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.