Tuesday, February 9, 2010
We all are often asked why we do things. We often don't have logical, cogent answers.
I often get asked the question "Why" I do certain things, and I often rationalize my answers - my "go big or go home personality," because of the righteousness of the mission or because of the outcomes. Sometimes, it's because of what my man David says. I'm just shooting until I run out of bullets.
Many of my friends and former colleagues are writers, and several of them have sharp wit and insight. For those who are blessed by the talent gene pool, none can compare to the hard-working yeoman, David Carr, a media columnist at The New York Times, who has an ability to consistently throw the last-minute, three-point literary shoot to win the game or to just run up the score. David has a way with words that sets him far apart from many of his contemporaries.
He once wrote a column about the future of journalism in New York City in the cadence of E.B. White's "Here is New York," a book written in 1949. Charlie LeDuff, another talented former Timesman, read to us word-for-word in a West 44th Street bar a few days after the September 11 attacks. White, LeDuff and Carr all have an eye for seeing the ingeniously simple and translating it in a way that intrigues the intellect and tugs at the heart.
Rereading David and Charlie 60 years from now, I suspect, will be a bit like listening to White after after the attacks, as he wrote about how New York was finally destructible. White wrote toward the end of "Here's New York" that, "The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everyone's mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sounds of the jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition."
Covering the damage above and underground following the attacks, White seemed a bit like a prophet. Most likely inspired by the prospect of a Soviet nuclear attack by airplanes and the notion that bridges, tunnels and flight had both made the city more diverse and more vulnerable, White's words still applied to the vulnerabilities in the city's new battle with terrorism. Like White, I suspect we will look back at the words of David and Charlie someday, and consider them prophetic. So, I take special note when either of them write. I try to read it, even when I don't have a particular interest or am decidedly avoiding a topic. The latter was the case with David's 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
I knew enough of David's story to know that prior to joining The Times and meeting me to not be surprised that a gun was involved, as the title of his book suggests. And I also knew from a call he made while writing the book, that I would be a bit player in the narrative. I was not looking forward to it, not so much because of the sharp edges of his pen, but because I knew it was going to be hard to read how much I disappointed my friend.
David would come more fully out of the closest as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict in the piece (we both share addiction and recovery in common and his book was for a good cause -- namely paying for his twin daughters' college tuition). He had also told me on the phone during that interview that he had relapsed and recovered after I had left The Times (it might be inappropriate guilt, but I can't help but point out that I would have been better able to help him if I had not set my career and life on fire).
When the book arrived at my office in suburban Virginia in late 2008, it felt like guilt and shame bound and wrapped in a black cover (I have since recommended it to all the recovering drug addicts and alcoholics who come see me and I recommend it to you too; its insightful, unique and I'm sure there are still college bills to be paid for the twins, the true heroines of the story).
In addition to the general insight on life, addiction and recovery in The Night of the Gun, I had some revelations about myself after reading it.
The chapter on me was, small, but it was an on-point and accurate reconstruction of my fractured personality - a perceived loyal, hard-working friend who dissembled right in front of their eyes, who in what seemed like an instant, cast aside all prior impressions and threw into doubt everything my former colleagues and friends thought they knew about me.
Suffice to say, David juxtaposed my work and talent with my fabrications and plagiarism. He compared the word-for-word accuracy of my retelling in my memoir of an intensely emotional conversation and then through out the question of why I would make anything up if my memory and perception were that good.
He also told the 2002 story of him and I going out shopping for Christmas presents for a needy family in New York .He bought them and I was supposed to deliver them in Brooklyn, and noted, without subtlety, that he had even questioned whether the gifts made it to the mother and kids. For me, as the subject of this life story of mine, it was a sad but insightful moment to see how a friend who was close to me was hurt in such a personal way, by my dishonesty. It hit Him hard, leaving him wondering about who and what he could trust on a personal level, in addition to questions about why I would not turn to him.
A couple of lines:
"I read his book and ingested all the coverage about the scandal after he was hired, and I still have no idea why he did what he did." He more or less grabbed a rope, tied it around his neck, tied the other end around all our feet at the newspaper, and then jumped."
In terms of explanations of what happened, it could not have been said better. In terms of why it happened, I'll left you knowwhen I finish figuring it out, I'll let you know.
"As it turned out, he deceived his editors and his readers, and brought tremendous shame to the paper. His caper was an ornate one and involved all sorts of machinations. I remain convinced that simply going and doing stories would have been easier, but then again, I'm not him."
He's right. It would not have been easier, but in the throes of a relapsing and remitting mental illness, logic goes out the window. Making things up was harder than doing the work, but admitting that I was sick and out of control was harder than making things up. Pride.
"When it became clear that a massive con was under way, I was dumbfounded. On the day he left, Gerald, the managing editor, was less worried about Jayson the journalist and more concerned about what might happen to Jayson the human being. He sent me out to look for him. I found him just down Forty-third Street with his friend Zuza. I was worried he might do himself harm and/or tip back over into crack. It was an emotional moment. Part of me wanted to strangle him for lying, lying to me about lying, but there was plenty of that to go around, so I thought I should show compassion. Later, when his book ... came out, that moment was in there. He describes standing there with Zuza spotting me ... Here's the weird thing: Give to take hyperbolic description, it was probably word-for-word what I said, better than anything I could have done from memory. This guy was in the middle of the worst day of his life, and months later he writes and book and remembers exactly what I said. It was like a parlor trick. When it came to write my book, I called Jayson and asked him how he did it."
By the end of that week, I had been caught in an enormous scandal, shamefully been on the cover of numerous publications, attempted suicide and been locked in a psychiatric hospital. The simple fact is that I held onto David's words for those days and weeks afterward, as a source of hope and strength when I seemed surrounded by darkness.
Needless to say, when David writes, I read. When he speaks, I listen. When I allow myself to hear and to listen, I learn.
Ignoring him as a writer, a person in recovery or a human being, is a bit like a young Padawan putting in ear plugs when Yoda walks in the room. In my family, there is a strict policy -- if you hear or see anything that David Carr said or wrote, alert me. Immediately.
So this Sunday, I got a call from my dad. He told me that Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist, was on CNN quoting David. In talking about the future of print journalism, Lopez quoted David saying, "I don't know what we're going to do about the future but I'm going to about the future, but I'm going to keep shooting until I'm out of bullets."
I The quote attributed to David-- which I had not heard before -- was a dead-on strategy for the best way to figure out what to do with the future of print journalism. The "go big or go home" mentality is immediate in both of our DNA sequences. The quote was not only a good philosophy for journalists, but it also made me think about a question that I have received often: why am I speaking so openly about my past after so many years of relative silence? I got that question most recently on a Tuesday night at Penang Restaurant in Washington, D.C., where about 20 black journalists had gathered to talk with each other and ask me questions.
It was not exactly, at least in the conception in my head as I was speeding east toward D.C. on the Dulles Toll Road that evening, the friendliest potential audience for me . It's not that I'm a proponent of racial discrimination, or that don't see the value of affirmative action and diversity programs or that I am a secret card carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, I am black. And, indeed, that is the problem. That, and the fact that they are professional journalists who feel their lives and their work was made harder by my actions. It's been a long winter of crisis for journalism, and I didn't help any. For minority journalists, that winter has been going on for decades, given slow integration and other problems in newsrooms.
In the end, the event led to a lot of thought provoking discussion. We did not get any closer to the answer of why I committed my misdeeds (we discussed the combination of character, youth, mental illness and conditions at the paper at the time, but recognized that all of those outside of character -- which was a primary and causal factor -- were secondary, co-related factors). The conversation was cordial, with the exception of a brief back-and-forth with Reginald Stuart, a good guy who was a former journalist at The Times and knew me when I was at the University of Maryland. Ron Nixon, an investigator reporter at The Times asked some tough but respectful questions about my personal responsibility. And even Warren Leary, a veteran Times reporter, was cordial to my face. Although, I'm pretty sure he compared me to Hitler in comments afterward.
We did, to my surprise, get into some current issues near-and-dear to my heart. Thanks to Amy Alexander, a journalist in attendance who co-wrote, with Alvin F. Poussaint, MD., the professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the groundbreaking book, Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis. We discussed the problems of underdiagnosis and poor mental health treatment in the African American community. We were able to talk about mental health in American newsrooms, and other workplaces. One person even pointed out how editors were used to quirky reporters with all sorts of phobias, obsessions and compulsions that were often used to add to the quality of "the reports,while those same qualities ate away at the lives of the journalists. We discussed how mania, in particular, can be a useful tool to reporters and editors. In hypomania, you can move like lightening, from source-to-source, block-to-block, city-to-city with great ease and little sleep. Bipolar can be a great quality for a reporter, until they become depressed or, worse, become psychotic. Some people speculate that this is what happened to Valerie Burgher, a black New York journalist, who was hit by a Brooklyn subway train and whose death was ruled a suicide.
According to a report in Newsday, Gary Dauphin, a Los Angeles writer who was her friend, said, "Her own difficulties in her a deep concern for regular people confronting implacable social forces an impersonal institutions."
We were able to discuss the ying-and-yang of mental illness in a workplace. An obsessive-compulsive news researcher, for example, might be at their best professionally right as they are losing control. Their quirks are tolerated and ignored as long as it is working to the benefit of the news organization. Manic energy would not be the worst quality for a police reporter who has to get around town at all hours of the day and night, and with lightening speed (that would be just the person to call to cover a shooting in East New York at 3 a.m., since they won't have slept and they will be fully rested) . That is, until they are agitated or irritable, and difficult to work with, or worse yet, depressed, and affected by the horrors around them. The talk also led one journalist whose family members had struggled with bipolar to talk with me about them, and two other journalists who were there to talk with me about their own struggles with depression.
After telling me of a beautiful setting far south of Washington where he went to deal with his depressions, one journalist said, "Let me know if you ever need a place to go."
As David was unsure about why I did what I did in 2002 and 2003, I'm unsure why I continue to talk about it when people ask me, but I do know a lot of good comes out of these conversations and my attempt to (as David put it) tie a rope around my neck and the other end around The Times and jump. So, as David put it, in the name of doing good, even if I don't see the clear rhyme or reason, I'm going to keep shooting until I run out of bullets.