photo : Bart Nagel
A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction
By David Sheff
326 pages. Houghton Mifflin Company. $24.
By JANET MASLIN
Addiction is a compulsion to do the same thing over and over, despite knowing that the outcome will almost certainly be the same. Addiction memoirs often illustrate this same definition of insanity. They follow the same arc, voice the same helplessness and arrive at the same set of conclusions. Yet the genre itself remains so addictive that readers keep hoping to discover something new.
There are reasons to hope that David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy” will be exceptional. For one thing, it is one of the rare books selected for sale by Starbucks; somebody thinks it is riveting enough to capture the interest of a caffeinated clientele. For another, its subject is methamphetamine addiction, which exerts such body-snatching effects on those who succumb to it. A cycle of madness and decline prompted by crystal meth goes well beyond the horrors of garden-variety substance abuse.
What’s more, “Beautiful Boy” is heightened by a medical emergency that befell Mr. Sheff as well as the drama surrounding his son Nic Sheff. In the midst of weathering the grief and worry that came with watching Nic deteriorate, the senior Mr. Sheff suffered a brain hemorrhage. Did the son’s addiction and recidivism contribute to the father’s health crisis? In the words of one of the many therapists who drift through this book, often to frustratingly little effect for the Sheffs, “Well, it sure didn’t help.”
This story’s emphasis depends on which Sheff is telling it. Nic has written his own book, “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” (Ginee Seo Books/Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). It is being published concurrently with “Beautiful Boy,” though it’s not a Starbucks book selection. Nic’s version is rougher, slangier and more in keeping with his literary tastes, which favor Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Camus and Bukowski.
“Somehow the idea of being this drug-fueled, outsider artist has always been really appealing to me,” Nic writes in “Tweak” while detailing the hard drugs, street life and criminal activity about which his father could only guess.
The older Mr. Sheff approaches the family story more conventionally, with more of the baby boom parent’s standard narcissism. As a father he is inclined to place himself tearfully at the center of Nic’s troubles. “People outside can vilify me,” he writes. “They can criticize me. They can blame me. Nic can. But nothing they can say or do is worse than what I do to myself every day. ‘You didn’t cause it.’ I do not believe it.”
So he traces Nic’s unhappiness back to his own divorce — and to his own drug use, which he once regarded as a relatively harmless recreation. Now he is mortified that he ever found Hunter S. Thompson funny and that he tried father-son marijuana smoking as a way of bonding with Nic.
In their overlapping accounts, which share many painful details (Nic stole from both of his trusting, younger half siblings), the trouble escalates with sad inevitability. According to “Beautiful Boy,” the father saw early signs of his son’s problems but was easily assuaged by the boy’s excuses. And there were few useful guidelines that the father could follow. (“Is your child suddenly volunteering to clean up after cocktail parties but forgetting his other chores?” asked one list of warning signs on which the father tried to rely.) By the time the police appeared to take Nic away in handcuffs, the father realized how much he had managed to ignore — and how irreversible Nic’s problems might be.
“When I am alone,” the father writes, “I weep in a way that I have not wept since I was a young boy.” He is driven to this misery by realizing how insidiously meth addiction affects brain chemistry, how rarely it is successfully treated and how maddeningly close Nic comes to recovery, staying clean for long periods before abruptly relapsing. The reportorial side of “Beautiful Boy” explores the likelihood of a cure and comes up with little reason for hope. “There’s never going to be a drug that will make you check the peephole before you answer the door, so if it’s your dealer you won’t answer it,” one researcher tells the father.
The preliminary version of “Beautiful Boy” was a tough 2005 article in The New York Times Magazine, “My Addicted Son.” In expanding it into a book Mr. Sheff added some of the warm, fuzzy dailiness of family life to an otherwise stark portrait (both “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak” describe rituals like carpooling), and, inevitably, he lost some certitude. The article ended with the hope that Nic might finally have outrun his demons; the book ends on a less resolute but perhaps more realistic note. Among Mr. Sheff’s conclusions: Nic might have benefited from being forced into rehab when his parents were still legally able to compel him to go, if only to keep him substance-free during a critical phase of adolescent development. It also ends with the demonstrably true idea that it is therapeutic both to read and to write stories like the Sheffs’.
On the long, crowded shelf of addiction memoirs “Beautiful Boy” is more notable for sturdiness and sense than for new insight. Even when paired with “Tweak” for a two-faceted look at the same events, it is not unprecedented. (“From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle With Teen Drinking,” about the drastically different perspectives of Chris Volkmann and her son Toren, remains a particularly visceral parent-child cautionary tale.) And on the subjects of parental worry, guilt and mourning, the singer Judy Collins wrote “Sanity & Grace” with exemplary wisdom. Compared with these more specialized books, “Beautiful Boy” has the advantage only when it comes to Starbucks-generated prominence.
“Beautiful Boy” does illustrate how the most clichéd insights into addiction can also be the most accurate. Nothing here is more succinct than what Nic’s little brother says when he tries to explain addiction. “It’s like in cartoons when some character has a devil on one shoulder,” the boy says, “and an angel on the other.”