This book scared the shit out of me.
Beautiful Boy is David Sheff's account of his son's drug use and addiction to methamphetamine. By turns heartbreaking and life-affirming and frightening (at least two of these are really overdone and trite phrases, but I'm writing fast) I found this book riveting and exhausting. What would you do if your child stole and lied to get drugs? How far would you go to make sure that child was safe? How many times would you search for that child, find him, and get him to rehab? In Sheff's case, as many times as it takes. I cannot say I wouldn't do the same thing, though I have long believe that there are no interventions, just addicts who are finally ready for recovery. Sheff does a good job of portraying the agony of parenting an addict, an agony I'm afraid many of us could imagine.
Termed a "fiercely candid memoir", Beautiful Boy started to seem a lot less candid when I read the memoir by Sheff's son Nic. Tweak recounts Nic Sheff's descent into addiction, starting with drinking at age 11. The divorce and shared custody that only get some play in Sheff senior's book hold far more importance for Nic. What in BB is just a relationship with a woman that doesn't work out turns out to have been very important to the young Nic, who feels that a brother was taken from him. Illuminating, yes. Unfortunately Tweak isn't very well written. A compilation of harrowing experiences isn't enough on its own to make it worth reading. Nic Sheff seems to want to sensationalize his experiences to some degree. The writing suffers from this, and from Sheff's youth. Despite the honest depictions of his actions, I found Tweak dull reading.
One lesson I take from both books is this: your understanding of any given experience is incomplete. Or maybe it is this: we don't really know our children, or what affects them, or how. It is humbling to come to see this. I wonder how honest D. Sheff is, by eliding what seem to be seminal experiences in Nic's life, and then being utterly mystified and how this all happened. This is not to condemn Sheff's parenting; I am going to assume that Sheff was probably doing the best he could at any given time. There do, though seem to be some no-brainers here. First, stay in the same town as your kid, if at all possible. You need to put your own desires on hold when your kids are very young. Don't start and stop relationships and don't get serious with a new partner too fast and too readily--they are a time and energy suck and your children get confused. Isn't this basic? That said, it's all easier said than done. Do I think any of this cautionary advice would have helped David be a better parent, and somehow have saved Nic from his addiction and spiral into mental illness? No idea. Do I think that David Sheff was paying close enough attention all the time? No. But what am I missing in my own parenting? When I look at my children, do I have any idea what harm might befall them? Do I have any idea what they are thinking or feeling? I cannot answer those questions affirmatively, nor can I see my own mistakes clearly. I can just hope my kids will be okay.