Updated at 10:02 a.m. ET on May 10, 2021.
Stay sober for a while, and you stop being shocked by what people did in the grip of addiction. I’ve heard people confess to incest, to snorting carpets like a vacuum cleaner just in case something fell into the pile, to defrauding clients of millions of dollars, and—I admit this one made me gasp—to performing an amputation on himself amid a drug-induced mania.
Once I found the courage to put the ugliest parts of myself out there, my reward was to find that no one really cared. I was relieved but also, to be honest, initially kind of offended—Hey, this is a big deal for me; couldn’t you be just a little impressed? I still had a perverse pride in my addiction—a very sick humblebrag. But when someone checks their watch while you’re baring your soul, believing you’re worse—or better or that different—than the people around you is a little difficult.
Twelve-step critics say that the point of all this intimate sharing is humiliation for the sake of “breaking you down,” but in the best version of the practice, you experience no humiliation, just humility. The exercise strips away what others think of your addiction; you confront who you are without the judgment, or approval, of anyone else.
We eschew last names in “the rooms” not just to keep our outside identity a secret to others—it also helps us shed that outside identity ourselves. I thought a lot about the gift of anonymity and humility while reading Hunter Biden’s new memoir about addiction, Beautiful Things. I wondered if he’d ever been truly anonymous—to himself, if not others—in the rooms.
Coverage of the book has dwelled on what normal folks find shocking: His months-long crack binges, when he consorted with hustlers, exotic dancers, and bouncers. But when I read a celebrity’s memoir on addiction, that stuff doesn’t grab me. What I want to know is whether we share a rehab alma mater (and I feel a weird form of school pride when we do). I also look for the kind of humility I’ve seen in others in recovery, the same kind I have to keep working on myself.
I did find the book interesting, but mostly for what it didn’t say and where it didn’t go: I read almost 300 pages of tawdry confession, but I could count the times I felt close to him on one hand.
Here is where I should note that a couple of years ago, my agent pitched me on ghostwriting what I presume is this book. Was I interested? I was! The big New Yorker piece about Hunter Biden had just come out; it focused mainly on his dealings with Burisma, but also exposed some of the most recent episodes in his addiction. The article raised many questions, none of them about oil and gas. I wanted to know if he had somehow grappled with being “the other son” of Joe Biden. What is it like to be the one whom no one talks about as a potential presidential candidate? Has he been able to figure out who he is without Joe, without Beau?
I didn’t get the ghostwriting job; I also still don’t know the answers to these questions.
Biden’s book is, self-consciously and explicitly, an answer to the Fox News chyron “Where’s Hunter?” The lurid stories he recounts—cooking crack at the Chateau Marmont, getting a gun pointed at him in an urban encampment—seem to have been accepted by many readers as proof of candor, but telling embarrassing stories about yourself is possible without actually letting anyone in.
At one point, before his slide into hard-drug use, Biden meets with King Abdullah of Jordan on behalf of refugees (an opportunity derived, he says, from “nepotism, in the best way possible”) while undergoing alcohol withdrawal. The potentially ignominious event winds up being something of a résumé polisher, as “thoughts of those vodka mini-bottles back at my hotel were quickly subsumed by the gravity of our conversation.” He points out that the king eventually softened his policy.
Later in the book, strung out in a Malibu Airbnb, he muses that his near-failure with King Abdullah could have been his bottom if only he hadn’t taken up crystallized cocaine. These sordid days in Southern California are when his ego is worn to its thinnest. He no longer believes that he’ll ever get sober. “I stopped trying to fool others into thinking I was okay. I stopped trying to fool myself,” he writes. But he still measures his low point against really specific heights: the tête-à-tête with the King of Jordan, campaigning with his dad.
Privileged people exposing the costs of their addiction definitely has value; it illustrates how the disease doesn’t discriminate. That fact can’t be repeated enough. But as a privileged person in recovery, I’ve found something else just as valuable: However outsiders perceive the distance of a fall, your bottom hits you just as hard no matter where you start.
Biden writes ruefully about his bottom, how much money he spent on drugs and how much his fellow addicts stole. He was on the board of Burisma almost the entire time. When he performs the pro-and-con analysis of whether he’d take the job again, he notes that the cushy gig gave him the ability to attend to Beau during his final days, a gift no one should begrudge him. The thing he doesn’t mention explicitly is that his Burisma salary also funded his extended debauch. Forget the political scandal that his board position generated; what I would have given for him to meditate on the fully accounted trade-off he made in his personal life.
Throughout, Biden’s proximity to depravity and desperation—a sort of class tourism—is buffered by whiteness and wealth. He is always just one phone call away from another rehab or someone coming to rescue him. Indeed, his salvation arrives in the form of his now-wife, Melissa, whom he was set up with by a group he met at the pool at Los Angeles’s Petit Ermitage, where rates start at $300 a night.*
On the strength of one date, Melissa took him in and cut off his contact with his party pals. He slept for three days, and then he proposed. He testifies to sublime contentment. They have a son they’ve named Beau.
I can’t criticize Biden for any of that. I married one of the first people I met in sobriety too. If Biden is sober and happy today, hey, whatever works. But I wonder if he’s figured out who he is without the scrutiny of the press or the aid of his family. Who he is when he’s the only person to get sober for.
I sat with one particular paragraph of his book for a long time. Soon after Beau’s death, Biden sallies to another treatment center, this time under an assumed name. But as “Hunter Smith,” he declares that he feels like he’s playacting: “Yet for me to talk as ‘Hunter Smith’ about the loss of someone as close to me as my brother felt less than authentic, particularly when so many had seen me give his eulogy on TV less than two months before.”
My first reaction was that he was greatly overestimating how much interest, or memory, alcoholics and addicts in rehab have for the news. (I was in treatment during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden; I didn’t find out about it for weeks.) Then I wondered, what exactly was the sticking point here? That other guests wouldn’t be able to know the depths of his grief if they didn’t know Beau Biden was whom he’d lost? Or was it that they wouldn’t be able to understand his mourning if they didn’t know that Hunter Biden was who was grieving?
If I sound unduly judgy of Biden’s story, it’s because I don’t like how familiar it is. I thought I was hot shit too. I worried about people “finding out who I was.” I once tried to leave treatment because I didn’t want to miss the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and I cried when I canceled the rental of my fancy dress.
But early out of that treatment, I decided not to talk about my media job in a way that made it sound different from what an old colleague used to call a “jobby-job.” Media inflates, even as it deflates. Worrying about someone “finding out who I was” was just the flip side of demanding, “Do you know who I am?”
I needed to understand my sobriety separate from what I did for a living. I wanted to be honest, just not specific. I was living in a sober community with a lot of other people fresh out of treatment, many struggling to put their life together in any way possible. I knew an Ivy League–educated scholar of religion who worked in retail. A lawyer who paid rent with a job at a bagel bakery. A former executive making cold calls for an internet-services company. So dropping in references to pitching stories to The New York Times or going on cable news … eh.
One evening, I shared a story about a particularly tough ongoing assignment. I felt like the editor (“my boss”) was picking on me, finding new faults in every draft I turned in (“getting on my case about my work”). It no longer felt like a job; it felt like a punishment. I was thinking of quitting. I may have gotten a little emotional about it.
After the meeting was over, a young man approached. He’d just gotten a job delivering pizza, and he knew they were hiring. Would he like me to put in a good word?
I started to cry. And the kid, immediately uncomfortable, took a step back before I could reel myself in. Then I did, and I said that I was going to give this job a little more time, but that I appreciated his offer more than he could possibly understand. And then he smiled the brightest smile I’d seen months.
I kept thinking of that experience reading Biden’s book. I wish that Biden could acquire that kid’s gift of grace that’s born of humility, of receiving and giving help because we’re all in the exact same place. We all fall the same distance to the bottom.
The clearest I’ve ever been about who I am was when I let go of who I thought I was. Hunter Biden, I fear, is worried too much about letting people know who he is; he might get more out of losing himself. I know I did.
*Due to an editing error, this article previously misstated how Hunter Biden met his now-wife, Melissa.