Off-Color Confessions

Why one man's prison sentence is another man's book deal.

Posted:
 
book

Something about the widespread media coverage of David Carr's new memoir, The Night of the Gun, is bothersome. It is noteworthy that The New York Times columnist attempts to correct an unfortunate trend of exaggerated or fictitious redemptive memoirs like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (2003). Carr did well to take a reporter's approach to his years of crack addiction—he interviewed dozens of his relatives and friends who knew him before he kicked his habit, and he's got medical documentation to back up all of his claims.

The book is also packed with dramatic disclosures. It is shocking, for example, that the writer can admit to handing his future baby mama a crack pipe right before her water breaks.

Still, if David Carr were black, would he have had the third, fourth and umpteenth chance to work in his industry? Would he have continued to climb the career ladder and sailed off into the sunset? Would he now be publicly celebrated for this memoir of desperation that the Chicago Sun-Times calls "immensely readable" and "compelling"?

From People magazine to the New York Observer, the media gush over Carr's exploration of a typically stigmatizing force should make us question some of the rules that are made in our society and how white privilege can override all of them.

Carr's story is unquestionably unique, and he is clearly a gifted writer. But there are shelves full of such gritty, candid tales by white authors, from Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison's beautiful story of living with manic depression in An Unquiet Mind (1995), to Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation (2002). Reviews of such books are often written in an awe-struck tone, replete with words like "astonishing" and "courageous."

Redemption stories featuring black protagonists are not as plentiful. Perhaps because they tend to be received differently. The canon of black folks baring souls about the difficulties of chemical dependency or growing up in the midst of addiction was epitomized by Claude Brown's 1965 classic, Manchild in the Promised Land. In 2006, Cupcake Brown, a former foster kid, prostitute and addict turned attorney, published her life story, A Piece of Cake. A review was published inside The New York Times' arts section and the book got some coverage in San Francisco. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's Willow Weep For Me (1998)—marketed as the first memoir of a black woman surviving clinical depression and alcohol addiction—was published to some acclaim. Before that, a few brave women told their personal stories of overcoming addiction in the groundbreaking The Black Women's Health Book, edited by Alice Walker's official biographer, Evelyn C. White.

No matter how harrowing and raw the tale, these stories by black writers simply don't break through to mass acclaim. Perhaps readers and reviewers find something more novel about white people who have battled addiction or managed their chemical imbalances, only to be redeemed through Betty Ford-style rehabilitation or prescribed the right meds.

As the child of a mother with bipolar disorder, I know the hushed tones and shame that accompany black testimony in relation to our blues. Some book agents and peers have shrugged off my story, suggesting that there is "nothing new" about black people who suffer from various addictions and illnesses, as if we all somehow have a genetic predisposition to dysfunction. Indeed, in late July, a South Carolina judge was reprimanded for calling crack addiction "a black man's disease."

Black folks may still be hesitant to tell our stories of recovery and reveal the less than stellar details of our lives, largely because of the widespread perception that we are naturally inclined to be depraved, drug-addicted or crazy.

Some black writers may also rightly feel that there are enough black crack narratives on the nightly news. But telling these stories have served a unique role in black culture. Dolly McPherson, literary executor of Dr. Maya Angelou's papers at Wake Forest University, wrote in "Order out of Chaos" (1990), a study of Angelou's autobiographical works, that black writers have used everything from slave narratives to tales of gaining our freedom after slavery to validate our existence in America. She points out that since blacks were legally permitted to write, they have used autobiography as "a means to present a corrective image to the social and political trends and moral drives and spiritual needs of black people."