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

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

By / February 18, 2011

"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.

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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.

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.

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