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Love, not just a habit

February 24, 2008|Mark Coleman | Mark Coleman is the author of "Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money."

Beautiful Boy

A Father's Journey Through

His Son's Addiction

David Sheff

Houghton Mifflin: 326 pp., $24


Growing Up on


Nic Sheff

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."

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