I wanted to read Hunter Biden’s book Beautiful Things when I heard it faced an issue that keeps popping up in my writing and research—stigma, in this case toward people in treatment for drug addiction.
It’s an issue of special relevance after the Centers for Disease Control reported this month a surge in drug overdoses during this past year of the pandemic.
Of course Hunter may be best known as a political punching bag over whether his international business work involved improper influences with his now-president father. The details Hunter offers about that brouhaha won’t surprise people who follow the news. But the book’s details of his alcohol and drug use are just crazy. It’s a well-told tale that deserves to be read because it’s such a common story of how the ferociousness of addiction isn’t afraid of anyone. Not even the powerful, privileged, and loved.
Beautiful Things offers a step forward in de-stigmatizing people in substance recovery simply because it’s by someone so well-known. For me it also raises questions about how to balance compassion with caution, especially toward people in public life. Addicts deserve support and understanding, but they also do very bad things. In a case like Hunter Biden’s, to what extent is his addiction a legitimate topic for public debate?
The popular media tells us regularly that we need to treat addiction as a disease rather than a character flaw or moral failing. But I’m not sure we really believe that. Or maybe we still harbor a private stigma against addicts because it’s the only way to explain the unexplainable. After all, Hunter’s brother never became addicted.
Hunter spent years sliding from alcoholism to becoming an expert crack cocaine addict. Arriving in any new town he could quickly find where the suppliers hung out. As recently as two years ago he was still spending his days and nights in a community of addicts.
Among what I learned reading the book was the answer to the mystery of what happed with Hunter’s laptop computer. His laptop became a presidential campaign issue last fall as accusations of whether scandalous information came from his hard drive or from Russian scammers.
The answer is that Hunter was in such a haze of fellow users conning him out of money and possessions to support each other’s habits that anything could have happened to his laptop.
Relapse after relapse
My knowledge of addiction and treatment programs started from near zero three years ago when I began work on a book about a restaurant that hired refugees and people in substance recovery. My knowledge is still pretty limited but I did hear enough stories with the same arc: a downward plummet, relapse after relapse, increasingly desperate narratives until you wonder how they were still alive—something they wonder themselves. And then it gets worse. Then still worse. Until you can’t stand to hear any more. And you only hear those stories from the ones who have lived through it. Not everyone survives.
The other commonalities of the stories is how they fail to explain why. Addictive tendencies are strongly and credibly associated with genetics and family history. They’re also associated with different kinds of trauma-related suffering. But how all that works together to affect one person but not another is one of the mysteries of life.
Hunter’s traumas have been well publicized, beginning with the car crash he was in as a child that killed his mother and sister. Less well known is a family history of drinking. But that background doesn’t explain how his use got out of control. His late brother Beau, who was with him in the car crash, drank only socially until giving it up completely. Hunter says his father never drank at all, having seen how it affected other members of the family. And the book is filled with the stories of family affection—Hunter never suffered from a lack of attention or support.
So for some reason Hunter started sneaking beers in high school. He was a poet and painter, but decided against pursuing a fine arts master’s degree. Instead he went to law school as a surer way of going into a business that could pay off his $160,000 in student loans. The plan worked. His ventures generated enough income to land his family comfortably into huge houses. It also financed a drug habit that ended his marriage and nearly his life.
Addiction horror story
The minutia in Beautiful Things makes compelling horror storytelling. Finally being unable to pour vodka into a glass, he drank straight from the bottle. He bought someone’s clean urine sample so he could pass a drug test. He missed a cross-country flight because he was sitting in his car smoking from his crack pipe figuring he would catch the next flight. Then the next one. Until, incredibly, he decided to drive from coast to coast. He made it as far as Nashville before stopping to find a crack supplier and settling in for an extended stay.
Then there are his relapses.
I lost count—a dozen or so—in and out of programs with a variety of approaches and philosophies. Reading that part of the book is excruciating. You just keep thinking, “Not again.” Sometimes a treatment program would work, for a few weeks. Other times he turned around before going in the door. Other times he didn’t even get that far. One of those rehab trips came only after dad showed up at Hunter’s apartment, with a slimmed-down vice-presidential security detail, telling him he was going to sit there until he promised to get treatment.
It was another family effort that finally worked, after backfiring at first.
Arriving for a phony family dinner party Hunter walked into a house full of relatives. Hunter immediately recognized it as an intervention to force him into a clinic. He blew up and stormed out, pausing only when Joe grabbed him in the driveway for a tearful hug.
That’s when Hunter gave up. He decided he would no longer even try to go straight. To hell with everything. He flew to California to disappear forever into addiction.
Love at first sight
One of his fellow addicts on the West Coast matched him up with Melissa Cohen and it was love at first site. They met in a restaurant where he unloaded his life story, telling her he was a crack addict. Her reply, he writes, was “not anymore.” A couple weeks later, May 16, 2019, they married.
In the research I’ve done, that’s the thing about addiction stories—you never know. And they’re as different as all the people in the world. One told me his life turned around when he looked down at his feet, bloodied from the effects of living homeless and not changing socks. Another said reading my interview with him helped, reminding him of a life he didn’t want to go back to. Hunter Biden writes that one of the disturbing parts of writing his book was that it reminded him of how much he loved the feeling of each first hit of crack.
One trait they all share is the “one day at a time” mantra, knowing they’ll never be done recovering. That they’re always one unforeseen slip away from returning to hell.
Another mantra of treatment programs is a good one for all of us—accountability. If you’re late for work or treat someone poorly, it’s no one else’s fault but yours. If you’re late often enough you deserve to be fired. If you’re mean enough to your family they’re well in their rights to leave.
How do those rules change when you’re a celebrity or a policy maker? Are you fair game, or should you get a break for having gone through a treatment program? What is the interplay between accountability, stigma, and compassion when you’re influential and in the public eye?
Beautiful Things doesn’t answer those questions. Who could? It does, however, provide a few examples that offer perspective.
Hunter describes lessons his father learned from years in the Senate, that you can disagree with other elected officials but you should never question their motives—assume they mean well.
There’s a description of Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is now deep in a wacky scandal of his own, criticizing Hunter during the Trump impeachment hearings. “I don’t want to make light of anybody’s substance abuse issues…I’m not…casting any judgment…”
Gaetz was, of course, casting judgment, but was that really completely out of line? Hunter is in a position of influence, after all. The answer may be another question: in politics and public life, do we need to be so mean?
A large lesson of the book is there are no answers that work all the time.
Hunter cites one imperfect but reasonable response, when then-President Donald Trump attacked Hunter during a presidential debate. He quotes then-candidate Joe Biden as responding with one of the “Beautiful Things” of the book’s title: “My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
When unsatisfying answers to life lead to judgment and stigma, one hopeful way forward can be finding ways to be proud of each other.