Some people might inherit a dimpled chin from their father, or perhaps a mother’s stubbornness. But we also see the shadows of their lives before us cast upon our own paths to adulthood.
These are the shadows that Leah Carroll explores in her new book, Down City. The story is a reckoning, a search to understand an addicted mother who was murdered by cocaine dealers with ties to the Rhode Island mafia when Carroll was just four years old, as well as a father plagued by alcoholism and depression until his early death when she was 18.
In equal measure tenderly nostalgic and honest, Down City explores a daughter coming to terms with her parents as full humans with choices, mistakes, and lives (and deaths) of their own against the backdrop of seedy yet hardy early 80’s Rhode Island.
Carroll writes that her search for the truth was one of “a lonely impulse of delight,” as quoted from the Yeats poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.”
The author will read from Down City at the Brookline Booksmith on July 6. I caught up with her beforehand to ask about her truth-finding process and more.
Was there anything that really surprised you in the process of writing this book?
There were … I had always understood that Rhode Island is a very singular place, it’s a small place, and people stay there forever. It’s one of those places where, if you meet someone from Rhode Island, it only takes one or two steps to find a connection.
Right, like when you first met your husband who is also from Rhode Island and immediately knew 10 different people in common.
Exactly! I had always known that, but when I started going through all these archival documents and newspaper articles, just seeing the connections in people’s lives that I knew was just … insane. Going through all the legal documents and seeing all these names that I knew, police officers that I knew who would go to the bar with my dad, and the ways in which everything was so connected, even though my parents’ deaths happened 14 years apart. Their lives were so interwoven into the history of Rhode Island in that specific time. The connections blew my mind.
How was it melding together interviews and research like your father’s autopsy report with your own personal memoir?
I had so much research, and I had to give up a lot of that research in the end for the sake of being able to tell a story. It was a little weird from a technical perspective. I realized there were two storylines: my childhood storyline and the storyline of me as an adult looking through all this stuff. Trying to find a way to connect those and try as best as I could to make a seamless narrative required a lot of drafts. [I] decided to do this thing a little bit strange which is where the past narrative, the childhood narrative, is told in the present tense and the adult narrative is told in the past tense to differentiate them.
The documents were really helpful in telling about my mom’s death and the total lack of regard for her and the mess they made of her trial. I thought that my dad’s autopsy report was very telling because he had left me a suicide note. I wanted to find out if he had killed himself or killed himself slowly, which is really what he had done. In the autopsy report you can really see the destruction he did to his body.
In the process of going back and uncovering your own life as well as those of your parents, what was most difficult to put words to?
I grew up very close to my grandmother, and it was difficult for me to read the police reports where my grandmother had been informed of things. It’s not that I had never thought about it, but seeing clearly that she had lost a daughter, seeing the police describe her as “frantic,” seeing them describe coming to her house and telling her that the body had been found … that was really tough.
My grandmother has Alzheimer’s now, but she is just the most wonderful, caring, happy person. This was the most devastating thing to happen to her. We tend to think of our parents and our grandparents as just that: parents and grandparents. It was surprising and enlightening to look at them as people and to realize everything they had gone through.
The title, Down City, is for the part of Providence where your father worked and spent a lot of his time, right? What is it like to go back and visit there now?
It was a center of industry at one point, but by the late ’70s early ’80s it was blighted. The motel where my father died was there as well. One of the most telling things (a story I didn’t get to tell in the book that I think is very fascinating) is that this motel/strip club/ pay by the hour kind of rooming house hotel [where he died] is now a very nice boutique hotel. They did a beautiful beautiful job renovating it. I talked to the people who had the idea to take over the building and they had some before photos. Seeing the photos and seeing what they did with the hotel was very illustrative of Providence and the ways it’s come along.
You say in the book that you looked for repetition, stories or anecdotes about your parents that many people repeated. Could you tell me a little more about what that repetition means to you, why it’s important?
The repetition was important … because nobody talked about this, especially my mom’s death, for so long … there was a silence about it. There was an element of it where people wanted to forget it. They created a narrative about my mom that was very angelic. But my mom was wild! That was part of her personality. She was loud and she was funny and she maybe actively courted danger when she shouldn’t. That was a whole new way of seeing her.
Another thing I would hear over and over again was that she and my dad were such a match. My mom was the only one who could say, “shut up Kevin,” because my dad would always command a room.
Would you say this book has been a process to uncover your parents as people and … forgive isn’t the right word, but maybe come to a reckoning with them?
I don’t think … I didn’t need to forgive them. My mother … was so young when she died and in the prosecution of the people who killed her, her life was treated like a bargaining chip, like it meant nothing.
It was really important for me to reclaim her memory and say yes, she was a drug addict, yes, she was all of these things, but none of that matters. Our flaws are what make us who we are. Who knows what she could have been? She never had the chance.
And I’ve always been writing about my dad. He was a huge part of my life. There would be nobody who would be more thrilled about having a book written about him. He was the one who encouraged my love of writing and literature.
They were an absence in my life, but they were such a presence. This book is a concrete way to celebrate them, while still talking about the things that were difficult in their lives.
LEAH CARROLL: DOWN CITY. THURS JULY 6. 7PM/FREE. BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH, BROOKLINE. BROOKLINEBOOKSMITH.COM