David Sheff

Beautiful Boy

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Beautiful Boy Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 54-page guide for “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 25 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Addiction and Recovery.

Plot Summary

Published in 2008, David Sheff’s memoir, Beautiful Boy, explores his experiences of coming to terms with his son’s addiction to methamphetamine. Sheff and his wife Vicki are overjoyed when they have their son, Nic. For the first three years, they live a happy, contented life, providing Nic with everything he needs. However, when Sheff and Vicki’s marriage collapses, Nic, now aged three, is deeply affected by the change. This worsens when Sheff and Vicki move further apart—Nic has to travel between their homes, living with Sheff and visiting Vicki on holidays.

Although Sheff sees his divorce as a possible contributing factor in Nic’s later drug addiction, Nic is largely a happy child. Intelligent and creative, he is occasionally prone to depression but remains passionate and charismatic. When he enters his teens, a new, surlier, more withdrawn side of Nic emerges. Sheff is concerned when he finds a bag of marijuana among Nic’s belongings. However, Nic seems to put the incident behind him, exceling at school, winning awards for his writing, and joining the swim and water polo teams.

Nic looks unwell when he returns from a summer trip to Paris. A doctor diagnoses with a stomach ulcer. Although Nic recovers, he is changed, becoming increasingly sullen and secretive. He drops out of the swim team and water-polo team, stops working on the school newspaper, and begins cutting classes. It soon becomes clear that Nic is using a variety of drugs and that this drug abuse is escalating into full-blown addiction. Sheff is unable to control Nic and unsure of how to proceed. Things come to a head when Nic disappears for several days, eventually calling Sheff to report that he has fallen into a bad state taking methamphetamine.

Despite his insistence that he is not an addict, Nic disappears again on further drug binges. At his parents’ insistence, he enters rehab but relapses again. The next few years of his life are defined by time in rehab, often relatively long periods of recovery, and then relapses. This places a serious strain on his relationships with Sheff, Sheff’s wife Karen, and Sheff and Karen’s children, Jasper and Daisy. As Nic steals, lies, and continues to abuse their trust, their lives come to revolve around Nic’s troubles as he alternates between throwing himself into addiction and striving to get clean.

Paralleling Nic’s own struggles are Sheff’s difficulties coming to terms with his son’s addiction. He spends a lot of time in denial, refusing to accept the scale of Nic’s problems, drawing on stereotypes of addicts to convince himself that Nic is not like other people with substance abuse problems. He also blames himself for Nic’s addiction. He looks at his divorce, his own history of drug abuse, and his initially lenient attitude to Nic’s drug use. He struggles to accept that his efforts to support Nic only enable his ongoing drug abuse and that he is powerless to help his son. Ultimately, Sheff must confront his own codependency—his addiction to his son’s addiction—as Nic’s decisions dictate Sheff’s life and happiness.

As Nic struggles to stay in recovery, relapsing and returning to rehab, Sheff slowly learns to let go—accepting that he cannot save Nic and that attempting to do so will only damage himself and the rest of the family. After Sheff suffers a brain hemorrhage, he realizes that Nic’s life will go on with or without him, so he must stop hurting himself and others by trying to take on his son’s recovery. Sheff finds himself in a place where he still hopes that Nic stays sober, but he no longer centers his entire life around his son’s struggles, a place of at least partial peace where he can finally detach and take things one day at a time.

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