A Father's Journey Through
His Son's Addiction
Houghton Mifflin: 326 pp., $24
Growing Up on
Ginee Seo/Atheneum Books for
Young Readers: 336 pp., $16.99
WHEN 18-year-old Nic Sheff fell in love for the first time, it hit him hard, the way it hammers many sensitive adolescents, a sunny infatuation quickly turning into obsession. Unfortunately, he was smitten by a drug, not a person, and this protracted affair would alienate him from his family and siphon off his humanity, he writes in "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines." Any question of the memoir's credibility is answered in "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction" by Nic's dad, author and veteran journalist David Sheff. These simultaneously published books offer a rare mirror on a scourge that is ravaging America. But ultimately both father and son are mining their memories as an act of deeply personal therapy.
David Sheff's book is the more effective -- and affecting -- narrative, rich with topical research and personal revelation. "Beautiful Boy" benefits from Sheff's acute journalist's eye as well as his unconditional love for a troubled son. His is not the bullying "tough love" of boot-camp reform schools but a flexible, enduring bond that nevertheless stops well short of enabling Nic's addiction. In the end, he comes across as a good father, perhaps better than he gives himself credit for. He's also too good a writer to ignore who or what is in front of his face. "He looks like someone who survived a famine," Sheff writes of Nic, emerging from yet another tweaking binge. "My affection for him is tempered by my fear of him."
Judging by the evidence offered in both books, the father was right to be scared. If, as David Sheff's fervent and far-seeking research suggests, methamphetamine addiction is a neurotoxic crisis from which one never completely recovers, then the addict's family, no matter how estranged or exploded, never completely recovers either. There is no happy ending here, no closure, just a harrowing sense of flat-out catastrophe and death narrowly avoided.
Known as speed or pep pills in the 1960s, methamphetamine has been around since at least World War II. By the 1990s, a more potent crystallized form of the stimulant was being brewed in homemade laboratories across America. Cheaper and longer lasting than cocaine, "crystal meth" gained a widespread -- and devastating -- popularity. Of the 500 law enforcement agencies that responded to the 2006 National Assn. of Counties meth epidemic survey, 87% reported an increase in meth-related arrests since 2002. The epidemic's human cost can't be rendered in mere statistics.
Reading Nic Sheff's fitful diary entries in "Tweak" makes methamphetamine addiction seem less a journey than a series of detours, like being stuck in a maze. Nic's story is devoid of mouth-watering details or ecstatic descriptions of getting high. Moving faster than the speed of life, he doesn't spend much time exulting in the buzz. Meth propels Nic (and his drug buddies) into spirals of hyperactivity, an endless loop of mad, half-baked scheming and plotting. Any quest pursued while "tweaking" invariably ends in disarray or disaster, whether it's taking apart your computer, breaking into your parents' house, launching a profitable second career as a street drug dealer or all three at once. "It's not like I enjoy being so selfish and self-absorbed," Nic writes upon reaching yet another behavioral nadir.
One devastating effect of meth, at least on Nic, is how it instantly replaces any moral qualms or inhibitions with a mercenary sense of purpose. After a year of rehab and sticking to the 12 steps, this educated product of New York City and Northern California's suburbs relapses, becoming an utterly remorseless thief in the time it takes to say, "Let's get stoned." Nic is drawn by necessity and convenience to the inner city, where drugs are easier to find, but in terms of street smarts, he's clueless. Laughably, he supplies his credit-card number to a two-bit hustler; less comically, he moves into a seedy Oakland rooming house for a lengthy sojourn and latches onto a fellow boarder who's also a tweaker. At one point, he earnestly asks "Gack" why he's never considered rehab: It doesn't occur to Nic that his new best friend has no supportive familial safety net. (Gack shares a room in the boarding house with his father, a convicted child molester.)
When the pull of his suburban haunts proves irresistible, Nic reunites with an old flame and fellow user who fuels his worst instincts. "Honestly I can't see Lauren living in the car with me. I need her to have access to [her] house and access to her parents' money. It's not that I don't care about her, I'm just trying to be realistic."
Both father and son lay a lot of blame on David Sheff's divorce from Nic's mother, and David admits compensating for the split by acting more as friend than parent to Nic. "[N]ow I look back in horror," David writes, "on the time I smoked [marijuana] with him." Nic's mother and father, as well as his therapists, cite precociousness and "overexposure" to his parents' world as the root of Nic's addictive proclivities. "If only I had protected him more from my adult life," his father mourns. Somewhat surprisingly, both father and son also implicate pop culture. (Nic worked as a fledgling online movie critic between meth runs.) "All my heroes, Kurt Cobain, Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Jean-Michel Basquiat, they all lived these crazy lives," Nic writes without a touch of irony. "Here's a note to parents of addicted children," David advises ruefully, "choose your music carefully."
One is tempted to conclude that the self-lacerating father is too hard on himself while his prodigal son isn't judgmental enough. Despite his candor about some things, Nic remains a cipher; even his flashes of insight sound recited, as if he's trying to convince himself as well as his counselors. And when David offers the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as summary and valediction, their familiar lines fall flat in the face of his own hard-earned wisdom. In the most literary and revealing sequence of "Beautiful Boy," Nic sabotages a family camping trip without being physically present. This haunted, almost macabre scene captures the persistence of addiction: the way it consumes and damages innocent bystanders. By the time David realizes the personal toll his son's drug use has taken on his own life, it's too late. "Nic's addiction became far more compelling than the rest of my life."
It doesn't give too much away to say that the conclusion of "Beautiful Boy" demonstrates the truth behind the cliche that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." And "Tweak" ends on a suitably melancholy note: A shaky, chastened Nic slowly regains some of his post-adolescent promise as a writer and his humanity, though not necessarily the trust of his nuclear family.
In the end, Nic Sheff would seem to be better off than William S. Burroughs III, the son of the pioneering Beat Generation writer. The younger Burroughs offered a vivid account of adolescent drug addiction and overexposure to adult life with his autobiographical 1970 novella, "Speed." He rocketed through a far grittier and less forgiving bohemian scene in the late 1960s, when drug rehabilitation meant detoxifying in jail. The closest thing Billy Burroughs had to a father figure was poet Allen Ginsberg, a bemused and somewhat grudging family friend who'd usually spring for bail. "Speed" is a sad and grasping tale that ends with an extended stream-of-consciousness evocation of an amphetamine binge. It may be better writing than "Tweak" on some rarefied level, but Burroughs died a broken man in 1981. Nic Sheff has the benefit of being sober and self-aware, for now at least, not to mention having a father who cares.