Sheff is the author of A Beautiful Boy
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We must change our understanding of people who’re addicted: David Sheff – books author interview

It was after the release of David Sheff’s book A Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, in 2008, that many around the world understood the broader implications of addiction and the drastic impact it has on the individual and their family. The author says that pushing them into the dark corners of society alienates them even more and that needs to be understood. “We must change our understanding of addicted people. We must learn and teach others that addicts are not bad people who lack morals and willpower. They are not people who make bad and selfish decisions, because addiction is not an option, nobody wants to be addicted, “says the author, whose book was adapted into a movie starring Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet.

In his latest book The Buddhist on Death Row, he discusses issues related to “race, social justice, criminal justice and spirituality”, which come together in the story of a death row inmate he met. Excerpts from the interview:

How did the idea for ‘The Buddhist on Death Row’ come about?

I have been interested in issues related to race, social justice, criminal justice and spirituality, and they all came together in the story of a prisoner sentenced to death that I met. His name is Jarvis Masters and he was a friend of a friend. She had become a supporter, working to prove her innocence. He spoke not only about his case, but about his life in SanQuentin, where he had been on death row for 30 years, 22 of those years in solitary confinement. It felt incongruous to hear her say that this man was the most remarkable person she had ever known, kind, caring, and wise. He helped her in her life and the lives of others, all of which was remarkable when you consider that she lived in a tiny cell in an institution with 3,500 other men convicted of some of the worst crimes imaginable. So, I went to meet him and investigated his case. The evidence clearly shows that he is innocent, but his appeals go through the courts at an icy pace.

I have been interested in issues related to race, social justice, criminal justice and spirituality, and they all came together in the story of a prisoner sentenced to death that I met. His name is Jarvis Masters and he was a friend of a friend.

When I met him and returned over the course of several years, I saw what his friend described. Masters has every reason to be bitter and angry, but he’s open, funny, cheerful, and kind to others. He has written books that have helped people, including children in gangs and who grew up in violent homes. The more I learned about his life (he had been, as he described himself, “a bully” who had become a Buddhist teacher), the more intrigued I became. I saw how his story was one of forgiveness, injustice, suffering, and healing. That is why I decided to write about him. It was a difficult story to tell because a person’s spiritual journey is not external but internal. Over the years that I wrote the book, I had to learn to describe the very subtle and incremental process of how people can change.

You have been working as a journalist for years, how has that experience helped you choose and study your subjects? Has that experience made you a better writer?

Working as a journalist for years has helped me hone my interests. I have learned that writing a book is a commitment of years, years in which you are immersed in a topic and in the people in your story. So I have learned to be very careful when choosing a topic. I reversed the courses in the books, rejected them, when I realized that I did not want to spend years with subjects who were vile, selfish and cruel. Instead, I wanted to spend time with people that inspired me and that I could learn from and that others could learn from. Since then, I have chosen my subjects very carefully. And it’s not just that I’m aware of the type of people I’ll be writing about, but choosing a topic raises a big question as to whether the story is worth telling given the world we live in. It has to have meaning and importance; otherwise why do it? The point was clear when I wrote Beautiful Boy. I wrote our family history to help process our family’s experience when my oldest son became addicted to drugs, but the book opened me up to a world of people suffering from addictions and mental illness. I realized the ubiquity of the problem and the extent of the damage. In addition, I learned about the failure of the system to provide care for people with addictions and mental illness and to provide for their families. I started writing on a topic that was meaningful to many people who often felt alone in their suffering. I realized that writing can help expose social injustice, drive progress, and support people who urgently need support. I realized that I only wanted to write about topics with the potential to help people.

The stigma around addiction is the biggest obstacle we have in helping these sick people. It makes it harder for people to get treatment. They are embarrassed and made to feel guilty.

Even with A Beautiful Boy, you had warned that addicts need care and support just as much as they need rehabilitation assistance. In countries like India and many around the world, the practice of considering them purely criminal exists widely. How do you change that perception that society has?

You are so right that we must change our understanding of addicted people. We must learn and teach others that addicts are not bad people who lack morals and willpower. They are not people who make bad and selfish decisions, because addiction is not an option: nobody wants to be addicted. Nobody wants to commit the crimes and engage in other bad behavior that is often associated with addiction. People who are addicted do things that they would never do if their brains weren’t somehow hijacked by drugs. Therefore, we must see them understanding their condition, suffering from brain disease, and treating them with compassion and acknowledging that they are ill and need medical attention, not judgment. They need to be treated with addiction medications, behavior therapy, peer support, and other evidence-based treatments. The stigma around addiction is the biggest obstacle we have in helping these sick people. It makes it more difficult for people to receive treatment and be successful in treatment. They are ashamed and made to feel guilty. When we realize that addiction can happen to anyone (no family is immune) and we realize that it is not a choice (substance use disorders are recognized as psychiatric illnesses) we change our perception of those affected. We stopped blaming and judging them and their families. Instead, we can offer our compassion and they can enter a treatment system based on science, not prejudice.

Steve Carell rehearsed the role of Sheff in the adaptation with Timothee Chalamet playing his son.

Steve Carell rehearsed the role of Sheff in the adaptation with Timothee Chalamet playing his son.

They made changes, for example Steve Carrel, who plays me in the movie (and yes, it is strange that the actor who plays Michael Scott in “The Office” plays me), one night he goes out to try methamphetamine because he wants to see what your son is experiencing, and I never did that.

How has your life changed after Beautiful Boy? At this point, you have a good experience in film adaptations. What do you think of it, since many authors believe that a book should retain its power to stimulate the imagination …

He was reluctant to accept a film adaptation of Beautiful Boy. Authors are often disappointed when Hollywood takes their stories and turns them into something else entirely, but this was even riskier. Beautiful Boy is not a story made up by a fictional author, it is a memory of the very real experience of my family. Deciding to trust someone to take that story personally and make a movie was a long and careful process. Our family decided to move on after talking a lot about it and meeting with the filmmakers; the producers had made other great films (12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, Selma) and they, the director and the actors were committed to showing the experience as it was. – not a watered-down Hollywood version of what happened. I was still concerned, of course, because while I could control every word in my book, the filmmakers were licensed to interpret our story any way they wanted. They made changes, for example Steve Carrel, who plays me in the movie (and yes, it’s strange that the actor who plays Michael Scott in “The Office” plays me), one night he goes out to try the drug crystal meth because you want to see what your child is experiencing, and I never did that, but overall the movie reflects the emotional experience we go through, and I have heard from many people that watching the movie helped them. It was a revelation for them and their families. After watching the movie, people spoke openly about topics that had been hidden in the past. He even got some people to ask for help and get help for their addictions and other mental illnesses. It also brought many families together. For those reasons, the experience of having my book and my son Nic’s Tweak book adapted as a film was very positive and rewarding.

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