if you had access to David Carr, how could you not use it? Like, I guess that's such a weird way of putting it, but, like, just, like, being able to call him and ask him a question - I mean, he was brilliant. And, like, I would always apologize and say, like, I really don't want to waste your time. I have this quick thing. What do you think about it? But I think when I no longer had that, yeah, there was - the only voice I could really listen to and trust right at that moment was myself.
And so I think that I had to - he had to leave and pass away in order for me not to rely so heavily on him. But, like, I'm going to be real with you. I would've completely rather, like, him be here and me have no work. I think that, like, it is the most profound loss and - I will ever experience, and nothing that has happened outweighs the pain of him being gone.
GROSS: What's some of the best journalism advice he gave you?
E CARR: Well, he just kind of - you know, I remember when I was talking with the guy who was the cannibal cop who was a New York City police officer who was convicted of conspiracy to kidnap, rape, torture and eat young women. And he gave me feedback on, like, what to act like when I got inside the prison and, you know, like, if I was fearing - if I was feeling fearful, what to do with that. And it was always about, like, don't bring your cameras. Don't bring a microphone. Look somebody in the eyes and say, thank you so much for taking time out of your day for me to do my job.
And I guess, like, you know, with that guy being in prison, I wasn't - you know, he was happy to see me. But now, every time when I approach a subject, I'm not logistics. I'm not business. I am looking and staring into their eyes and figuring out, like, what the story should be. And I think that that is - that shows up in his work.
GROSS: Well, Erin Lee Carr, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. I'm so sorry you lost your father. I'm relieved that you have found, you know, your path in life and that you seem to have a really decent - well, I don't know much about your personal life now, but you certainly have a great career. And so there's that. Thank you very, very much.
E CARR: Thank you so much, Terry.
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GROSS: Erin Lee Carr is the author of the new memoir "All That You Leave Behind." Her new documentary about the women who were sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar when they were young gymnasts under his care is called "At The Heart Of Gold." It premieres on HBO Friday.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how crooks, kleptocrats and the super rich hide their money. My guest will be journalist Oliver Bullough, author of "Moneyland." He writes about how money is laundered by shell companies and companies that exist to create shell companies, which makes the money impossible to track. He actually runs a kleptocracy tour in London of high-priced real estate that serves as places for wealthy people and kleptocrats from other countries to park their money. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION :In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly said Larry Nassar worked at the University of Michigan. Nassar actually worked at Michigan State University.]
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BRETT GOLD NEW YORK JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "LULLABY FOR LILY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.