Interview with Dave Itzkoff, author of "Cocaine's Son"

Can a former junkie and his son find happiness together through couples therapy?

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    "I sometimes feel like [our experience] should carry some big Surgeon General’s warning on the side: This is not recommended for anybody," says Itzkoff.
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It would be an understatement to say that their relationship got off to a rocky start. Throughout most of Dave Itzkoff's childhood and early adult years, his father was a drug addict. Itzkoff – who today reports on culture for The New York Times – learned far too young what it's like to be lied to by someone you love.

By the time Itzkoff was an adult – and his father had gotten sober – Itzkoff wondered if their relationship was too damaged for repair. But before writing it off, he and his father decided to try couples therapy. After that, they sat down together while his father told Itzkoff the story of his life.

Against the odds, the two were able to mend their fences. The result is Cocaine's Son, a bruising, honest, and surprisingly humorous memoir. I recently had the chance to talk with Itzkoff about his book, his father, and their hard-won détente.

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What motivated you to write this book?

It was a sequence of events. It began with a book that I had written in 2004 called “Lads,” which was about my working in men’s magazines. My father was a character in that book. The book ends right at the point at which he and I decided to go into couples therapy together. I had pitched a story about that to New York magazine. They were interested in a broader piece about what it was like to be the child of a drug addict and that became an essay that they published in 2005. They gave me 6,000 or 7,000 words for that but I still wasn’t able to tell the therapy story that I really wanted to tell. So when I saw the opportunity to write the book, I knew that would ... give us the opportunity to do something more.

You expose your father and his drug use in a very personal way in this book. How does he feel about that?

This is not something I would be able to undertake if he hadn’t encouraged me. When the opportunity came up to do the New York magazine essay, and when this book presented itself, he and I spoke about it. First of all, [I asked him]: "Can I write about this? Do I have [your] permission?" And then, if it’s not already clear from how he’s portrayed in this book, he is kind of a relentlessly honest person. He’s not necessarily proud of everything that he did and that occurred when he was an active drug user. But he would never deny that those things occurred and throughout this process he told me that I have to tell the story the way that I experienced it and he understands that that’s not always going to be the way that he would like to remember it or the way that he would like to be depicted. But he feels that I have the right to do that.

You and your dad used some unusual methods to work out your relationship. Would you recommend them to others?

I don’t know if it’s advisable for others. I think it’s very dependent on the circumstances. I sometimes feel like [our experience] should carry some big Surgeon General’s warning on the side: This is not recommended for anybody!

I think it has to do with our personalities and the way the two of us relate to each other. I think some of the more traditional methods of dealing with addiction and family strain are time-tested, but they’re not as effective for us because we’re just really stubborn people and we’re always thinking five steps ahead of everyone, [wondering], “How can we outsmart the system,” thinking that we already know better than they do what we need to do.

I think [also] we had just exhausted every other outlet. We had to go well beyond the boundaries of what everybody else did simply because nothing else had worked. I don’t know if we even knew what we meant to get out of it at the time. We knew that it would be interesting. We knew that we would learn things about each other. We knew that we would get into fights and that it would create other stresses on us. We were both kind of bracing ourselves for all of that.

One of the most amazing things about your story is the fact that your parents stayed married through all of it. But your mother doesn't appear much in the book. It made me wonder: Is she kind of the unsung hero?

I don’t think she’s unsung – I think she’s sung! Not only did I dedicate this book to her but I think that her suggestion that we go into therapy at least held us together on the right path at a critical moment. At that time, at least for myself, I was ready to say, “This is not a relationship I want to be part of anymore” and the fact that she was invested enough to say, “Don’t give up yet,” that meant a lot to me and that was sufficient incentive to stick with it. So yes, in that sense I completely agree with you that she is the hero of the story and I hope I gave her her due for that.

She’s much more conflicted about my writing about these things than my father is. And that’s understandable. She sees my father in a different light than anybody else would and she’s very protective of him. Anything that sort of puts him out there that way or depicts him as this person that he hasn’t been for a while, she sees that as in some way trying to get revenge on him. I think my father sees it differently. This is not an accusatory work. But for it to have any payoff it does require you to relive some very difficult experiences that we went through.

Is this experience unique to you and your father or does your book offer lessons for other people as well?

I hope there are elements of [our story] that are universal. Because my father was willing to let me scrutinize him and scrutinize us together in a really kind of brave and unique way, hopefully others will see more universal elements of a father-son or parent-child relationship in the specifics of what he and I went through. Hopefully there are things that people can relate to: that the trajectory [of our relationship] was very up and down along the way at many stages of our lives; that our development did not end when I went off to college or graduated from college or got my first job; that [our relationship] is something that’s perpetually a work in progress.

Was it hard to write this book?

Only in the sense in that it took me a long time. It happened to come together at a time when I starting to get sucked into the gravity of The New York Times, and trying to organize my time was very challenging. That was the hardest part. But ... it was never uncomfortable or a struggle to get the words out.

What’s next? Will you write another memoir?

I don’t think so. I think to have two memoirs before the age of 35 would put a large burden on No. 3, don’t you think? I can’t anticipate what’s going to happen to me next but I’d like to think that I’m going to lead a life that’s not really memoir-worthy and that would be fine!

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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