Beautiful Boy (Sheff)

Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addition
David Sheff, 2008
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780547203881

What had happened to my beautiful boy? To our family? What did I do wrong? Those are the wrenching questions that haunted every moment of David Sheff ’s journey through his son Nic’s addiction to drugs and tentative steps toward recovery. Before Nic Sheff became addicted to crystal meth, he was a charming boy, joyous and funny, a varsity athlete and honor student adored by his two younger siblings.

After meth, he was a trembling wraith who lied, stole, and lived on the streets. David Sheff traces the first subtle warning signs: the denial, the 3 A.M. phone calls (is it Nic? the police? the hospital?), the rehabs. His preoccupation with Nic became an addiction in itself, and the obsessive worry and stress took a tremendous toll. But as a journalist, he instinctively researched every avenue of treatment that might save his son and refused to give up on Nic.

Beautiful Boy is a fiercely candid memoir that brings immediacy to the emotional rollercoaster of loving a child who seems beyond help. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Where—Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Education—University of California, Berkeley
Currently—lives in Inverness, California

David Sheff’s books include Game Over, China Dawn, and All We Are Saying. His many articles and interviews have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Wired, Fortune, and elsewhere. His piece for the New York Times Magazine, “My Addicted Son,” won an award from the American Psychological Association for “Outstanding Contribution to Advancing the Understanding of Addiction.” Sheff and his family live in Inverness, California (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews 
On the long, crowded shelf of addiction memoirs Beautiful Boy is more notable for sturdiness and sense than for new insight.... [Still, it] 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.”
Janet Maslin - New York Times

David describes his family's ordeal with a lucidity that will undoubtedly help many addicts and their families, providing not only a wealth of factual data but also the steadying assurance that they are not alone in their grief. He eloquently describes the sense of isolation and horror that accompanied his realization of what was happening to Nic, and the help David found in support groups.
Juliet Wittman - Washington Post

Expanding on his New York Times Magazine article, Sheff chronicles his son's downward spiral into addiction and the impact on him and his family. A bright, capable teenager, Nic began trying mind- and mood-altering substances when he was 17. In months, use became abuse, then abuse became addiction. By the time Sheff knew of his son's condition, Nic was strung out on meth, the highly potent stimulant. While his son struggles to get clean, his second wife and two younger children are pulled helplessly into the drama. Sheff, as the parent of an addict, cycles through denial and acceptance and resistance. The author was already a journalist of considerable standing when this painful story began to unfold, and his impulse for detail serves him personally as well as professionally: there are hard, solid facts about meth and the kinds of havoc it wreaks on individuals, families and communities both urban and rural. His journey is long and harrowing, but Sheff does not spare himself or anyone else from keen professional scrutiny any more than he was himself spared the pains—and joys—of watching a loved one struggling with addiction and recovery. Real recovery creates—and can itself be—its own reward; this is an honest, hopeful book, coming at a propitious moment in the meth epidemic.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) The book originated in a much-lauded New York Times Magazine article, which Sheff here expands in scope, sharing his and Nic's wisdom, missteps, and successes, and the lessons they learned. A must-read for, at the least, anyone in similar straits. —Donna Chavez

"I'll be fine. I've stopped using." That lie is told again and again in this memoir of a father's heartbreaking struggle with his son's addiction to methamphetamines. The clearly charming and talented Nic first tried marijuana in high school and subsequently went through a decade of using, rehabilitation and relapse. Expanding on a 2005 article in the New York Times Magazine, journalist Sheff takes readers along on the grim roller-coaster ride. While on drugs, Nic leads a life of self-destruction, deception and crime. He breaks into the family home to steal money; he lies about where he is and what he is doing; he asks for help but refuses the terms on which it is offered. The effect on Sheff's family is devastating; trying to save his son and also protect his wife (not Nic's mother) and their two young children, the author suffers a near-fatal brain hemorrhage. He applies his research skills to learn everything possible about methamphetamine, what it does to the brain and what treatments are available. The hard truth is that no one really knows what works best in dealing with meth addiction, or even what doesn't work. He didn't cause Nic's addiction, Sheff comes to understand; he can't control it and he can't cure it. Eventually shifting his focus from Nic's recovery to his own, the author goes into therapy to get past his obsession with his son's problems. Whether Nic will recover remains an open question at the book's end, which offers a glimmer of hope, but no promises and no easy answers. A clear picture of what meth addiction does to a user and those who love him that may help other families better cope with this growing problem.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. In the New York Times Book Review, Janet Maslin wrote, “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…Yet the genre itself remains so addictive that readers keep hoping to discover something new.” Why are addiction memoirs so addictive? Why were you drawn to this one?

2. David Sheff writes that “drug stories are sinister” (p. 87). What does he mean by that? How are drug stories different than addiction memoirs, if at all?

3. In the introduction, Sheff writes, “I have felt and thought and done almost everything an addict’s parent can feel and think and do” (p. 13). Which of his experiences, thoughts, and actions were most affecting to you? Which could you relate to and which were totally foreign?

4. Sheff begins his story with the statement, “We are among the first generation of self-conscious parents. Before us, people had kids. We parent” (p. 20). What does it mean to parent, as opposed to just having kids? At the end, Sheff writes, “I wish I had gotten here quicker, but I couldn’t. If only parenting were easier” (p. 310). What does he learn about “parenting” over the course of the book?

5. Discuss Nic’s upbringing. What privileges did he have? What disadvantages? Did Sheff seem to you a “good parent”?

6. How does the integration of pop culture references—quotes from literature, song lyrics, movie dialogue—contribute to the book? Look particularly at what Sheff used as the epilogues to each section of the book: John Lennon, Kurt Cobain for Part I, Shakespeare for Part II, etc. Why might Sheff have chosen these particular passages? How do they help your understanding of events, and of Sheff’s mindset?

7. What is the extent of David Sheff’s own drug use? What is your philosophy of discussing drugs with kids? Would you be—or have you been—honest about your past with your own kids?

8. Discuss Nic’s descent. At what point do you think you would have noticed Nic had a serious problem and needed help? Were there times you disagreed with David Sheff’s course of action? What might you have done differently?

9. When David smoked pot with Nic, what was your reaction?

10. A friend of David’s expresses surprise at Nic’s addiction and says the Sheffs don’t seem like a dysfunctional family. Sheff responds, “We are dysfunctional.... I’m not sure I know any ‘functional’ families” (p. 14) How would you define a functional family? Which are the Sheffs? How you would describe your own family?

11. On page 195, Sheff explores the idea of what it means to have a “normal life,” concluding, “Now I live with the knowledge that, never mind the most modest definition of a normal or healthy life, my son may not make it to twenty-one.” How would you define a “normal life”? How do these socially-accepted definitions—a normal life, a functional family—contribute to, or hinder, Sheff’s ability to understand and accept his son’s situation? How have these definitions affected some of the decisions you’ve made about your own life?

12. In his suicide note, Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young and wrote “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” When Sheff interview John Lennon, Lennon said, “I worship the people who survive. I’ll take the living and the healthy” (p. 118). Who do you agree with, Cobain or Lennon? Why does society glamorize those rock stars and other artists who burn out? Nic Sheff’s glamorization of alcoholics and drug-addicted artists ostensibly contributed to his own downfall. How should we counsel children and young adults on the dangers of idolizing such people?

13. As a journalist and someone with the means to do so, Sheff consults a wide variety of experts on the causes, effects, and treatment of addiction. What did you find most helpful? What else might be behind Sheff’s impulse to do more and more research?

14. Much of chapter 15 is devoted to the exploration of the disease of addiction. What is your understanding of addiction as a disease? Do you think of it as a behavioral or a brain disorder?

15. Many of the counselors and family members of addicts tell David and Karen, “Be allies. Remember, take care of yourselves. You’ll be good for no one—for each other, for your children—if you don’t” (p. 132). Do Karen and David take care of one another? Does David take care of himself?

16. A recovering addict tells Sheff, “You will believe in God before this over” (p. 133). Later, Sheff quotes John Lennon, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” (p. 256). What does this last statement mean? How do David and Nic each come to believe in a higher power? Discuss their struggle with faith and their ultimate understanding of God.

17. After David Sheff suffers a cerebral hemorrhage, he can’t remember his own name, but he cannot forget Nic and his worry over his son. What is the extent of the damage of the hemorrhage? What good comes out of it?

18. What toll does Nic’s addiction take on Jasper and Daisy? How do David and Karen help them to understand their brother’s behavior?

19. At the end of his memoir, Sheff writes, “Now I am in my own program to recover from my addiction to [Nic’s addiction]” (p. 305). How is Sheff addicted to Nic’s addiction? How does David’s addiction affect his family, his job, and his life? What is his program for recovery?

20, Nic Sheff’s own memoir, Tweak, was published simultaneously with Beautiful Boy. Having only read the latter, would it surprise you to learn that Nic, during the height of his drug abuse, dealt drugs? That he prostituted himself for drug money? As a parent, do you think it would be worse knowing or not knowing such details? Think about what’s missing in David Sheff’s memoir and how that might have colored your interpretation of events.

21. When the book ends, Nic is once again in recovery. Are you left hopeful he will stay that way?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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