Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff, and Tweak, by Nic Sheff

I read each of these books in a day (that’s two days for the both of them, if math’s not your strong point). I think I may have mentioned before that I have a weakness for memoirs about addiction and recovery, but this father-and-son set of books were, in their way, even more compelling than A Million Little Pieces (and probably more accurate. At least David’s and Nic’s stories agreed with each other).

David Sheff’s book, Beautiful Boy, is the more original and better-written of the two. It’s the most honest and complete look I’ve ever read at what it’s like to have an addict in the family — worse, to be the parent of a smart, talented, beautiful boy who becomes a drug addict in his teens.

David Sheff takes readers through the whole heartbreaking story, from Nic’s early childhood, through his junior-high experimentation with alcohol and marijuana, to his descent into the hell of crystal meth addiction. His father, and indeed the whole family, descends into hell along with him, as Nic’s addiction and his numerous attempts at recovery consume the family’s time, emotional energy, and resources.

Nic Sheff’s own account of those same years was released soon after his dad’s. Tweak is written with the raw honesty of a gifted writer who’s still quite young and very close, both in time and emotionally, to the events he narrates. Tweak lacks the polish of Beautiful Boy, but is just as difficult to put down. The book covers a period of abut two years (with occasional flashbacks into Nic’s earlier life) during which he relapses, then stops using, is clean for awhile, relapses again and goes through rehab (for the fourth or fifth time). The book ends with its author clean, sober and hopeful — but very much aware of the daily struggle of staying in recovery.

I loved both books, but reading them together was really instructive and I’d recommend both to anyone with an addict in the family (as well as those who, like me, work with young people with addictions). What’s striking about the two accounts side-by-side is that Nic’s and David’s accounts of their common life — the time they spent together, their relationship as father and son — agree on most points; there’s no striking discontinuity here. But in Beautiful Boy, it’s so clear that Nic’s addiction is the ONE central, driving force in their family life for all those years — a consuming obsession that swallows up everything else in David’s mind. Whereas in Tweak, Nic is concerned about his relationship with the family, especially his dad, but it’s just one of the many relationships on the periphery of his life — there are also girlfriends, friends, his twelve-step sponsor, and others — all orbiting the absolutely central fact of his addiction.

The contrast really helps you appreciate how co-dependency can absorb all your energy, and how absolutely essential it is for families and friends of an addict to try to set some boundaries to save their own sanity. It’s crushing, near the end of Tweak, when Nic realizes that neither of his divorced parents, both of whom love him very much, wants him to live in the same city they do after he leaves rehab. That might seem unkind or cold if you haven’t just read Beautiful Boy and appreciated the toll Nic’s addiction took on the family.

The sections in Tweak where Nic is using do have that tedium often associated with addiction memoirs — “and then I did a hit of this, and I took some of that, and I bought some of this from a dealer, and I took some of that, and I passed out,” etc etc etc — but his writing, though sometimes naive, is interesting enough to carry the reader through the boredom. And he never glamorizes drug use or makes it look appealing.

Nic Sheff, who’s still only about 23 or so and appears to have been clean for about a year or more since his latest bout in rehab, is clearly not only a “beautiful boy” to his father, but one of what I sometimes refer to as the “beautiful young men” — bright, charming boys in their late teens and 20s, struggling with addictions and mental illness and a dozen other issues, for whom I always feel such a strong affinity and a desire to help. I’m surrounded by them at work and having read these two books I feel much the same towards Nic as I do towards them — the books were that compelling and personal. I wish Nic all the best and pray that he stays clean and has a beautiful life. And I highly recommend both Tweak and Beautiful Boy.


Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

3 responses to “Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff, and Tweak, by Nic Sheff

  1. I just read Beautiful Boy while I was on vacation in Greece. You are right. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching account of a family tragedy. It was instructive to me as a teacher. Gave me lots to think of. I will have to read Nic’s version now…

    Your own book arrived today. Thanks so much. I can’t wait to get started on it!

  2. Cynthia

    I read beautiful boy last winter and decided to use it for the spring semester in a developmental reading class that I teach at a community college in an area where meth is a major problem. I also used Meth-amphetamine: The World’s Most Dangerous Drug, a DVD available from National Geographic. This summer, I read Tweak and plan on using both in class this fall. I’m pondering the order of presentation: which one first or both at the same time? The father’s book is much better written but it also contains vocabulary that will be difficult. However, if I use Nic’s first, the students might not want to struggle through the more challenging beautiful boy. What’s your idea on this? Or do you think using both might be overkill?
    I agree with you about the tedium of Nic’s life as a user. I got bored with it all and put the book down for about two weeks while I read other things I was more interested in.
    I am also concerned about having a recovering user in class who might read Nic’s experiences, which might trigger another bout of drug use. We teachers never know the history of our classroom students.
    I’d love to hear your teacher’s perspective on this.

  3. I’m thinking about that too, Cynthia, because I’ve considered using it with my students (adult-ed for at-risk young adults who have dropped out of high school), many of whom have drug problem. I have used James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces with them and despite the issues about accuracy, etc., many of them respond really well to it. I have considered using either Tweak, or both Tweak and Beautiful Boy, in class, but have many of the same concerns about them that you have. I’m really not sure at this point.

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