‘Beautiful Boy’ author David Sheff speaks at HLS

Anna Johnston, Contributing Writer

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff is a “fiercely candid memoir” about coping with a child struggling with drug addiction. West Liberty was lucky to have Sheff present as part of the Hughes Lecture Series last week. Sheff gave an emotional and thought-provoking talk about his book and the response it, and later its on-screen adaption, received.

The Hughes Lecture Series began at West Liberty in 1978 and has been a popular event at the university ever since. This year’s guest speaker, Sheff, was introduced in College Hall by Dr. Scott Hanna as a “best selling author and prolific journalist.” Sheff published his 2008 book Beautiful Boy based on his New York Times article about his son, Nic’s, battle against drug use. The book went on to have a screen adaption made in 2018 starring Steve Carell as Sheff and Timothee Chalamet as Nic. The article, memoir and movie all had a significant impact on thousands of people who could relate to their story which Sheff discussed in depth in his lecture.

Sheff started by thanking West Liberty for having him and made note of how much he liked the campus and the atmosphere here. He then kicked off his talk by talking about the drug problem that exists int the USA. “We’re losing more Americans to overdose than car accidents and gun violence,” said Sheff. He mentioned that 200 people die each day in America due to drug use, yet no one really talks about it. It is a problem that is ignored but that every community suffers from.

Stories from Nic’s childhood, and Sheff’s experience as a divorced parent were mentioned before going into detail about the struggle of dealing with an addicted child. “I had an image of what drug addiction looked like and it did not look the child that I’m describing,” said Sheff. Nic tried his first drugs at age 11 and at the time Sheff brushed it off as experimenting and “rite of passage” after being reassured by his teachers that it was perfectly normal. He later realized, after research, that “the younger a person is when they try drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted.” Sheff discussed the numerous times that Nic had gone into rehab and how every time he would stay sober for a while only to disappear again causing panic and fear as a parent. “Every time I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did,” said Sheff.

Sheff went on to discuss his decision to publish his Nic’s story. They both agreed, despite warnings against it and lots of back-and-forth’s, that telling their story was the best thing to do leading to Sheff’s article being published in the New York Times Magazine. Sheff discussed the overwhelming response to his article and the outpouring of support he received. The number of similar stories he got from readers he said made him realize that “in spite of going through this cycle of hell for 10 years, we were the lucky ones.” This type of response only increased with the publication of Beautiful Boy and then the on-screen version.

Sheff made light of the number of Timothee Chalamet fan accounts that followed him on twitter and the Steve Carell jokes made following the movie but made clear that the movie helped to reach so many people.

Photo Credit: Anna Johnson

The lecture concluded after talking about the feeling of shame when opening up about addiction in your family and how important it is to realize that you are not alone. He discussed how it took him a long time to understand why his son was using drugs. “To me it looked like he was making a choice so it didn’t make any sense,” said Sheff. Later, he realized that we need to start treating addiction like the illness it is in order to fight the shame and stigma.

After taking a few questions from the audience, the talk came to a close with a huge round of applause. Some of Sheff’s books including Beautiful Boy, it’s follow-up Clean, Sheff and his son’s co-written book High for middle schoolers and Nic’s book Tweak were available for purchase and to be signed by Sheff in the ASRC building after. Sheff was valuable and inspiring speaker to have as part of the Hughes Lecture Series.

Photo Credit: davidsheff.com