'Cocaine's Son': A New York Times Writer's Memoir of Growing Up With a Drug-Addicted Dad
And oh, how I envied Dave. Having done my time in the trenches at Cosmo, I longed to write about what it was really like (no pillow fights, very little typing with wet nails ...) but feared burning bridges that I now realize were already torched. Now that his new memoir, "Cocaine's Son," is out, I'm a little less desirous of his particular hill.
One chapter recounts his father's overdose and hints that Dave's childhood was dusted with a fine blanket of Colombia's finest.
He describes -- as a boy of only eight -- how his dad would come into his room at night to tell him sex was a beautiful thing, offering to pay for a hooker should he ever need one.
His mom sat him down to explain his dad was addicted to coke, and they would be getting divorced, but the divorce never came. Finally, she told him, "We're not getting one after all. You can stop wetting the bed now."
And then there were his teen years. Even before Dave was old enough to score a driver's license, his dad would call from a flophouse, begging his son to pick him up -- since he couldn't remember how to get home. When Dave refused, his coked-up dad got irate.
Later, in his 20s, he would fetch his father from random SRO hotels in New York's then-gritty Garment District, where he'd be confronted by utter filth: porn mags on the floor, his dad's crusty, bloody nostrils. He wouldn't touch him, just lead him to the car by the sound of his voice.
The almost-final straw seems to pale in comparison: They had an argument. Dad was dismissive, and Dave finally vowed to distance himself. Only an intervention from his mom propelled him into therapy with his dad, a process that is maddening to read about since the elder Itzkoff seems to dominate every session.
As you'll see, ultimately, none of this stymied Dave. "Cocaine's Son" is a riveting read that will make you hug your parents and thank them for being only slightly mortifying. Itzkoff chatted with MyDaily about the memoir -- what it was like to write it and how he repaired his relationship with a dad seemingly as seductive, attractive and destructive as the drug itself.
MyDaily: It seems like every reviewer did what I did: flipped to the end first, read the note that you and your dad now have a great relationship, and said "What? How?" So, I mean ... what? How?
Dave Itzkoff: He's someone who really believes in unrepentant honesty. He really believes in telling the truth and understands that one person's perception of the truth can be very different from someone else's. As I prepared to do the essay in New York Magazine and then this book, he said, "You've got to write this in the way you've got to write this." My perspective might not please him or depict him in the most flattering light, but he's not someone who's in denial about these experiences. He's relentlessly confessional in that way.
Is it that he doesn't care what people are saying, as long as they're talking about him?
I don't think he's someone who needs to have people talking about him. When he feels strongly about something or has a story to relate, he'll make sure he relays it to you, but he's not someone who has to be the center of attention.
He really has no secrets. The things he chose to share with you, even as an eight-year-old, would make most parenting experts spit up.
The only way I could write a book like this is to write about someone who lives his own life this way. It would be different if I were writing about someone secretive. You don't want to open up someone's life n that way, in a way that seems vengeful.
Earl WilsonI was very struck by a particular event in the book: You refer, repeatedly, to this long-standing tale about your dad evading the draft in a particular way. But when you track down the primary sources, they tell quite a different story. Your dad's response is to shrug and say, "Shows you what I know." It must have driven you nuts, no?
It certainly shows you how a person's memory of an event can change over time, and how the telling gets changed for the next generation. A lot of my ideas about how I should behave was shaped by how he told that. Had it been told to me differently, might I have come to the same sense of him that I did after believing that account for so long?
I don't think he willfully misrepresented himself. When you've lived as long as he has and you've had the experiences he has, that's what happens. As he tells and retells the story, that's how it evolved. It wasn't malicious. He doesn't feel the tremendous reckoning that I do because the story didn't impact him the way it impacted me.
It's not like he was putting out a newspaper. He doesn't work in the media. The boundaries start to get fuzzy, your perception of events changes, and somewhere down the road you encounter something tangible from that, and you're reminded of what you did. But you can't hold that against someone knowing he had no intent to deceive me.
You say that in the book. You say that you were able to get past your anger when you realize he did what he did "without thinking and without malice." Does the latter outweigh the former?
There's a difference between someone doing something with the intent to hurt and someone who does it without realizing it.
But he's your dad. Doesn't that mean that, on some level, he doesn't get to not realize things?
Yes, but by that same virtue –- this is what the story is about –- that person is your dad. So you have to say, "I'm going to hold this over your head in perpetuity," or "I want to have a relationship with you as you are today, not how you were 20 years ago." That's something you see over the trajectory of the book. It's not something I came to easily or rapidly.
What finally did it?
It was entering into my own life as an adult, by way of my marriage. That puts a lot of stuff in the background. There's a different phase of your life that is commencing, you see yourself differently, your parents see you differently. There's also the acceptance that took a long time for me to reach, that he is a different person now. I can't think of him in the same sense than I did when he was in the throes of his addiction.
You don't mention programs, or how your dad got sober.
He doesn't do a 12-step thing now, but I don't want those programs to feel like they're being indicted. The fact that they didn't work for us has nothing to say about the quality of those programs –- it's specific to us, that for whatever reason we didn't succeed at them.
It was the same when we went into therapy together. It didn't take at the time, but you don't want someone reading it and saying, "The author says this doesn't work for anyone." Therapy can be very beneficial to others. As the sibling of a psychiatrist, I have a lot of faith in what she does.
Wow. You mentioned that your sister went to medical school, but you didn't say what she ended up doing. You work at The New York Times, your sister is a psychiatrist –- you guys are such successes in spite of the chaos of your upbringing.
What else can you do? When you grow up that way, you learn to take care of yourself, and you grow up quickly.
Why did you pick the short straw and end up going into therapy with your dad?
Because I was the one that had the falling out with him. I was the one ready to say "I don't want contact." That's pretty extreme, so my mother recognized I needed to be reined in with something more drastic than a conciliatory phone call.
Why did your mom stick with him and keep you all together, something you acknowledge in the dedication?
In the opening of the book, she's in a similar place -- she felt like she was at the end of her rope. [She decided to divorce him] and didn't go through with it. She had felt as I did, that her relationship with my father couldn't continue, and the fact that she got herself past that, maybe that's how she was able to make the case to me that I shouldn't give up on it.
She is an extremely conciliatory person, a bringer-together of people. That is not necessarily a quality my father and I exhibit. We have much shorter fuses.
What was it like to interview your dad?
If I didn't get it right the first time, I knew they were just a phone call away. Even at 7AM on a weekend, they were likely to take the call. Unless they were out walking the dogs.
But you never quite hammer down when or how he got sober.
No. There's not a date you can pinpoint and say, "This is the last day he was high, and this was the last day he was sober." There were long periods when he wasn't using, then a relapse, then a longer period of not using, and at a certain point it didn't occur again. And you keep hoping that latest streak continues.
Around the Web
- What Drives Men Away and What Attracts Them - YourTango
- Bill Clinton: It's Still the Economy, Stupid - The Daily Beast
- Do You Want to Know When Your Friends Run Into Your Ex? - The Frisky
- Would You Marry Someone Who Didn't Have a Job? - The Gloss
- And the City That Has the Most Sex Is ... - The Stir, CafeMom
- 3 Easy Ways to Keep Your Makeup Sweat-Proof This Summer - BellaSugar