When legendary New York Times media reporter David Carr died suddenly in 2015, the journalism world mourned in highly public fashion, including an outpouring of tributes on Twitter and a funeral attended by the likes of Lena Dunham and Stephen Colbert. But, privately, Carr’s death was life-altering to the self-proclaimed “biggest David Carr fan ever”: up-and-coming documentarian Erin Lee Carr, one of his three daughters, then 26.
“I woke up the next morning certain I was dying too,” Carr writes in her new memoir, All That You Leave Behind, released on Tuesday, an unsparingly honest portrait of their intensely close father-daughter relationship, including a shared passion for media and a joint struggle with alcohol addiction. While David was sober for the majority of her life, Erin says she made the difficult decision to tell some of the previously unheard stories of her famous father’s relapses in her book, as well as provide an unflinching look at how she turned to alcohol after his death.
“This book is in tribute to him and also for people to experience him in a new way, as a dad, as somebody in recovery,” Carr told Vogue in a phone interview. And, for fans of her father, the memoir also means “more of his words out there in the ecosystem.”
For Erin, director of HBO documentaries including Mommy Dead and Dearest and the forthcoming At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal and I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, Carr’s shocking death prompted a near-forensic look back at her father’s most personal writing of all: their years-long shared correspondence, a trove of 1,936 emails, plus texts and Google chats, which she pours into All That You Leave Behind. They reveal that Carr wasn’t just a father to Erin but a mother (she is estranged from her mom) and a mentor, too. “I need you in my corner just as bad as you need me,” David tells her in one note.
All That You Leave Behind can be considered a companion to David’s own brutal, beautifully written 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun (which is being adapted into an AMC series by Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk), the harrowing account of his past crack abuse and raising baby Erin and her twin sister, Meagan, as a single father on government assistance in his native Minnesota. But All That You Leave Behind also stands entirely on its own, on Erin’s merits as a frank, intimate storyteller; it is proof that, in the wake of her father’s death, she has continued to find her voice.
Carr spoke with Vogue about being branded “David Carr’s kid”; the blessing and curse of the public grieving your loved one; forging on in her career after her dad’s death; and how sobriety is proving to be a gift in her life.
You’re a documentarian by trade. How did you decide to write a book about your relationship with your dad?
In the weeks after his death, one of the only things that created any sort of solace was reading through his emails, listening to a voicemail, looking at his Twitter. It makes me hear his voice. I was like, “These are a lot of emails. I wonder how normal it is for people to write their kids like this?” I asked a few friends, and they said, “No, that’s pretty David Carr–specific.” This book is in tribute to him and also for people to experience him in a new way, as a dad, as somebody in recovery.
You were incredibly honest in the book. You write about your dad’s relapses. You talk about tough things he did and said to you. You couldn’t ask him if he would be okay with sharing it, so how did you decide to?
It was horrendous, because if you’re signing up to write a memoir, people are not like, “Hey, tell me seven-tenths of the story.” I guess I was buoyed by the fact that he had been so brutally honest with himself for his book, but when it came to his relapse, that was private information that people didn’t really know. In sobriety, there’s a rule. You don’t talk about other people’s sobriety. I went through multiple drafts of it, I sent it to my family, I sent it to a couple of close confidantes he had to see if my recollection was correct. But I will not tell you that it sits within me nicely. I feel deep conflict about it. I think it was the right thing to do, but it really wasn’t the easy thing to do.
But putting your dad’s private writing out there also means we get to see what an amazing father he was in so many ways.
He was insanely busy, but he found time to mentor me and to say things that would keep me afloat. It’s great that I stand here, doing my fifth feature with HBO, but it was not gonna end up like this if he had not mentored me. I was very close to falling off the side of the cliff many times.
The book shows that you didn’t just lose your dad but also your mentor. And you asked yourself: How can I go on in my career without him? It looks like you’re doing pretty well, but how is that going?
It’s a really weird, dark thought that I’ve had. He got to see my first film, but my second film was a lot wider, Mommy Dead and Dearest. And then I did something for Netflix called Dirty Money that was intellectually so rigorous, and now I have these two films coming out. Is there something here where I had to stop being mentored by him? Because I was always going to rely on him. I was constantly calling my dad, emailing him, asking for his feedback. Where was my own insight in that process? Once I no longer had that, it was like, “Oh, I actually have to listen to myself.” It’s something I think he’d actually be okay with.
At one point after your dad’s death, you asked yourself a very blunt question: Is my success because of him?
He wanted to help me, but he didn’t want me to be “David Carr’s kid.” He was very clear with me: “I can get you in a room. It is dependent on you and your behavior how long you stay in that room.” I always knew that I could be tossed out at a moment’s notice. I think that nepotism drives people wild, and I had to be very clear about it. My dad told me, “You can be anything in this world, but you can’t be lazy.” I was like, “I am going to work hard and stay in this room at all costs.”
You write about the anguish of your dad’s passing being splashed all over Twitter while you were still at the hospital on the night he died. You also said when friends were mourning David Bowie’s death, “What right do we have to mourn a man that we didn’t know?” Is it a blessing and a curse to have to share your dad with the world? Or just a curse?
I was really upset when people commodified the death of Anthony Bourdain. There's one part of honoring these people and what they brought to our life, and there's another where you get tons of likes if you post a tribute to someone you've never met. The family is trying to figure out their own loss without bringing in the public, and I had to deal with one-thousandth of what Anthony Bourdain’s family must have felt. In the first six months, it just made me mad. A couple of people who said they were really close to him ended up not being . . . that was strange. But, as time went on and people talked to me about The Night of the Gun and [the 2011 Times documentary] Page One, I was like, “I love this.” I love that he’s not just somebody that you read in the Times and now you forget about him. He’s somebody whose ideas and thoughts, and who he was, persist. That feels really important to me as somebody who is the biggest David Carr fan ever.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to continue his legacy or that people who were close to him also want to be close to you?
It was a big pressure early on because a lot of his friends sought me out. But I remember my dad would connect me to people on email, and he was like, “Reminder, this is my Rolodex. This is my friend, this is not your friend.” When I was 22 years old, he sent me on a coffee with Lena Dunham, and she’s like, “You should be a PA on Girls!” And I was like, “Are you buying me a sandwich?” I was one of the worst fucking idiots that ever lived. My dad did the work and had the perch of The New York Times, and while I can be part of [people’s] connection to him, I am a cheaper substitute, and I fully acknowledge that.
You studied your dad in a new light, as a subject for the book. Did you learn anything about him that wasn’t as clear to you before?
Yeah. I thought I had white girl, boring alcoholism, and that I got close to the edge, and my dad pulled me back by my collar, and nothing that bad happened. And in reporting out this book and thinking about sobriety and my alcoholism, and his alcoholism . . . he very clearly saw me as an alcoholic. He was trying to be like, “Hey, eat before drinking, sleep before going out.” When I moved to London, he was like, “You are a long ways from home, and bad things can happen if you do not watch out for yourself.” One email was like, “Mistakes of hubris and excess will follow you.” He couldn’t intervene because I needed to see it myself, but he was trying to protect me from myself.
Addiction is one of the things you shared with him.
Inheritance. Thanks a lot, Dad.
Is there a push and pull between being outgoing and being a storyteller, like he was, but sharing this struggle with him, too?
Let me think about that for a second. [pause] I never blamed him or my mom for my own struggle with substances, because it’s just an inherent, genetic component. They did not set alcohol in front of me at 12 and be like, “It's time to get started!” It was a conscious choice for me to interact with alcohol, and then it became I couldn’t not have it. I’ve been three-and-a-half years sober, had some time to reflect, and sobriety is something that brings a lot of clarity to my professional life, to my interpersonal life. Honestly, it’s like a superpower or a gift. Now I see it as an inheritance that has been truly magical. As I’m finishing up the sex abuse in gymnastics film for HBO that’ll be out May 3, I got to, for the first time, sit down with people and ask them these deep questions about themselves, knowing that I had done the same things to myself.
Your dad was the heart of your family, and you wonder in the book how you would continue to be a family without him. How has that played out in the years since he died for you and your sisters (Meagan and Maddie Carr) and your stepmom, Jill?
Once you lose the nucleus of your family, it will be irrevocably altered, and I believe that to be. It’s not just that I lost a mentor or a friend, but I lost my mom, too. He really was my mom. My stepmom was my stepmom. My mom, I haven’t seen her in, I think, 15 years. And so I suddenly felt like I did not have parents. And it was really difficult for my twin sister because she wants us to all exist as a family and do holidays together, business as usual. But I fucking hate the holidays. I don’t like being there without him. It’s not like it stings less. I have a boyfriend, and I prefer going to his family because there isn’t this trauma associated with it. But bit by bit, year by year, we’re trying to get better at it. Now my stepmom has dogs, and I really recommend dogs for any family. It’s like, “Oh, look at that fluffster. He’s such a goofball.” We just need something innocent to take care of and focus on.
I imagine that losing your dad is something that’s going to be part of your life forever. How would you describe the place you’re in now, four years after his death?
I started dating someone, and we were acting like the best versions of ourselves the first three months . . . and then, three months later, I was constantly bringing up my dad. He was like, “Wait, do you think about your dad this much?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, absolutely.” This is years later. My dad had this incredible way of imprinting on us. Where it used to be this genuine, deep sadness, now for me it’s curiosity, and it’s like, “What would he think?” I was really upset that I did the book at first, and now I’m like, “I got to spend a couple of years thinking about somebody I love a lot.” What a great, deep privilege to have.
This interview has been edited and condensed.