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by David Sheff
Houghton Mifflin, 2008
Review by Christian Perring on Jun 3rd 2008

Beautiful Boy

In Beautiful Boy, David Sheff describes his experience as a father with a son addicted to crystal meth.  Sheff and his family live in northern California, near San Francisco; Sheff is divorced from his son's mother, and remarried with two younger children.  Sheff makes his living as a writer, publishing articles in many wide-circulation magazines and books on cultural phenomena: his interview, the last ever, with John Lennon, the rise of capitalism in China, the rise of Nintendo, and another on the evolution of the Mario Brothers game.  He is a talented writer who knows how to keep the energy level up while also delivering plenty of information. 

Memoirs by addicts about their addictions are nearly always disheartening and draining, since addicts so reliably fail to stick to their own resolutions, and lie to everyone, including themselves.  It is not much easier reading a memoir by a family member of an addict, although the dynamics are a little different.  Sheff looks back at his son's Nic's life in hindsight, wondering how the road to addiction could have been avoided.  Sheff's first marriage only lasted a few years, and before long, Nic's mother moved down to Los Angeles, so the young boy was traveling splitting his time between two parents in different cities.  Was this too much strain on Nic?  When Nic is still a preteen, Sheff takes him to see a concert by Nirvana; as a father, should he have been more disapproving of a rock star addicted to heroin?  When Nic is an adolescent, Sheff tells him about his own drug use in high school and college -- should he have lied?  When Sheff first knew that Nic was taking drugs in high school, should he have put him in rehab?   

The bulk of the memoir consists of Sheff waiting at home for Nic to return, or at least for Nic to phone to that they can know he is not dead.  While at home, Sheff tries to get on with his life, he does research about different drugs, especially crystal meth, or he does research about treatments and rehab centers.  When he sees Nic, once the addiction is fully developed, Sheff pleads for him to go to rehab.  When Nic is in rehab, Sheff is supportive.  When Nic starts using again, Sheff is resolute in his determination to still support Nic in ways that will help him.  The memoir gives some sense of the agony of seeing one's child destroy himself, and the fear of learning that he has died from an overdose or in some drug-related accident.  This is one of the reasons it is so uncomfortable to read.  As with most such memoirs, the unabridged audiobook version, performed here by Anthony Heald with considerable skill, keeping the tone serious but not overly heavy, is more accessible. 

One of the hardest aspects of addiction for families is trying to maintain a loving relationship with the addict despite their self-destructive behavior, their lying, and the fact that they have hurt and damaged everyone else in the family.  Often this is achieved by focusing on the idea that the addiction is a disease and so the addict is nor responsible for his behavior.  Sheff does this with Nic much of the time, but he also manages to avoid identifying Nic with the disease -- he keeps in his mind the image of Nic the son he loves, and even when there is little reason for hope, he is still able to love his son.  Indeed, everyone in the family is remarkably patient with Nic and rarely shows any anger or frustration.  Maybe this comes from their work with Al-Anon, or maybe it comes from an intelligent facing the facts of addiction and the pointlessness of futile emotions, although they do go through plenty of fear and worry.  They do have difficult emotions that they get to express in some forms of therapy.  Yet, at least as Sheff tells his story, they never let their negative emotions undermine the fundamental love for Nic.  It is hard to imagine how they accomplish this, but it seems that they do.

Nic Sheff has written his own memoir of his addiction, Tweak, published within a few weeks of his father's memoir.  I haven't read it, but it would be interesting to compare his experience of his family with that described by his father.


© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.

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