Looking back over this here blog, I see that I've been on a memoir kick, which might help explain why I've not been very interested in reading over the last few weeks. It's not that the books I've read aren't well done; in fact, it's the opposite. Being pulled into something like Manic or Beautiful Boy is wearying because, when done well, a memoir puts you in the place of the author, and you relive all of the pain, sadness, and horror with her or him.
Beautiful Boy is writer David Sheff's account of his son Nic's transformation from a sweet, intelligent and outgoing child into a lying, cheating, stealing meth addict. Sheff starts where a good memoirist should, at the beginning, with Nic's birth. He is detailed and unsparing, telling of the hazy happiness of Nic's early years and then the pain of his divorce from Nic's mother, who moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles, setting Nic up for a custody arrangement that pulls him between the two places on a consistent basis. The story threads its way through Sheff's remarriage and the births of his two younger children, Jasper and Daisy, and weaves in and out of Nic's formative years and his seemingly bright childhood. Nic Sheff was smart, athletic, and creative, and when David discovers marijuana in his preteen son's backpack, he doesn't quite know how to handle it. He's done all of the things the experts tell parents to do, and spoken openly with Nic about his own drug use and the dangers of doing drugs. He takes Nic's word that he only tried it once and didn't like it, and doesn't see that under the surface of this ideal high schooler, with his stellar grades and likeable personality, is a young man experimenting with alcohol and harder drugs, until the day that Nic first disappears and then calls, begging to be picked up in an alley, where he confesses that he's been using meth. David had his own experience with the drug once, in college, and is horrified. He begins a journey to find as much information and help for his son possible while Nic goes down a horrific road of abuse, rehab, and relapse.
Beautiful Boy is different from a lot of drug memoirs in its broad scope. It doesn't only focus on the addict, but also on the friends and family around him, and Sheff also incorporates a lot of the research that he did while trying to help his son and provides an impressive education on treatment options, the pitiful lack of effective substance abuse treatment care available - it seems that rehab is as much of a business as Big Pharma, and just as dependent on return customers - and the physiology of drug abuse, particularly with regards to brain chemistry and meth. According to the many experts that David Sheff consults over the years, meth is the single most dangerous drug available with regards to what it does to the user's brain structure; meth, more than cocaine or heroin or any other street drug, actually destroys the brain tissue and turns it to mush. The damage is usually permanent and makes meth addiction the most lethal substance abuse issue today. What makes this book so gripping is that it's written by a father who doesn't know how to help his son, but can't let go of him either; there are snatches of song lyrics and poems intertwined with vignettes and memories of Nic before the addiction. Nic is such a likeable and engaging person when he isn't on drugs that you can't help but root for him, and it's crushing each time he relapses. The Sheffs, and, by proxy, the readers, walk on eggshells, waiting for the next wave of bad news, wondering where their beautiful boy has gone and if he's ever coming back.
If you have an ounce of empathy, you can't help but ache for this family. They never thought that it would happen to them; Nic was raised with love and good schools and supportive parents and adoring siblings. At times helplessness and despair radiate off the page, and at one point I realized that I was holding my breath as I was reading. It's a good book, but it's draining because Sheff's writing draws you in and invites you to pull up a chair and watch while a family falls apart. In other words, it does its job. The question you have to ask yourself, as a reader, is whether or not you can handle it.