Bookshelf: Beautiful Boy

July 18, 2008

You’ve likely seen copies of David Sheff‘s memoir Beautiful Boy at Starbucks, your local bookstore, the library and reviewed in your paper. It is becoming a bit of a phenomenon.
I picked up a copy of this a couple of months ago at my local bookstore. The book is about a father’s discussion of dealing with the drug addiction of his son. As you might imagine DearReader, YHN was intrigued.
As an initial warning, there may be spoilers ahead in the post or following discussion. So if you worry about that sort of thing, don’t read below the fold. Also, this isn’t a review, as such, just an invitation to discuss the book.

When I started this post, I was about halfway through this book. I start with this observation because it is relevant; this book is disturbing, worrying and depressing. Perhaps because I have offspring and I can empathize very directly with the worry about one’s offspring’s health, future and ultimately life. I’m normally a reasonably fast reader and perhaps even a compulsive one. It was the content that stopped me.
I kid you not I was reading this in bed and had to get up and sleep the rest of the night with one of my beautiful children. It took me some weeks, and a long series of plane flights to get back to finishing the book.
In brief summary, the author/narrator is an apparently very wealthy and successful journalist who got married, had a son, divorced, shared custody (but was apparently the primary), got remarried, had two more kids. The family lives in a high-budget locale, sends the eldest kid to nice engaging schools where he associates with people from the upper ranks of society, has all the advantages……
…and starts smoking dope. and drinking. and whatnot. and develops a massive honking addiction to methamphetamine.
The book starts off in a bit of an indulgent way with a lot of handwringing and forshadowing of same, about how the parents’ divorce, and a subsequent long-distance custody arrangement, may have set the stage for the drug addiction. It does not help that the setting and age and pop cultural references make it pretty clear that the author is one of those self-indulgent Boomers (that really tick some people off). Stick with the story, I suggest. It gets better.
The books starts to really hum when Sheff gets down to business and describes the discovery of the addiction, as the teenage son slides into the depths, wanders the streets, gets rehabbed, relapses, steals money…..on and on and on. The fear and helplessness and son-loathing and guilt…is all put evocatively on page. I thought it worked rather well.
There are tidbits for the scientists, not much, but being that he is a world-class journalist, Sheff hunted down some meth experts. He focuses a bit on the imaging findings, i.e., of Edythe London and the associated UCLA addiction medicine folks. In particular some of the clinical people who help him to grapple with the nature of addiction.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the nicely-stated but firm advice to families dealing with addiction. That nobody currently has silver bullet answers (and if a treatment place says they do, run), that this addiction process is so far beyond a matter of moral choice it is useless to go there, that the recovery process will not be instant, etc. One poignant section is the one where he details the greatest relief in the minds of some parents in one of his many support groups “Well, at least my kid is in jail so I know where s/he is and that s/he’s not doing drugs”.
I dunno, I like these kind of books. Many of us have little direct and knowledgeable experience with a family member or close friend who has really been taken over by an addiction. I am unfortunate enough to have a couple of direct examples but only a few. They are very consistent with some of the more horrific personal accounts that end up in memoirs. I find those published accounts convincing and have occasionally passed them along to people dealing with an addicted loved one. They seem to get at least as much out of these stories as they do with my attempts to communicate the science. So don’t dismiss the anecdotal nature, it helps to understand.
Anybody read this book yet?
Amazon has a clip of the author David Sheff here.
Apparently the son has written a book as well, which I have not read yet [excerpt here].

No Responses Yet to “Bookshelf: Beautiful Boy”

  1. This sounds like an incredibly powerful pair of books and, if I’m not mistaken, your co-blogger highly recommends them both as well. To be honest, I’ve put off reading Sheff’s book primarily because of I’ve heard impressions just like yours from other parents, non-scientists and scientists, expressing just how disturbing the story can be. But it sounds like a great read if for nothing else to learn from another parent’s experience.


  2. PhysioProf Says:

    They are both extremely powerful. And it is fascinating to see how each of them perceive the same events.


  3. DuWayne Says:

    My children are respectively, six years old and seven months. I like to think that I have a while before either really develops an interest in recreational drugs. But these two books were just brutal to me as a parent. Especially as a parent who has (and does to a degree) struggled with substance abuse problems.
    Possibly the most gut wrenching moment for me, was in the very beginning of Beautiful Boy where Sheff talks about the realization that our children live or not, with or without us. It is not often that I actually get weepy and almost always it’s just a little tear or two. But that realization, something that I knew before but really hadn’t known it, just ripped into me and had me in full on tears.
    Part of it was because I really didn’t want to accept that my own children are their own people and will one day be entirely outside my control. Part of it was also the realization that my own parents had many years of dealing with my own drug abuse, coupled with a penchant for for only staying in one place for very short periods of time and not seeing me for years at a time. The hell that I put my parents through was hardly a consideration to me, it really didn’t occur to me for a long time what I was even doing to them.
    I have recommended these two books, especially David’s, to most of my family and many of my friends. Even the main subject matter of drug abuse aside, Beautiful Boy really has a lot that can translate into most families.
    I must say that one thing that struck me, was that David really didn’t try to paint himself into the best light possible, while describing areas where he felt that he had fucked up. I didn’t get the feeling of; “I really did some stupid things as a parent, but gosh darn it, look at the good things I did as a parent too!” I didn’t feel like he was trying to justify his mistakes or marginalize them, as is so often the case in memoirs.
    All that said, it took me a long while to get through both of them. It is very much a case of living the nightmare experience of another person, made even more disturbing because it would be hard as a parent not to realize that any one of us could be David. That while there are many things we can do to minimize the risk of that happening, we cannot control who our children become. Hard as it is though, I think that the more we can accept that concept and make it a part of who we are, the better it is. Both for ourselves and our children. In effect, when we accept this, we release ourselves from the bondage of futures we cannot hope to control and can focus on being the best parents we can be.


  4. PhysioProf Says:

    One of the things that was very clear from reading both books is that the behavior of parents has little to do with whether their children become addicts. I am convinced that there are physiological differences between individuals that ensure that even given the same exposure to drugs, some become florid uncontrollable addicts, while others dabble and move on.
    For example, while in college, my friends and I smoked tons of cigarettes while drinking and partying. After a night of smoking and drinking, when I woke up the thought of booze and cigarettes made me sick. But some of my friends awoke to a bloody mary and a cigarette. I never became addicted to cigarettes, while some of my friends still struggle to quit.
    Interestingly, both of my parents smoked assiduously for decades, and only eventually quit with extreme difficulty.


  5. DuWayne Says:

    PP –
    I don’t know about that. While I don’t buy that parent’s behavior is going to determine whether their child becomes an addict, I believe that it can have an influence.
    An old friend of mine attributes part of his motivation to smoke to memories of sitting on his dad’s lap when he got home from work, where his dad would read the comics to him while chain smoking. At the same time, a friend from back when I started smoking, refused to give into the peer pressure to smoke, because her parents smoked rather heavily.
    That said, I tend to assume that most people who are addicts, were always an addict, they just didn’t use. I actually shouted at the tee vee the other night while watching Penn and Teller’s Bullshit on DVD. They did an episode on twelve step programs, that I actually really liked, but then made the assertion that addiction isn’t a disease. This when there is increasing evidence that addiction is very much a disease, just like schizophrenia is a disease.
    A parent cannot control whether their child is an addict, any more than they can control whether their child is bipolar. They can do many things to minimize the risk. They can consider a history of substance abuse in their family and (if applicable) make clear to their children that they are probably at a higher risk for substance abuse and encourage them to abstain (not nearly as simple as I make it sound I know, but their are many strategies for dealing with this issue.)
    I operate on the default assumption that my kids are probably addicts. My biological father, most of my bio-paternal siblings and I have all dealt with substance abuse problems. Not one of my bio-paternal brothers escaped it. All of us have ADHD (except possibly the baby, way too early to say). I see my single most important job as a parent, doing everything I can to educate my children about addiction and make sure they understand the risks they take if they choose to do something as simple as drinking a beer or smoking a joint. I may not have control over who my children become, but I can make damn sure that if they choose to use drugs, they know exactly the risks they are taking.


  6. Becca Says:

    I have come to the conclusion that 1) I am really dense or 2) you need to blog more about your kids. Actually, these are not mutually exclusive options.
    I didn’t even know you were a parent!


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    Well, the fact that I’m married to another scientist and have more than one kid has been mentioned here and there. I suppose the fact that this escaped you puts me in violation of the blog version of this manifesto:
    True, I am not constantly on about it but I will see what I can do in the future.


  8. bookworm Says:

    Wandered around my LBS for a while trying to locate Tweaked, by Nic Sheff. Filed under “teen” something or other. I’m going to be interested to read it both from the adult perspective and as what I imagine my teen mind might have thought.


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