Might I suggest not selecting David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy for your casual poolside reading this summer. His wrenching, real-life tale of his son’s drug addiction is about the furthest thing from escapist fare, and it may even make you feel guilty about that second Mojito you’re sipping.
However, many will find themselves completely engrossed, if not personally connected, to this story of pain and despair. It relates the vulnerability of parenthood when a child engages in destructive, uncontrollable behavior. In this case, the behavior is a seemingly unshakable addiction to methamphetamine that precipitates the countless relapses detailed in the story.
Sheff’s son is Nic, a smart, outgoing, imaginative young man who grows up displaying an insatiable zeal for life. This makes Sheff’s discovery of Nic’s drug abuse all the more tragic and mystifying. He shares the many embarrassing events that define Nic’s teenaged years: arrested at home in front of his young half-siblings, caught stealing from family, and discovered strung out in the basement of his stepmother’s parents’ home. There are also long-term disappearances, desperate phone calls, and returns home in unrecognizable condition. Between events, Sheff reveals his private torment and second-guessing and the eventual tough love he shows Nic.
Sheff is a longtime magazine writer and occasional book author, so his narrative assurance and reliance on research lend appeal and edification to a story that is probably all too common. He curbs the sentimentality while interspersing research on addiction, recovery rates, and genetics to provide context to the meth epidemic in America. But more significantly, he gives voice to the anguish, guilt, and heartbreak of so many helpless loved ones of addicts.
Regrettably, for every legitimate expert source from medicine or psychology he cites, Sheff quotes a pop culture icon. Frequently they are rock and pop music stars, an industry some might think inseparable from drug culture. Even the book’s title evokes John Lennon, who sang of getting high with a little help from his friends. Sheff’s penchant for quoting rock stars is not only annoying; it belies the earnestness of his feelings of uselessness against Nic’s addiction. He risks weakening the empathy of those readers who do not work within the world of celebrity culture, as Sheff does. (This is not to mention one deplorable admission Sheff makes about his handling of Nic.)
Also, one wonders whether Sheff chose the appropriate time to publish his story. It feels unfinished. At one point, Nic remains sober for a year and a half, only to suffer another relapse. We come to the end with much the same uneasy feeling of dread we have throughout the story: when will Nic relapse and have to start all over? Will Sheff have to write another book? (He does admit, “I am unable to allow myself hope.”)
Perhaps Sheff considered the impact his account might have on the lives of others and wanted to get the story out. In this regard, Beautiful Boy stands not as a how-to guide on dealing with substance abuse but as a noble testament to the damaging grasp meth and other drugs have on a helpless public. Like Sheff, many have the compassion and willpower to eradicate drug abuse, but not the know-how.
This account will no doubt provide assurance and comfort to suffering families and leave the rest of us with sadness and pause for thought. As Sheff puts it, “Others’ experiences did help with my emotional struggle; reading, I felt a little less crazy…others’ writing served as guides in uncharted waters.” Sheff deserves credit for bearing his tortured psyche and publicly questioning the effect his decisions have on his son’s addiction.
What’s missing is Sheff’s commentary on the greater societal meaning of stories such as his. Given his exhaustive firsthand familiarity with the issue, does he think addiction should be fought on a case-by-case basis, or did his research and experience lead him to any conclusions about possible preventative measures? Is drug abuse just a painful reality of life, and all we can do is share our stories and comfort each other when it happens in our families? This book makes me think, emphatically, I hope I never find out.