Beautiful Boy by David Sheff (2008)


This was a difficult memoir: heartbreaking, lovely, and frustrating.  David Sheff tells the story of living through his son’s addiction from high school through the early part of college and beyond.  Like so many parents, it caught him completely off guard.  His son is a smart, athletic, engaged, creative, outgoing, and involved kid.  So what went wrong?  A difficult divorce when Nic was young and flying back and forth between two homes? A less than stellar peer group in late middle school? Smoking cigarettes in 7th grade? Marijuana in 8th? Bad DNA? David Scheff is candid in describing the journey from Nic as a beautiful boy to Nic as a lying, stealing, meth addict.  It seemed to happen so quickly, yet little things along the way, like a bout of drinking in 6th grade followed by the cigarette breath and then the marijuana stash show that there is a trail, albeit a trail that many kids tromp down without ever becoming addicts. And so the dad’s journey becomes an obsession with his son’s obsession.  As a writer, Scheff is accustomed to digging into stories: research, interviews, history, sociology, brain function, etc.  All the while he’s writing and researching, he’s also lying awake at night wondering if his sone will come home or call or if it will be the police or the morgue. The scenes are horrifying—combing back alleys full of addicts, analyzing images of a brain on meth, listening to stomach-turning descriptions from addiction counselors, scanning the house to see what his son has stolen to buy more drugs.  These were tough to read.

An interesting and eye-opening aspect of the book for me was the information on brain science, and the degree to which meth (and other drugs) can change the physical make-up of a brain such as loss of cognitive functioning which then makes recovery even harder. It’s all so complicated, and I felt compassion but also frustration.  At one point David writes, “I try not to blame Nic.  I don’t. Sometimes I do” (182).  And that’s how I felt.  Right or wrong, I wanted to blame him while at the same time knowing he surely does not want to live this way. When the book is published in 2008, Nic has been sober for about 2 years, but after online research, I discover that in interviews as late as 2017, he’s relapsed several more times. And honestly, in the interviews, I didn’t like Nic very much.  I liked him a lot more in the book.



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