Skip to main content

Memoirs of Meth Addiction from a Father and a Son

Drug addiction doesn't just affect the addict, it changes the whole family. Journalist David Sheff and his son Nic join Fresh Air to talk about Nic's addiction to methamphetamine and the separate memoirs they've written about the experience.

44:33

Other segments from the episode on February 26, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 26, 2008: Interview with David Sheff and Nic Sheff; Review of the Austrian film trilogy "Where to and back."

Transcript

DATE February 26, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Journalist David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff on their
memoirs chronicling their lives during Nic's meth addiction
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"Anyone who's lived through it knows that caring about an addict is as complex
and fraught and debilitating as addiction itself." That's a line from
journalist David Sheff's new memoir "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey
Through His Son's Addiction." David's son Nic was addicted to methamphetamine,
but also used just about every other drug. He's been sober over two years.
David's memoir is about how Nic's addiction affected the whole family: David,
his second wife and their two younger children, Jasper and Daisy. David and
Nic's mother divorced when Nic was young. After that, Nic spent most of each
year with his father in San Francisco, and spent holidays and summers with his
mother in LA until he left home.

Nic is 25 now. He's written a memoir about his decade of drug use. It's
called "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines." Both memoirs have just been
published. Nic and David Sheff are my guests. Let's start with a question
for David.

Can you talk a little bit about how your son's personality changed when he was
using meth?

Mr. DAVID SHEFF: He became unrecognizable. He went from being just one of
the most sort of light-filled, extraordinary people I knew and he became, you
know, this ghost sort of coming in and out of the house. I mean, physically
he changed. You know, he lost, you know--he was skin and bones, and he was
jittery. And then his behavior changed. He went from being, as I said, this
sort of charming, lovely, kind, open, gentle person, and he became belligerent
and angry and depressed and argumentative.

GROSS: And he stole from you.

Mr. D. SHEFF: And he did things that were just inconceivable that he would
do. Yeah, he stole from me. He stole from my wife, Karen. He stole from
Jasper and Daisy. He broke into our house. He broke into friend's houses. I
mean, he became someone else is all I can say. He became someone that I
didn't recognize anymore.

GROSS: Nic, why was meth your drug of preference? Like, when you started
using it, what did it do for you that made you want more?

Mr. NIC SHEFF: Well, I think that, you know, I mean, with all drugs I sort
of had this feeling, but, you know, with meth particularly, it was like, I'd
always been really just like consumed with like worry about making sure that
everybody was OK around me; and that I just wanted, like, everyone to like me
and to just be sort of perfect all the time or something. And, you know, when
I started doing drugs, it really like allowed me not to care about other
people or, I mean, about anything, really. And it was sort of a relief for
me.

But meth in particular, I guess when I first tried it, it was just like this
sort of focus and clarity and this feeling like, all these fears and
insecurities and self-doubt and everything that I'd always, you know, been so
wrapped up in just disappeared. And I felt, you know, totally confident and,
you know, the feeling that I'd been missing my whole life, I mean, it gave me
so much, you know, strength--at least I thought, you know--and confidence.

GROSS: You know, you've described yourself as formerly having been
thin-skinned and sensitive, you know, before the meth. And you say that meth
allowed you to like be confident and to not be so worried about what other
people are thinking.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It also, at some point, like when you really became an addict, it
seemed to erase any trace of empathy that you had for anybody, certainly for
your family. And were you aware of that, aware that not only weren't you,
like, the sensitive person anymore, but that you were walking over people, you
had no empathy at all.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yeah.

GROSS: It didn't bother you. You were stealing from your family. Like, did
that register on you at all? Did it mean anything?

Mr. N. SHEFF: I think it did because I spent a lot of time when I was high
talking to my friends and to myself and, I mean, to anybody who would listen
about how I was right and how I had the right to do this stuff, and, you know,
I was justifying it all over and over. So I think I probably wouldn't have
spent that much time trying to convince myself and trying to convince everyone
else if there wasn't a little piece of me that was, you know, did recognize
what a monster I'd turned into.

But the other weird thing about crystal meth is, you know, I would do stuff
like think that, you know, if I took apart my computer because it wasn't
working and then took apart my cell phone, I could put it all back together
with my cell phone in the computer and then I would make this like
supercomputer or something. I mean, you know, it was like stuff that really
made sense to me at the time;, and if you'd asked me I would've, you know,
thought that I was being totally rationally, but, you know, obviously I
wasn't. And it just completely, you know, messes up your perception of
reality. And so I think that that is a big part of it, is that you just
really don't know what you're doing. And you think you know what you're
doing, but you don't know what you're doing.

GROSS: Nic, how old were you when you started using, and how long did you
use?

Mr. N. SHEFF: Well, I mean, I started like smoking pot and stuff when I
was, you know--consistently, I guess, when I was like 12 I was smoking pot a
lot. And then, you know, in high school I'd, you know, smoke pot and drink
and stuff, but not super habitually; but I guess when I was 17 was really when
I started like smoking pot every day and then, you know, started doing
mushrooms and acid and stuff, and then ecstasy and then cocaine and then, you
know, everything else.

And so it lasted, I guess, you know, from when I was 17, I'm 25 now and I have
two years sober, so it must have been from about 17 to 23, you know, but with
periods of interruption, when I was in rehab or sober or whatever.

GROSS: OK.

If you're just joining us, my guests are David Sheff and Nic Sheff. They've
each written memoirs. David Sheff is about his son Nic's addiction and how
that affected David's life and his family's life. And Nic's book is about his
own addiction. David's book is called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey
Through His Son's Addiction." Nic's memoir is called "Tweak."

David, you thought the fact that you'd used drugs when you were young--and
you've even tried meth once--would make you a more convincing authority to
your son on why he should stay away from drugs. Now you write that your
parents used to lecture you about drugs, but they were teetotalers, so it was
so easy to discount what they were saying. But, you know, you came of
age--what?--in the '60s and '70s, when, you know, drugs were pretty common:
LSD, marijuana. Now, as I say, you tried meth once and your roommate, who you
tried it with, ended up getting addicted to meth and as a result dying at the
age of--well, just before his 40th birthday. So what did you try to tell Nic
about the reasons why he should stay away from drugs or get off drugs?

Mr. D. SHEFF: I felt that--yeah, I thought two things. I thought, first of
all, because we were close and we talked about everything, I thought I would
know what was going on with him. And so when--each time something dramatic
happened, I was blindsided, and I guess part of the hurt was, and part of the
bafflement, was that I thought I would know, and I didn't know. So, yeah,
when I was growing up, you know, I was of the generation that, you know, when
drugs were prevalent and pretty new. I was part of the culture, you know,
certainly in my crowd in high school and at the beginning of college. And
there was sort of a mixed thing going on there. One of them was, you know, it
was almost a celebration. It sort of drugs became almost a political
statement. It was sort of--we viewed them as if, you know, as a way of
rebelling and sort of expanding our mind and, you know, doing something
positive. Very quickly it became apparent that that was a fantasy, and it was
a...

So I guess I both understood the drug culture and the temptations and the sort
of the peer pressure and all the different things that come into using drugs
when you're a kid, so I understood what Nic was going through. But I was not
naive about drugs. I was really, really worried about them and really scared
about them. And I did everything that they, you know, the experts, you know,
will tell you to do, which is to talk to your children about drugs. We had a
lot of conversations about them. I warned Nic, I told him all the true horror
stories that I knew. I told him, you know, about the seduction of drugs. It
wasn't just, you know, Nancy Reagan "just say no" thing. It was more
complicated than that. And I thought, because I was so open about my
experiences and because I did know what I was talking about because it was not
just platitudes, it was some real life, you know, stuff, that I thought that
it would have an impact on him. I thought that it would--I thought he would
listen. I thought I would have some credibility.

GROSS: Were you using anything when he was growing up?

Mr. D. SHEFF: It was interesting that I had stopped using drugs because of
Nic. I used a lot of drugs when I was growing up; and when I became a parent,
it no longer to me was--it was just no longer acceptable in my mind anymore.
I saw--I had this, you know, beautiful young son who'd wake up every morning
with just bright eyes and just, you know, just eagerness about embracing a new
day, and it was--and I still had friends who used drugs, and the contrast was
so shocking and so dramatic to me that it became clear that I didn't want
drugs to be part of my life anymore.

GROSS: Even marijuana?

Mr. D. SHEFF: So I stopped smoking pot, I stopped doing everything.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Nic, what message do you think you got from your father about drugs? And what
did you think of the way he gave you the message? He thought it was really
convincing. Did you find it convincing?

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yeah. I mean, I think it was convincing. I mean, you know,
I...

Mr. D. SHEFF: Not convincing enough.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Well, no, I mean, I think that, you know, I believe--and I
think, you know, we probably differ on this and everything, but, you know, I
mean, I think that crystal meth is just totally disgusting and, you know,
maybe if I was a different person I wouldn't have tried it, but I feel like it
didn't have much to do with--me trying it didn't have much to do with, you
know, my dad or any lessons that he taught me or anything. I mean, I think it
was more just--I don't know. I mean, I think I was always really curious and
I idolized, you know, a lot of people who were drug addicts and heavy, you
know, users and stuff. But, yeah, I don't think there was anything anyone
could've done differently.

GROSS: My guests are David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff. David's new memoir
is called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction."
Nic has been sober for over two years. He's also written a memoir. It's
called "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are David Sheff and Nic Sheff, and they've each written
memoirs. David Sheff is about his son's addiction and how that affected
David's life and his family's life, and Nic's book is about his own addiction.
David's book is called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's
Addiction." Nic's memoir is called "Tweak."

David, there's a lot of guilt feelings that you express in your memoir about
your son's addiction. You worry whether it's anything you did or said, or
didn't do or didn't say, that might have led to his addiction or prevented him
from giving it up sooner. During those periods when you felt guilty, what did
you feel guilty about? What were the things that you thought you might have
contributed to?

Mr. D. SHEFF: I felt guilty about everything. I tried to look back in our
lives and just say, you know, what was it that ultimately caused Nic to go so
out of control and come so close to dying. You know, was it the divorce, you
know, when he was young? You know, was it the fact that I'd used drugs and I
was open it about it? And, you know, was I too liberal and did I just give
him too much, you know, I just didn't set limits that he needed. I guess the
ultimate answer is that I feel that it's unknowable what would cause a child
to become so self-destructive. When you go to Al-Anon, which, you know, I
went to a lot of meetings and found them very useful, they say, you know, you
didn't cause it. You can't control it. You can't cure it. You know, that ut
you can't cure it, you can't control it, I believe. You didn't cause it? I'm
not 100 percent there yet.

GROSS: Nic, when your father was blaming himself for your addiction, were you
blaming him, too?

Mr. N. SHEFF: Sometimes, absolutely. You know, it's easier to blame other
people than to have to look at yourself.

GROSS: So what did you blame--when you would kind of put it all on him, or at
least put some of it on him, what did you put there?

Mr. N. SHEFF: Oh, I don't know. I mean, some of it was, yeah, sure, about
the divorce and, you know, moving me out of the city when I was little and, I
mean, you know, I mean, anything, just, you know, in the spur of the moment
refusing to let me borrow the car that night or something. I mean, you know,
I, yeah, I mean, I definitely spent a lot of time being really, really angry
with both my parents, you know, with everybody. I mean, and part of that, I
think, was just a, you know, another aspect of--or another part of denial or
whatever, you know, not wanting to take responsibility for my actions and
things. Yeah.

GROSS: David, you write about all the contradictory advice you get when
you're a parent with a child who's addicted. What's the strongest thing you
ever did to intervene and to try to force him into rehab?

Mr. D. SHEFF: Well, one time I actually, you know, fantasized about just
going out and grabbing him and throwing him in the car and driving him
because, you know, once he turned 18 I could no longer forcibly commit him to
treatment in any way. I couldn't get him into a hospital unless he was, you
know, a threat to himself or others. And I suppose he was at different times;
but even then, from what I was told, you know, he would stay in for a period
of observation. They wouldn't keep someone in there because they were on
drugs. I had to do what was--I guess only, you now, a parent who's been
through this can understand what it feels like to have a call from your child
who is in tears and is saying, `I'm going to die. You have to come get me.'
And I said to him, `I'll come get you and drive you to a hospital or I'll
drive you to a rehab.' And he said, `No. I can't do that again. I've been
there. It doesn't work for me.' And I said, `Well, call me when you're ready
to do that.' And I hung up the phone. And all I wanted to do was hang up the
phone and drive to San Francisco and go get him and hold him and put him in
the car and take care of him, but I didn't do that. And I did wait until he
called up and he was ready to go into treatment or, in some cases, you know,
ended up crawling back himself and getting himself into recovery. But...

GROSS: Well, what happened that day or that night? Like after you hung up on
him, did he call back soon and say, `OK, so take me to rehab.'

Mr. D. SHEFF: No, he didn't. There were times--I mean, it happened more
than once, actually. What happened was is that I was--I wept. I was in, you
know, I was devastated. I worried that he would die. I worried that I would
regret what I had just said.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. D. SHEFF: But I also knew from experience that if I were to go get him
and let him come home and sleep it off and, you know, feel better for a few
days and sort of take care of him, then he would, you know, split again and
he'd be high again. And I knew that the only thing that I could do was to get
him into treatment, to begin. You know, even if it wasn't going to be the
solution to the problem, at least for whatever time he was in the hospital or
in that treatment center, there would be a, you know, it would stop the cycle.
He would be off drugs for a while. And, you know, there's no easy way through
this. And you just have to do the best you can.

GROSS: There were times when you went to rehab willingly and times when you
went against your will. Is that correct?

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: Did it make a difference to the outcome whether you went there
willingly or whether you went there against your will?

Mr. N. SHEFF: No, not really. I mean, I feel like--I mean, you know, each
rehab that I went to I feel like really helped me a lot, and I learned more
and more about myself, and I learned more and more about, you know, this
disease and, you know, what it takes to stay sober and how to sort of learn
how to take care of yourself and love yourself and everything. None of the--I
mean, each time that I relapsed after going into treatment, I don't think that
that meant that those treatment centers failed me or anything or that--it just
was that I just wasn't ready. You know?

This last treatment center I went to, I was absolutely, did not want to go.
You know, this is a little over two years ago. And I was basically coerced
into treatment. And, you know, once I got there, I didn't want to stay,
either. And it's not fun, you know? I mean, you're being told what to do
every second of the day and, you know, you have to sleep in a room with three
other people. I mean, so it's not like--if I could do it--if I could've done
it without having to go to rehab, I definitely would've preferred to do that.
And it's expensive, too, you know. I mean, it's just, it's hard, you know,
for sure.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people say that if you're an addict, you're not
really going to be ready to stop until you've bottomed out. You seemed to hit
bottom like a whole bunch of times.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yeah.

GROSS: One of which was when your arm got so badly infected from shooting up
that when you finally went to the emergency room, the doctor thought he might
need to amputate your arm--well somebody would need--a surgeon would need to
amputate your arm.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yeah.

GROSS: So how come incidents like that weren't enough to get you to think,
`Wow, I better stop. I'm killing myself.'

Mr. N. SHEFF: Well, I guess, I mean, part of it, again, is that I think
that killing myself was OK with me. You know, I mean, I sort of knew that
that was what I was doing, and I was sort of resigned to that. And also, you
know, I guess there's a point where you feel like you've gone so far down that
building your life back after, you know, having let everyone down again and
having, you know, disappointed people and, you know, and overdrawn your bank
account and lost your cell phone and lost your job and, you know, lost your
car. I mean, it just feels like, at certain points, like to just start over
and to try to like rebuild my whole life again is just too much. And so, you
know, I might as well just ride this out till the end and just, you know, see
it through until, yeah, until I do die, you know.

But there was--I mean, there was something inside of me that I guess believed
that maybe things could get better somehow, I mean, even against all, you
know, rationale or whatever. And that little bit of hope, you know, was what
I was able to hold onto. And it's gotten me here, thank God, so.

GROSS: David and Nic Sheff will be back in the second half of the show.
David's new memoir is called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His
Son's Addiction." Nic's memoir is called "Tweak: Growing Up on
Methamphetamines." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about how
addiction affects not only the addict, but the addict's whole family. My
guest, journalist David Sheff, has written a memoir about his son Nic's
addiction to methamphetamine. It's called "Beautiful Boy." Nic is 25 now and
has been sober for over two years. Nic is also with us. He's written a new
memoir, too. It's called "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines." When we
left off, we were talking about Nic's experiences in rehab.

I guess one of the things that you both had trouble with in the rehab programs
was the quote "God talk."

Mr. D. SHEFF: Mm.

GROSS: Now, in the Alcoholics Anonymous model, you look toward a higher power
to give you strength.

Mr. D. SHEFF: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there is a saying that goes, "Let go and let God." David, you
describe in your memoir how you were, or still are an atheist, and raised Nic
without religion. Did either...

Mr. D. SHEFF: No I too felt guilty--I know you asked me about what I felt
guilty for. I felt guilty for that, too. When we heard from some people that
the only way to get sober and stay sober is to embrace that, and they try to
broaden it by saying, you know, God can be whatever you conceive him to be;
it's a higher power, and things like that, it was--I don't know if Nic would
say that it was just an excuse to resist; but, you know, but I think
ultimately I learned--and I think he learned--that you could not deny some of
those basic principles, including the first one, which is, you know--Nic
didn't agree for a long time that he was powerless over his addiction. He
thought he was in control. He had to nearly die, you know, more than once
before he finally, I think, accepted that. And once you accept that, I think
you're in the door.

Mr. N. SHEFF: But just to add, I think that God thing, you know, in 12-step
programs and then recovery, I think it is a huge problem. Because I tried,
you know, I spent a lot of time, you know, trying so hard to practice prayer
and doing all this stuff to make myself, you know, come to believe; and
ultimately, you know, when I sit with myself in the quiet moments, you know,
when I'm alone, you know, I don't believe. You know, I think that for people
who are just fundamentally, you know, don't believe in God or any, you know,
reason to this world or anything, I think that they are at a disadvantage in
terms of getting help through these kinds of programs, absolutely.

GROSS: So...

Mr. D. SHEFF: But the other thing that I think is really important that we
learned is that there isn't just one way. There isn't just one way to get
healthy and sober and to stop using. I thought it was really--the first thing
that Nic told me about when he arrived at this last program was he sat with a
counselor, and the counselor said to him, you know, `Why are you here?' And by
then he was a perfect student of rehabs, and so he said what he thought they
expected him to say, which is, `I'm here because I'm a drug addict and an
alcoholic.' And the guy said, `Well, wait, let's--no, why are you a drug
addict and alcoholic? You know, why are you trying to kill yourself?' That's
what that rehab was all about. It was about trying to figure out what was
going on inside. And that's what, you know--it's different for everybody, but
for Nic, I think that, I mean, you know, that's what's he says, that those
three months were essential.

GROSS: So did that program not rely on the higher power principle?

Mr. N. SHEFF: It didn't rely on it completely, no. I mean, there was
definitely that was there, and that was a part of it; but there was a lot of
like experimental therapies and stuff that they did there. And, you know, I
sort of got to really go back and sort of re-experience some of the traumas
that I experienced growing up and sort of re-live them and grieve them, you
know, for the first time, you know, really allow myself to grieve them and to
come to understand who I am; and to learn, you know, as trite as it sounds or
whatever, to learn how to love myself. And today, you know, like I don't want
to kill myself, you know. I don't at all. I love my life and stuff, and yet
it doesn't have anything to do with a higher power for me, you know. But for
a ton of people it does, you know, and I'm certainly not dissing anybody that
feels that way, absolutely.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

David, did you find, you know, something that you could describe as a higher
power?

Mr. D. SHEFF: I mean, I learned to define it in a way that worked for me,
which is it's something about our humanity. When I went to Al-Anon meetings,
I was told by someone, `Before this is over, you will believe in God.' That
transformation didn't happen to me, but I do believe in prayer. It was a way
that I got through. I never planned to pray. I never said, `I'm going to
pray; I'm going to do what they told me.' But all of a sudden, there were
moments where I found myself praying and it was a way to get through.

GROSS: What does prayer mean to you, if you don't believe in a god?

Mr. D. SHEFF: You know, it's a really good question and I don't even know
the answer. I guess it was a reflection of how desperate I was that
unconsciously, without saying `I'm going to pray,' I was saying, `Please,
please, please save Nic. Please help heal my son.' I remember that's what I
chanted to myself over and over and over again. And it was a way just to stay
sane and to stay focused on something that, you know, that I could hold on to.
Or maybe I was, you know, hedging my bets. Maybe I was praying in a way, you
know, in case someone out there was listening.

GROSS: My guests are David Sheff and his son Nic. David's new memoir is
called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction." Nic
Sheff has been sober for over two years. He's also written a memoir. It's
called "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are David Sheff and Nic Sheff. David is a journalist who's
just written a memoir about his son's addiction to methamphetamine, and his
son Nic has just written a memoir about his own addiction. David's book is
called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction," and
Nic's book is called "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines."

Nic, you make it seem that there's a--the part of what saved you from your
meth addiction was a degree of self-knowledge that you were helped to acquire
in your last rehab.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And that, I think, was the rehab in which you were diagnosed with
having bipolar disorder, which is basically manic depression. Did that help,
getting that diagnosis and then getting the medication to deal with the
diagnosis?

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yes. I mean, absolutely. You know, it's so, I think, it's
like very, very subtle. And I am on a ton of--not a ton, but I'm on two
different medications, and one of them is a bipolar medication. And it's so
subtle. I mean, I couldn't even tell you necessarily, you know, what the
difference is or how it's helping me, but I think that it's definitely, you
know, one little piece of the puzzle in terms of learning how to be able to
live with yourself, you know, a little bit more. And yeah, so I think if that
you need it, if you get a really good doctor that knows what they're doing
and, you know, they can help you, I think that's awesome, absolutely.

Mr. D. SHEFF: It's sort of a, you know, it's something I think people know
about, think people talk about this idea that a lot of people who use drugs
are indeed self-medicating for whatever: depression, bipolar disorder and
many, many other disorders. And I think the research shows that 70 to 80
percent of people who wind up in rehab are diagnosed with something else. And
I was told that kids with bipolar disorder, a person with bipolar disorder
would gravitate to methamphetamines specifically because there are some
similarities in the drugs that--there are some sort of, you know, they're in
the same family or something like that of the drugs that actually treat
bipolar disorder.

Nic tells a story in his book that, to me, is so profound, and it's stunning,
just a beautiful way, I think. He came to see us--Karen, my wife, and Jasper
and Daisy. We were in--we hadn't seen Nic for a long time; and Karen said,
you know, `Let's invite Nic to join us.' We were going on a family vacation,
and so Nic came over to see us. And we were hanging out, we had a really good
time. It was, you know, we talked a lot. Nic was very open and he talked to
the kids about what had been going on, and he sort of apologized to them in a
way that, I think it was just so meaningful to them, and to Karen and to me.
And we had a really good time.

And then he describes, the day before he was leaving, he got just really
annoyed by us, and he talked about, you know, he was ready to kill me. And
all of a sudden it hit him that, `Tomorrow I'm leaving. That's what's going
on here. I'm setting my--I don't really want to leave. Part of me wants to
stay here and be a child again, be, you know, with my family. And so I'm sort
of setting'--and then all of a sudden he said this, `I feel better now.' And
he went back and the rest of the trip was great, and we had a really nice last
day. But then he said, `I spent so--what just happened?' He said, `Another
time in my life, that moment would've just been the beginning of a descent,
and it would've been the kind of descent that would've ended up in me going
out to have a drink or to get some pot and then some meth.' And just quickly,
he said, `Could it be the fact that I'm on this new medication?' And I just
thought it was such a beautiful description of the way that it all works
together.

GROSS: Well, let me read another family moment, kind of similar, from Nic's
memoirs; and he writes--this is when he's visiting, David, you and your family
in San Francisco, and he's on the verge of leaving. He's ready, it's time to
leave and go back to LA. So he's describing an overwhelming sense of sadness
and depression taking hold of him as he leaves you and your family. And he
says: "I guess mostly it has to do with that same old desire I have, to be a
part of this wonderful family my dad has created with Karen," your wife. And
then he says, "But gradually I realize that all those feelings of dreading
leaving are being replaced with just wanting to get the hell out of there.
Suddenly I can't wait to leave, get back on my own, not to have to deal with
this cutesy, overprotected, sugarcoated world of my dad's family. They're
keeping their children so naive, so unable to cope with the hardships of the
REAL world," and "real" is capitalized.

Nic, what struck you as, you know, you loved this family, this special family
that your dad created that you so much want to be a part of, and then you had
this opposite feeling, that it's fake, it's cutesy, that your younger siblings
can't deal with the hardships of the world? Would you explain that counter
view?

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, you know, in my life, when
there's a feeling of pain or uncomfortable--uncomfortability, whatever the
word is, you know, I guess my initial reaction is to start criticizing
whatever it is that, you know, that I feel uncomfortable about or whatever.
So it's like, you know, `Oh, well, I really, you know, I really do feel a lot
of pain, you know, and I have felt a lot of longing, of wishing that, you
know, I could be a part of, you know, like really, really a part of my dad's
family and, you know, just, I mean, you know, another sibling with my little
brother and sister, and to just, you know, go to school with them and, you
know do all the things that they do, do the swim team and stuff.

And it's sad for me that, you know, sometimes that I've had to deal with
different things and that I didn't, you know, get that same upbringing and
everything. So I think that there's a piece of me that, you know, when I see
something that causes me pain like that, I just want to tear it apart; you
know, making myself feel better by disconnecting from it and, you know,
criticizing it and sort of putting it in its place so that I can feel superior
or something.

GROSS: So when you call the world of your father's family cutesy and
overprotective--because I will point out that you had a--even though your
parents were divorced, you had a pretty privileged upbringing. I mean, both
of your parents lived quite comfortably.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And, you know what I mean? You were still so protected from a lot of
things, and given so many opportunities.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Yes. That's true, absolutely. And I'm super grateful for
that. Yeah, I mean, I'm super grateful for, you know, my upbringing. I
think, you know, again, when I was at this last treatment center and stuff and
I was talking a lot about, you know, the way that I was raised and everything,
you know, I think it's, you know, there are two sides to it.

I think I was--I'm really, really grateful in that I had so many incredible
experiences and, you know, I mean, my dad has always been like, you know, one
of my best friends. You know, and my mom and I are so close and stuff. So I
mean, you know, I really have been really lucky. I think there was a lot of
the fast-paced lifestyle that I was living in that was, you know, confusing
and stuff for me. It doesn't necessarily mean it was bad, it just was
confusing. And so, you know, I think that I was--I mean, I was struggling
with my own pain and suffering and everything. You know, maybe it wasn't--you
know, I mean, obviously I'm so much more privileged than so many people, you
know, and I understand that, you know.

And, I mean, you know, it's a confusing thing. I know people who, you know--I
mean, one of my best friends right now, you know, I mean, he grew up just with
nothing, you know, and basically didn't even have either parent around, and,
you know, he's just this great guy living this great life. And he's never
been a drug addict or, you know, done anything. So I mean it's certainly, you
know, I mean, you can't blame, you know, you can't blame your upbringing or
anything. I mean, I don't believe--absolutely.

GROSS: My guests are David Sheff and Nic Sheff. David is a journalist who's
just written a memoir about his son's addiction to methamphetamine, and his
son Nic has just written a memoir about his own addiction. David's book is
called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction," and
Nic's book is called "Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines."

David, there's another part of your story, which is while you're going through
all of this with your son and he's kind of, you know, getting deeper and
deeper into a hole with his habit, you had a brain hemorrhage. And the
doctors had to drill a hole in your skull to relieve the brain pressure from
the swelling. You lost your memory for a while, and you describe how you
can't remember your name, you can't remember who the president is, which the
doctors are always asking you who's the president. You don't know the date.
What you're remembering is that you're worried about your son. `How's Nic?
Where's Nic?' You want to remember his phone number because you want to give
the phone number to the doctors to call him. You can't remember the phone
number.

Mr. D. SHEFF: Yeah.

GROSS: What does it say to you that when you couldn't remember your name you
remembered that you were worried about Nic?

Mr. D. SHEFF: Yeah, it was a nightmare, to have been in that, you know, to
be in that ICU and it was--I was aware when the doctor asked me my name that I
didn't know the answer, but I knew that I should know that's a question I
should be able to answer. But somehow, through, you know, some deeper, more,
I don't know, maybe a primal place inside me, there was this knowledge that my
son was in danger. And I was desperate and I was out of control. The nurses
who took care of me all night would tell you that I was a lunatic, you know,
with this obsession with trying to find out if Nic was OK. I wanted to call
him, thought that I had to call him.

It just told me something about what it means to be a parent, about how deeply
connected we are to our kids. It was deeper even than my identity, the sense
that my son was out there somewhere and that he was in danger.

GROSS: Well, the way you describe it, there's another revelation that you had
as a result of the brain hemorrhage, which is that you realized that you could
die and that your children, including Nic, they were going to live with you or
without you. And what did you realize after that realization?

Mr. D. SHEFF: One of the things that I realized--and it was a revelation,
because of course intellectually I knew this, but I think deeply, emotionally,
I didn't know--that Nic--or Jasper and Daisy, you know--are separate from me
and they will have lives separate from me. And I think parents--at least some
parents--at least have a hard time with that idea, at least have a hard time
accepting it and living it. And there was a sense--you know, through this
whole process--it wasn't just through my hemorrhage, but through watching Nic,
I realized ultimately that, as much as I would do everything in my power to
save the life of my son, it wasn't up to me ultimately. It was up to him.
And it was a hard, hard, hard lesson, but it was essential because it's true.

And I think that, you know, it shifted things in a way that I think was really
good for us, for our relationship. Because in a way, when I no longer was
trying to carry all the burden of Nic's recovery, in a very subtle but still
important way, I think it shifted the burden back on his own shoulders. You
know, it was maybe a very small piece of the puzzle that, you know, of things
that have happened since then that have shifted things so dramatically for
him.

GROSS: Well, listen, congratulations to both of you on the books and on the
sobriety, Nic.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Thank you.

GROSS: And, you know, good luck with, you know, continuing it and everything.
I wish you well. Thank you both so much.

Mr. N. SHEFF: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. D. SHEFF: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: David Sheff's new memoir is called "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey
Through His Son's Addiction." Nic Sheff's memoir is called "Tweak: Growing up
on Methamphetamines."

Here's the John Lennon Song that inspired the title of David's memoir
"Beautiful Boy."

(Soundbite of "Beautiful Boy")

Mr. JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Close your eyes
Have no fear
The monster's gone
He's on the run
And your daddy's here

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,
Beautiful boy
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,
Beautiful boy

Before you go to sleep
Say a little prayer
Every day in every way
It's getting better and better

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,
Beautiful boy

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, our critic at large John Powers reviews a film trilogy
based on the lives of Jews who fled the Nazis. It's been hard to see, but it
just came out on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: John Powers on the Austrian film trilogy "Where To and
Back," recently released on DVD
TERRY GROSS, host:

The late Axel Corti was a Paris-born Austrian filmmaker best known
internationally for a trilogy made in the 1980s called "Where To and Back"
about the fate of Jewish refugees during the Third Reich. After years of
being hard to see, the trilogy was screened in January at Lincoln Center to
sold-out audiences and is now available on DVD from the National Center for
Jewish Film, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring, preserving and
presenting films about Jewish history and culture. Our critic at large John
Powers saw the films when they came out and says they're so good he's been
dying to see them again ever since.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: Back in the 1980s, I once spent a long afternoon trying to
convince the LA film critics to give their Best Film prize to "Where To and
Back," an Austrian trilogy based on the life of its screenwriter, Georg Stefan
Troller, a Viennese Jew who'd fled the Nazis. I failed, not least because
almost nobody had seen it. To this day, most people have never even heard of
these movies, although they offer one of the richest, most sophisticated
portraits of Nazi-era flight, emigre life and post-war rebuilding. Luckily,
all that should change now that the films have finally come out on DVD.

The trilogy opens with "God Doesn't Believe in Us Anymore," a gripping tale
that starts right after Kristallnacht. It follows a young Viennese Jew,
Ferry, who decides to get out of Austria. As he goes from Prague to Paris, we
meet a rich range of characters, including Jewish refugees--all briskly
individualized--a German dissident brilliantly played by Armin Mueller-Stahl
and some not-so-decent Frenchmen, who put him in a camp. Ferry eventually
escapes and takes a boat to America.

The second film is called "Santa Fe," and it begins with a new hero, Freddy,
arriving in New York during the war, with fantasies of being a cowboy out
West. Instead, he's just one of a boatload of Jewish refugees struggling in
an America that doesn't really want them. At one point, he's reduced to
stealing bits of bread tossed to the pigeons. As Freddy slowly becomes an
American, we get a remarkable picture of New York's emigre community, with its
nostalgias, delusions, face-saving lies and bursts of generosity from those so
battered by life they would seem to have no kindness left to share.

By "Welcome to Vienna," the trilogy's undeniable masterwork, Freddy is a Yank
soldier riding into Vienna. But his old home has been destroyed, in every
sense. Vienna is now a city rife with moral ambiguity, and the personalities
such ambiguity engenders. There's the disillusioned communist Adler, the
charming black marketeer Treschensky and the lovely Nazi's daughter Claudia,
who Freddy can't help but fall for. This is the new Austria, where everyone,
from crooks to governments, rewrites the past for immediate gain. I'm not
joking when I say that this movie's intelligence and complexity make that
other great post-war Vienna film "The Third Man" seem naive by comparison.

That's because the whole trilogy, which was directed by Axel Corti, is steeped
in the worldliness that once made Vienna the great international city of wit,
conversation, lacerating irony and psychosexual exploration. These qualities
defined the Viennese directors who wound up in Hollywood: Erich von Stroheim,
Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang. And as critic David Thompson has noted, Axel Corti,
who died in 1993, was their heir. Indeed, "Where to and Back" glows with that
city's sensibility, from its unsparing view of human frailty to the haunting
use of the adagio from Schubert's string quintet.

What makes the trilogy great is that it does two hard things at once. First,
it takes an epic story and gives it an ordinary human scale, free of hokum or
obvious lessons about how the Holocaust was horrible. Of course it was.
Rather than play up the melodrama, their version of Kristallnacht isn't full
of run amok Nazis or wailing shopkeepers; it's just worried old women sweeping
up glass.

Nor do they turn their characters into generic victims. They're fascinated by
individuals and what life does to them. "Santa Fe" begins with a young Jewish
woman getting off the refugee boat, rushing to the car of a waiting aunt, and
then riding off without helping any of her shipmates. Having cheated death,
she just wants to get away. And it's part of Corti's brilliance that we don't
judge her for ignoring her fellow refugees; we understand. Some people help.
Some don't.

And by the end, we also understand history's power to carry individuals along
willy nilly. Freddy was driven from Vienna by forces bigger than him; and
when he returns, history's still making the rules. Back in Vienna, he still
finds himself standing on historical quicksand. While the US government is
busy making deals with ex-Nazis to fight the communists, the opportunistic
Austrians try to blame everything on the Germans. They want to go back to
business as usual. Disillusioned and worn, Freddy does not. But he's not
quite sure what to do. And in this, he's a quintessentially modern hero. In
"Where To and Back," Corti and Troller wind up posing the question that we all
must face: How do we live happy, decent, self-defining lives when we are like
corks bobbing on the waves of history?

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed three films by the
late filmmaker Axel Corti. They're now out on DVD.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:07

Has Tucker Carlson created the most racist show in the history of cable news?

The NY Times did an exhaustive survey of the Fox News hosts' broadcasts. Reporter Nicholas Confessore says Carlson's show is based on ideas that were once "caged in a dark corner of American life."

08:23

You can't 'Trust' this novel. And that's a very good thing

Hernan Diaz’s new novel, Trust, is about the power of money in the stock market, and its potential, as a character says, "to bend and align reality" to its own purposes.

42:05

British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue