The fighter

Richie Farrell’s heroin addiction nearly killed him, but he lived to write about it

By Mark Shanahan
Boston Globe
August 18, 2009

LOWELL – Richard Farrell looks uneasy, gripping the steering wheel with both hands as he pulls up to St. Patrick’s Church.

“This street was all dealers,’’ he says, stopping the car in the shadow of the granite steeple. “I scored two [expletive] bags of dope right here before giving the eulogy at my father’s funeral.’’

Farrell is well acquainted with the dark corners of the Mill City, where he was born and, more than once, almost died of an overdose. A former heroin addict, Farrell has put his grim experiences to good use, directing an award-winning documentary, “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell,’’ and writing a gritty new memoir.

The book – whose title, “What’s Left of Us,’’ is tattooed in tiny script on the author’s left bicep – is Farrell’s story of getting straight with other rogues at a dreary state-run detox. It’s already drawn interest from filmmakers attracted to the book’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’-like quality.

“The thing about Richie Farrell is this – his story isn’t [phony],’’ says screenwriter Scott Silver, a Worcester native whose credits include “8 Mile’’ and “The Fighter,’’ filming now in Lowell. “Richie conveys the rawness of what he went through without romanticizing it.’’

Farrell plays a small role in “The Fighter,’’ which stars Mark Wahlberg as boxer “Irish’’ Micky Ward and Christian Bale as Ward’s half-brother Dicky Eklund. Farrell is a character in the film because Eklund, a recovering addict and onetime boxer, was featured in Farrell’s documentary.

“I had no ambition when I was growing up here, none,’’ says Farrell, driving past his childhood home in the working-class neighborhood known as The Acre. “It’s amazing I’m still here.’’

Life didn’t figure to be easy for Farrell, who barely survived his own birth 52 years ago. He came out feet first and, deprived of oxygen for several minutes, suffered brain damage that weakened the right side of his body.

Farrell’s domineering and abusive father, an English teacher at Lowell High School, was embarrassed by his son’s limp.

“No kid of his was going to be a cripple,’’ says Farrell, who was forced to lift weights, run, and stretch everyday.

The terrifying relationship with his father is the centerpiece of Farrell’s memoir, and it was one of the reasons he became an addict. He tried heroin for the first time the day his dad died in 1984. (He was already hooked on painkillers after a series of knee surgeries.) Three years later, at the age of 31, Farrell and a couple of his junkie friends huddled in an abandoned mill building and tried to kill themselves by overdosing.

“I insert the needle – there’s a little sting – pull back on the plunger, and a dash of red-blue blood snakes up the middle of the clear liquid,’’ Farrell writes. “A direct hit. Nothing left to do.’’

His two cronies later did die under different circumstances, but Farrell, who was married with two children, somehow survived. He was taken first to a hospital and then to a bleak rehab whose madcap patients – they’re called Crazy Mary, Murph, Doc, and Downtown Rolly Brown in the book – are an amusing antidote to Farrell’s agonizing recovery.

“I don’t have to read it because I lived it,’’ says Farrell’s 74-year-old mother, Margaret, a former sixth-grade teacher in Lowell. “I’m just glad Richard was able to get [his story] out. It’ll burn a hole in your gut if you don’t.’’

“What’s Left of Us’’ ends with Farrell finally kicking his heroin habit, but the later chapters of his life are no less compelling.

Starting over in the late 1980s, he studied writing and filmmaking at Middlesex Community College and Emerson College, and then set out to make a documentary about crack users in Lowell. The film, which aired in 1995 on HBO, is an excruciating close-up of three derelicts, including Eklund, whom Farrell had known since childhood.

A former fighter who famously nearly beat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, Eklund was by then a full-blown addict shuttling between crack houses and a concrete lock-up. Carrying a video camera, Farrell spent months following Eklund, once arriving just after he’d leapt from a second-floor window to evade police.

“High on Crack Street’’ won a DuPont-Columbia Award but was not well received by city and state officials, who complained that it cast Lowell in a negative light. Scott Harshbarger, then the attorney general, even wrote a letter to HBO asking that the film not be broadcast.

“I was suddenly [expletive] evil,’’ says Farrell. “I was the guy who sold out my city.’’

One person who didn’t object to the documentary was Ed Davis, Lowell’s police chief at the time. Davis, now the police commissioner of Boston, said Farrell’s film was difficult to watch, but factual.

“Everyone was upset because Richie was reporting on something damaging to the city’s reputation,’’ Davis says. “But we need to be honest about addiction and its price. That movie set the stage for us making an argument that Lowell, in particular, needed assistance from the federal government, and we got it.’’

The movie eventually caught the eye of Wahlberg, who had long wanted to play a boxer on the big screen, and was a fan of “Irish’’ Micky Ward and Eklund.

“Certainly, ‘High on Crack Street’ affected me,’’ says Wahlberg, who had seen firsthand the scourge of addiction while growing up in Dorchester. “How could you not be affected, seeing what drugs could do to a person, especially a fighter like Dicky Eklund?’’

At 52, Eklund is clean, at least temporarily. In the spring, he and Ward flew to Los Angeles to help Wahlberg train for “The Fighter,’’ and he works out with Farrell twice a week at the Gold’s Gym in Chelmsford.

“Elbows in! Don’t fly away on me, Richie!’’ Eklund hollers as he leads Farrell around the ring, occasionally showboating with a little shuffle. “Ten more like that, Richie, let’s go!’’

Farrell, who still walks with a noticeable limp, winces with exhaustion as he pursues Eklund. His weak jabs are missing, and Eklund warns Farrell that he’s leaving himself open to a big right hand.
“No one ever hit me harder than my father,’’ Farrell says afterward, “but Dicky’s deadly.’’

Lucky for Farrell, he isn’t fighting to survive anymore. He lives with his new wife and 3-year-old son in Milford, N.H., far from the fetid canals and dilapidated triple-deckers of his youth. He’s already at work on the screenplay for “What’s Left of Us,’’ and promises his next book will pick up where this one leaves off.

“I’m going to write about me forever,’’ he says, “because it’s a [expletive] good story.’’

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