An hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in a striking modern cabin perched halfway up a scarily steep hill, David Sheff, 52, is making a cup of tea. The Japanese-inspired house is full of dark wood and well-thumbed books, so calm and comfortable that it feels like nothing bad could ever happen here. Plenty of bad things have.
This is where David raised his son Nic. This is where they lived when Nic first smoked pot, at age 12. This is where they lived when Nic started experimenting with LSD and Ecstasy, when he discovered a hunger for drugs that drove him out onto the streets, shooting up meth and heroin and cocaine. This is where Nic showed up late at night, high and scrounging for anything worth stealing — a guitar, blank checks, his then-7-year-old half sister Daisy’s Hello Kitty diary.
This is where David spent hour upon hour racked with worry, desperate for the phone to ring and desperately afraid of the news it might bring. And this is where David started writing about it all, at first simply as a way to survive. ”When things were out of control,” David says, ”I’d wake up at two in the morning almost catatonic with terror, terrified that Nic was going to die. So I would start writing. It was really just a way to get to morning.” The result is Beautiful Boy, a clear-eyed and horrifying look at his son’s struggles that is already getting rave reviews and has been selected for the Starbucks book club. But that’s not the only new book about Nic. He’s just published his own account, the young-adult memoir Tweak. Together, the books make for a painfully detailed account of Nic’s life — shocking quantities of drugs, endless rehabs and relapses, prostitution, arrests, a near amputation, a close-to-fatal overdose. Soon the world will be able to read about the Sheffs’ darkest secrets. ”There’s this documentary about [singer-songwriter] Nick Drake, who [apparently] killed himself, that’s called A Skin Too Few,” Nic says. ”I always felt that was kind of like my story. I felt like I had not as much skin as everyone else. As a little kid I always remember feeling so vulnerable — raw and scared. When I found drugs — and especially crystal meth — those feelings went away. I was the person that I always wanted to be: strong and confident and not scared.”
David and Nic always had an unusual relationship. Not long after David left Nic’s mom, when the boy was 3, Nic began shuttling back and forth between San Francisco and his mother’s home in L.A., an arrangement that proved agonizingly difficult. David treated his son like a pal, dragging him to R-rated movies and to parties where people smoked pot. ”We were surrounded by all these crazy, arty people,” Nic says. ”But I feel really grateful for all the experiences that I had, even though they weren’t necessarily typical.” Of course, a lot of kids with unusual childhoods don’t turn into meth addicts. David, an accomplished author and journalist, finally concluded he’d never know for sure what caused Nic’s problems, but he found that reading about addiction helped him cope. Eventually, he decided to share his own experience, hoping he could help others dealing with similar issues. He started crafting his anguished outpourings into something coherent, and on Feb. 6, 2005, The New York Times Magazine ran his emotional 5,000-word chronicle of Nic’s addiction. After the piece came out, ”the reaction was so strong and so dramatic,” he says. ”The flood of letters, phone calls, visits that came from that piece was so powerful.”
Among the many readers touched by the story was Simon & Schuster editor Ginee Seo, who wondered if there might be a book somewhere in Nic’s saga — one written by Nic himself. She e-mailed him to see if he’d be interested: ”I said, ‘Write it however you want.’ I had no idea what I was going to get.”
By that time, Nic was in a better place. He had finally agreed to rehab and had been sober for over a year. He had an apartment in L.A., a sponsor who took him on long bike rides in the hills, and an okay job at a hair salon. And now he had his book. He started writing chapters, good chapters, the whole first half.
And then everything collapsed. ”The writing was my first clue,” says Seo. ”I realized that he was really struggling. Then I got a call from him where he didn’t sound like himself.” Nic had relapsed, going on a four-month meth and heroin binge, the worst one yet. He lost his job, his apartment, and, it seemed, his memoir. ”It wasn’t even a question of the book,” David says. ”That wasn’t part of my thinking. It was, When I call him back, is he going to be alive?”
One day, Nic, desperate for money, tried to steal a computer from his mom’s house. Out of his mind on meth, Nic had a psychotic meltdown inside her garage. Disoriented and unable to find the door, he stayed there, freaked out and trapped, for five hours. When his mom and the cops showed up, he was given an easy choice: jail or rehab. Nic got clean once again, and — thanks to a combination of traditional and alternative therapies — found a way to stay clean. He was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and he believes the drugs he’s been taking to treat it have had a lot to do with his recovery. After nearly four months at the facility, he moved to South Carolina with his girlfriend. Her family took him in, and it was in their house that he finished the book.
But while Nic was doing better, his relationship with his dad suffered. David didn’t agree with Nic’s decision not to enter a longer-term treatment center. Several times he had seen Nic do well and then relapse, and giving up rehab to move across the country with a new girlfriend seemed like a bad sign. ”He was really angry with me,” Nic says, ”and I was angry at him for trying to control me. So we didn’t talk. It was probably six months.” David hadn’t written Nic off, exactly, but he finally realized that he had to let go. ”At a certain point I had to go on with my life,” he says. ”If everything I had tried wasn’t enough to guarantee that he would be okay, then I had to try something different: to let him either sink or swim. He had to want to live.”
Several weeks before the release of Tweak, Nic is in New York for some meetings with his publisher and agent. With his scraggly hair and faded Frank Zappa T-shirt, he looks like any other mid-20s hipster, surprisingly unscarred by his years of hard living. He’s warm, earnest, and friendly as he opens up about his most painful memories. Most of all, he seems young; it’s almost impossible to imagine this nice kid as the drug-crazed zombie depicted in the two books. It has now been more than two years since that last relapse, and remarkably, Nic — who now lives with his girlfriend in Savannah and works part-time as a nude art model — has managed to stay clean. David is in town as well, and they have been spending rare time together. Their bond has slowly strengthened as Nic’s situation has continued to improve. ”There was tentativeness and caution,” David says of the efforts to repair their relationship. ”I think there was an enormous amount of relief on both of our parts.” And there was plenty to talk about. There are moments in David’s book when you can’t help but cringe at his cluelessness, like when he smokes pot with his then-17-year-old son. ”I made a ton of mistakes,” he says. ”I feel like I blew it. I didn’t cause [Nic’s addiction], but I did contribute to it.”
Soon after they started talking again, David and Nic read each other’s books. Not surprisingly, it was an emotional experience. ”I would read 10 pages and I’d get really mad or upset,” Nic says. ”At times I would be angry, like, Oh, he doesn’t understand what I was going through.” It wasn’t any easier for David, who was hearing some of the sordid details for the first time. ”If I was reading that about a fictional character, it would be unbearable,” David says. ”If I was reading it about somebody else’s child, it would be horrific. But to have it be about my child was excruciating.” The books inspired long conversations, with both father and son crying on the phone. ”I think in some families that have issues, it’s pretty easy to go through it and then pretend like it never happened,” says Nic. ”This has forced us to not do the easy, cheap way to heal, but, like, the deep, painful healing process.”
Right now, both father and son feel positive about the future. ”It’s impossible to say I’ll never use again,” Nic acknowledges. ”I think it would be stupid to say that. I feel really strong in who I am now, so I feel confident. But before when I relapsed, I would have looked anyone straight in the face and said I don’t feel like I’m ever going to use again. And I would’ve believed it. So it’s hard to say.”
No matter what happens, though, Nic and David’s relationship is stronger than it’s been in years. ”Today I see even more how my dad is my really good friend,” Nic says. But they still spend very little actual time together, so their 23-day book tour will test the strength of their reconciliation. ”I forgive him,” David says. ”It doesn’t erase what happened. It doesn’t make me forget how I felt. But right now it’s so nice to be with him. It just feels so comfortable?. When I was with him in New York those few days it was remarkable: We have a new relationship, and yet it is not devoid of all the things that made our relationship special in the past. There’s this sense of Nic coming back.”