How Meth Mesmerized Father and Son

By David Sheff
Houghton Mifflin, 336 pages, $26

By Nic Sheff
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 325 pages, $16.99

Imagine writing a book on the same subject that your father is writing about, and that subject is you and your raging crystal methamphetamine addiction. His version, your version. He, a seasoned journalist; you, a 20-something neophyte. Imagine that your father’s book was held for over six months so it could be released right alongside yours, for comparative scrutiny (and added marketing muscle). Imagine that underneath it all you have a deep-seated need to be liked.

It’s enough to make you want to go out and get loaded.

Meet David and Nic Sheff, father and son, al-anon and addict, authors of Beautiful Boy and Tweak, two memoirs set in California about crystal meth addiction and the limits of parental love. David Sheff’s 2005 New York Times Magazine essay about Nic’s drug habit spawned Beautiful Boy, and led an editor to ask Nic to write his own true-life tale.

By age 18, Nic Sheff was a full-blown intravenous meth junkie: a compulsive liar who dips into his young brother’s piggy bank, steals the car, gets arrested, drops out of college twice, disappears for weeks, leaves rambling, hopped-up voice mails, becomes homeless. Both father and son capture these markers of descent with eerie similarity and share a penchant for compelling storytelling. The father writes with a measured journalistic eye, layered with lyrical moments and sober introspection; the son conveys his own unraveling with supercharged cinematic intensity.

Each in his own way is a junkie.

David Sheff is addicted to the business of saving his son: his need to protect the child and embrace his own denial. When Nic is busted for pot at 13, David Sheff observes his son’s “stringy hair and hunched surliness,” yet he still sees an innocent “child.” After his son undergoes several rehabs and despite exhaustive research on the brain-damaging effects of meth, David Sheff writes, “I am only paying lip service to the idea that Nic is an addict. I don’t look at Nic the way I look at other addicts.”

Held hostage by Nic’s relentless cycles of relapse and tentative recovery, David Sheff stays up nights worrying, trolls the streets for his son, calls jails and hospitals and sends Nic to yet another rehab. “Nothing in my life has prepared me for the incapacitating worry when I don’t know where he is,” he writes. As Nic spirals out of control, the father’s concern for his son becomes all-consuming, until his brain literally explodes with a cerebral hemorrhage. Even in the hospital he chants, “Where is Nic?”—like a man who has reached the edge of sanity.

Finally, the father realizes some painful truths: “My addiction to his addiction has not served Nic or me or anyone around me. Nic’s addiction became far more compelling than the rest of my life.” It is a mantra overplayed at the expense of deeper insight: David Sheff never reveals the origins of the “layers of guilt and shame” that compelled him to shoulder the responsibility for his son’s habit. An affair, a divorce, a shared joint with his son—some causes are suggested but never fully explored.

Young Sheff hints at the source of the problem in Tweak. A father who is more a friend than a dad, taking him to The Crying Game at age 9, and to parties where everyone’s getting high; and a workaholic magazine-editor mother who’s as absent in the story as she is in his life.

Nic Sheff is at his best when he’s writing about drug culture: its seedy characters, Gack and Bullet, “thin with a carved-up face”; its places, “all ash and wrappers and porno mags and beer cans and tin foil”; its jargon, “rigs … points … fat sacks”; and his obsession, “the blind hungering for the high that only meth can bring.” The drama of the junkie scenes—using, scoring, getting ripped-off, having sex until he bleeds, overdoses—are sharp and authentic and at times so close that the reader might experience a contact high.

Described by a therapist as having “very leaky sexual energy,” Nic Sheff has as much trouble with toxic women as he does with drugs. Many of his 642 days of blithe diarylike entries are filled with his drug-addled obsession with Zelda, a decade older, the daughter of a famous actor and the epitome of vapid L.A. culture, who peels the tile off the bathroom wall in search of drugs she believes he’s stolen from her.

We get a fleeting glimpse of young Sheff’s turmoil when, after numerous relapses, he enters a long-term rehab and attempts to explore the cause of his addiction: his divided loyalty and anger towards his parents, his self-loathing and his relentless need to “make people happy.”

An otherwise powerful drug narrative, Tweak suffers because its back story is cursory and unfocused, and because the sober stint is slack and littered with prosaic 12-step aphorisms. The young author has perhaps tried to pack too much in—and not enough: We never get a deeper sense of his interior world or the family dynamics that may have primed his self-destructive tendencies.

Nor does David Sheff provide any answers in Beautiful Boy about what “causes [Nic] to harm himself.” It’s a conversation yet to be had between father and son; perhaps a future collaboration: Sheff & Sheff. A new way to share.


Anna Marrian is a writer living in Brooklyn.

How Meth Mesmerized Father and Son