Nowadays, Lowell native Richard Farrell has a good life going for himself. He's an adjunct professor of English at UMass Lowell. His 1995 HBO documentary High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell won him a duPont-Columbia University award. He's reported from the frontlines in the Balkans, and co-authored a book with an IRA gunrunner and Whitey Bulger associate (2007's A Criminal and an Irishman: The Inside Story of the Boston Mob-IRA Connection). And in recent weeks, as co-producer for the forthcoming Mickey Ward biopic The Fighter, he's been hanging out in his hometown with Christian Bale and David O. Russell.
But in order to write his scarifying new autobiography, What's Left of Us: A Memoir of Addiction (Citadel), Farrell put aside his happy current life and willfully submersed himself in his unhappy former life — a period, more than two decades ago, spent as a desperate, deceptive, thieving, sweating, shit-spewing, suppurating junkie.
"I wanted not to tell it as an adult narrator looking back," Farrell, 53, tells me by phone. "I wanted to try to go back there, as if it was happening at the moment, so that people could understand what it was like to be a fuckin' whacked-out junkie. Understand how crazy I was."
It was an emotionally excoriating process. "I couldn't sleep. There were times I was afraid to be around my wife and my little child. It was insanity to go back in there," Farrell says now. But it was something he felt he had to do.
"For years and years I've been haunted. These ghosts chase me. I go to bed at night and wake up covered in sweat. No matter what has happened to my life in 22 years, they just find me. It just got to the point where I said, you know what? I just have to tell the truth about what happened to me — and, more specifically, what happened that night when I found my father."
The evening in question took place in Lowell in 1984, in his family's home. While his mother was recovering in the hospital from a hysterectomy, Farrell walked into his parents' kitchen and found his father, in flagrante delicto, with a neighbor. The shock of discovery sent the old man into cardiac arrest. He writhed on the floor, his face turning hellish hues of purple and black, begging his son for nitroglycerin. But Farrell simply stood there and watched him die.
The elder Farrell could be a sadistic authoritarian. Well respected in Lowell, his son writes, at home he was prone to a temper. Once, when Farrell was in grade school, his father tied him to a chair and jabbed at him with an electric carving knife. The constant undercurrent of the father-son dynamic was the elder man's abiding disgust at the failure of his son, who was palsied as a child, to build himself into a Notre Dame football star.
And so, that night as his father gasped for air, Farrell looked into his bloodshot eyes and let him fade away; it was something he's never publicly admitted until the publication of this book.
Farrell had tried to please his father. He'd willed himself into a serviceable football player at Lowell High, but a severe leg injury and seven operations led to a dependence on pain killers. Following his father's death, his drug dependence eventually led to heroin.
By the time he was 30, in 1987, Farrell had a wife and two kids. He'd made a decent bit of money thanks to some savvy real estate deals. But he lost it all. As the guilt from his father's death corroded him, he sank deeper and deeper into addiction, drifting like a scabby phantom through Lowell's abandoned mills.
And so, one day, consumed with self-loathing, he loaded a syringe with as much heroin as it could hold and decided to kill himself. It didn't work. After being revived at the hospital, then arrested, he was sent to rehab.
He'd been there before. Each prior visit had been a short one, and ineffective. But this time would be different. Over seven days in detox, Farrell fought back and won. Writing with workmanlike terseness, he's unsparing in his descriptions of the place's ugly utilitarianism: the harsh fluorescent lighting, the torn window shades, the enema soap subbed in for shampoo, the cold and runny eggs, the coffee spiked with saltpeter to sap libido, the "dark brown overcooked chicken tenders swimming in ketchup."
He's equally good at limning sympathetic portraits of his cohort in treatment — such as "Crazy Mary," a coke whore who describes her avocation as "sucking white stuff for white stuff" with whom Farrell strikes up a genuinely meaningful mutual relationship, and "Doc" a grandfatherly alcoholic in horn-rimmed glasses who figures into one of the book's most harrowing scenes.
But the book's most affecting passages come from Farrell's visceral, often-disturbing descriptions of his own agonizing emergence from the darkness — of the horrifying physical (and, especially, psychological) toll his addiction and recovery took. We see him shooting up before visiting his kids. We cringe as he borrows a dealer's needle, caked with dry blood. We're shown, not told, the sweat-soaked, soul-shaking, diarrhea-dripping truth about going through withdrawal.