By Jerry Waxler
(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)
David Sheff’s memoir “Beautiful Boy” oscillates between the uplifting joy of his son’s Coming of Age, and the tragedy of his son’s tragic fall into addiction to crystal meth. All the ugly stuff is there, how Nic lied, broke in and stole from his own parents and neighbors, slept in alleys and drug houses but refused help. And then there were the drug-free periods when this beautiful boy was back, a delightful human being, full of creative spirit and enormous promise.
Sheff, a professional journalist, recounted his son’s self-destructive journey, starting with the first suspicions. Then came the confrontations, the efforts to control his son’s behavior, and the gut wrenching worry. The horrible fact is that millions of parents ask themselves every day or even every hour, “Where is my child?” “Will this be the call from the police?” “What must I do to stop the downward slide?” “Should I pay for another round of rehab, or is that last relapse a sign that I must write this child out of my life?”
The book has all the elements of a compelling drama. There is the author’s loving second wife, and their two sweet younger children. There is the constant anxiety, and the play by play experience of watching the son grow up, and then fall apart. Sheff applies his journalism skills to report on the special hazards of methamphetamine addiction: the high rate of relapse after rehab; the irrational behavior of the addict when craving the drug or under its influence; the denial and lying. And then, the experience begins to take a toll on David Sheff himself.
It’s no secret that stress undermine health, and sure enough, the author’s extended periods of frantic worry almost kill him. About two thirds of the way through the book David has a life threatening brain hemorrhage. Until then, Nic’s father and step-mother had been going to Al-Anon meetings and hearing that they cannot change the addict. The addict himself is the only one who can do that. Al-Anon’s message is that the people around the addict need to figure out how to take care of themselves. But a parent’s job is to take care of a child. Right? So while hearing the Al-Anon messages they had not yet embraced them. Now, after the hemorrhage, they have no choice. At last, we remember this memoir is by the father, and now the story shifts inward to his own introspective journey.
Nic’s biological mother had played only a minor role through the course of the book. David rarely spoke to her, except to make arrangements to hand Nic back and forth between the two homes, one with dad in northern California during summer and the other with mom in southern California during the school year. When Nic started disappearing, they called each other to get information about where he might be.
Three pages from the end of the book, Nic’s biological parents have their first therapy session together. It turns out that they went through a bitter divorce when Nic was little more than a toddler. I try to understand what it felt like to be Nic, raised by parents who resented each other and who lived hundreds of miles apart.
I don’t know whether to laugh in relief or cry in rage that it has taken this much anguish to force these two people into a therapy session with their son. I, as do most therapists, believe that all the members of a family influence each other. With his two parents split apart, I picture Nic split apart inside himself, too. It must have taken a superhuman effort to hold these warring parts of himself together.
For most of the book, I was sucked into the premise that it was all about Nic. When will he come back? Will he completely resolve the addiction? But that’s the son’s journey. I finally realize this is David Sheff’s’ memoir. I want to understand more about his inner world. Will he awaken psychologically and spiritually, so he can offer his love to his two younger children and his wife, and stay centered, healthy, and supportive himself? David Sheff’s inner journey begins close to the end of the book and runs out of room. After finishing Beautiful Boy, I could see that dad was just getting started.
I felt a little cheated that it took the author so long to start looking within himself. Then I look at my pile of memoirs and realize that most of the authors continue through the darkness for a really long time. Dani Shapiro in “Slow Motion” took forever to realize she was destroying herself. Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” took forever to grow up and get away from the clutches of her weird parents. Frank McCourt had to grow up and get away from his destructive father in “Angela’s Ashes.” Jim McGarrah had to fight in a war, and then go home to figure out how to heal in “A Temporary Sort of Peace.” William Manchester in his World War II battle memoir “Goodbye Darkness” first had to show us his demons, before finally coming to terms with them in the final chapters.
Despite the fact that David Sheff’s knowledge of himself remained hidden for so long, it did finally force itself to the surface. This long climb, known as the Character Arc, creates hope, letting me know that through the circumstances of life, the character is becoming a better, smarter, deeper person. This journey the author has taken through the course of his memoir fulfills my faith in the human experience – that if we keep hacking at it we will end up smarter by the time we die than when we started. This faith is one of the unspoken agreements we have with the authors of our books. We conspire together to promote this lovely truth about life, that in living we learn and grow, or as stated more poetically in the lyrics of Amazing Grace, “I once was blind but now I see.”
Writing Prompt – Character Arc
As you look for a structure for your life story, your job is to find a meaningful segment or point of view that will provide the reader with a compelling experience. One way to look for this segment or point of view is to find the lessons contained within it. Of course, your end result does not need to beat the reader over the head with such a lesson but if you can find this Character Arc, and hold it in mind, it can help develop a compelling time frame and structure for your memoir. Name the life lessons you think you have drawn from your experiences. For each one, brainstorm how it might fit as a template for your memoir.
Writing Prompt – Drugs and alcohol
While the horrific downward slide of David Sheff’s son is hopefully a minority experience, millions of people are affected by substances. Often the abuser creates a wall of denial, convincing him or her self that they can handle it and it doesn’t affect anyone else. Write an anecdote about how you or people in your life have been affected by substances. If you have a romantic notion of your own use when you were younger, write the experience from your parents’ or partner’s eyes. If you were deeply affected by someone else’s abuse, write a story seeing what that experience might have looked like from their eyes.
David Sheff’s son Nic also wrote a memoir, called “Tweak” about his experience as an addict. I am just getting started on it. “Tweaked” is the slang term that describes the frantic mental state of a methamphetamine high. From what I have read so far, the book is quite explicit and should be eye opening about the other side of the drama.
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The entire time I was reading this, I planned on mentioning his son’s book. Glad you’re reading it as well. It’s not nearly as engaging, but it does share some of the missing story about Nic’s mom and the dynamics between them that David really can’t (or chose not to) touch on in his book.
Read together, these are some fascinating memoirs . . .
Another one you might want to consider — Eric Clapton’s “Clapton”. Similar character arc, but more on the recent good times than you might expect.
I think many people tend to live in darkness for a long time. Also, would the average reader be compelled to turn the page if the author saw the light early in the book? I think the darkness is what captures our minds and keeps us interested.
Thanks, Tysdaddy. Yes, I heard about both memoirs at the same time, on an NPR interview, but I wanted to tackle them one at a time. What a world we live in. I feel like memoirs are opening me up to understandings I would not be able to achieve any other way.
Thanks Sunny. I have Eric Clapton’s book on my list. I’m glad to hear it has a character arc. I was nervous about it being a “celebrity piece.”
Thanks, Heatheraynne, It’s interesting how important and how hard it is for a memoir writer to think ahead about getting a reader to turn pages. It’s a fascinating puzzle and in the process of solving it, many auxiliary lessons seem to come along for the ride.
I am now reading A Million Little Pieces, James Frey. I’ve also read both Sheff books. There was some controversy over Pieces because it was an Oprah book and then accused of being not entirely true. I believe all nonfiction books take some dramatic license (within reason); we probably wouldn’t keep reading if they didn’t. I can’t imagine what, in particular, critics can find to prove the author wrong. How could the author (the cross-addict since he was 10 years old) recall all the events, along with all his delusions and “lost time” and not make some “mistakes” along the way with his writing? This book is packed with emotion, and if you know someone close to you with similar problems, as I do, you will come to a better understanding of why only 15 percent of sufferers who attend AA survive sobriety.
Thank you for sharing the power of your experience. After reading this memoir, I understand more than ever the surreal intensity of this dangerous disease and the way it affects surrounding people. It is not a victimless crime. So many people suffer from one person’s addiction.
Thank you for tying in the unknown pain of parents who cannot act in a loving communicative manner. It lurks in the short list of reasons someone I love very much tries to numb his pain. My exploration of all this extends to nutritional imbalances. I consider the 12-Step program as emotional support for the soul while the nutrients rebuild the body.
Two excellent books are, “7 Weeks to Sobriety,” addressing alcohol, drugs, depression, smoking and other chemical imbalances – and can be read in its entirety online at http://bit.ly/8dUBTF (many links to verify the same info). And another book is the Malibu Passages book, which also has info on nutritional supplements when the body has been thrown off by substance abuse and poor nutrition.
The author of 7 Weeks is a physician, who lost her son shortly after he returned from an in-patient treatment center. Determined to learn what more they might have done, she began to identify certain triggers that include fumes (painters, mechanics, factories), beyond the habitual obvious ones.
It is helpful to have memoirs that relate to what used to be an issue no one talked about. Each revelation gives us one more tool for the kit to rebuild and become whole.