In September 2020, during the tumultuous first presidential debate between then-President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, Trump seized on the opportunity to attack a target with a very large bull’s-eye: Biden’s son, Hunter. Not only is Biden known to be deeply protective of his family, but Hunter — with his history of substance abuse and service on the board of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that played a significant role in Trump’s first impeachment several months earlier — became shorthand for something fishy about the Democratic nominee’s otherwise admirable life. “Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use,” Trump said, misrepresenting what had, in fact, happened. Hunter had enlisted in the Navy Reserves, but after a urine test revealed drugs in his system, he was discharged — not dishonorably.
Biden turned these low blows into an opportunity. “My son, my son, my son — like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home — had a drug problem,” Biden said. “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.”
Now the son who inspired that impassioned expression of paternal pride has written “Beautiful Things,” a memoir at once harrowing, relentless and a determined exercise in trying to seize his own narrative from the clutches of the Republicans and the press. The title refers to what he described as his adored older brother’s “mantra” after he had been diagnosed with the deadliest form of brain cancer, glioblastoma. ” ‘Beautiful things’ became a catchall for relationships and places and moments,” Hunter writes, “We would rock on the porch of our parents’ house and look out at the ‘beautiful things’ spread before us.” But given the trajectory of alcoholism, crack addiction and relationship shredding contained in the next 250 pages, it’s impossible not to see the title burdened by the weight of unintended irony.
The story of the Biden family tragedies are so well known, so woven into the fabric of American political mythology, that one could almost imagine them appearing in a future citizenship test. Which president lost his beautiful young wife and infant daughter in a terrible car accident shortly after he won a longshot Senate race? What happened to the two sons who were also in that car and miraculously survived? Which one of those sons died when he was only 46? Hunter was the Goofus to his older brother’s Gallant. Beau embodied the decency, rectitude and an impressive public service record comparable to his father’s. Hunter? An apparent hive of dysfunction.
We bring this operatic backstory to the reading of “Beautiful Things,” with Hunter playing the thankless role of a supporting cast member, eclipsed by the greatness of the family’s other men. Addiction was a problem in the Biden family, and Joe and Beau avoided alcohol because of it. Not so for Hunter. There is a special purgatory reserved for the earnest-but-less-talented younger brothers of a superstar — forever admiring, forever inferior and forever judged inadequate, until, sometimes, they go off a cliff and become dismal object lessons.
“Beautiful Things” is organized around two parallel narratives: pervasive grief over Beau’s absence and the unvarnished confessional of an addict. Page after page features assertions of the brothers’ closeness juxtaposed with gallons of vodka, bowls of crack, dissolute characters parading in and out of trashed hotel rooms — both five-star and no-star — and repeated failed treatment efforts. And then there is the almost Shakespearean specter of Joe Biden, the agonized father grieving the loss of one son and terrified at his inability to prevent the slow suicidal decline of the other. Hunter addresses the political strain he caused his father, notably by the public drubbing the son endured for his role with Burisma. Hunter calls that faux scandal cooked up by Trump and his cronies “the decade’s biggest political fable … most remarkable for its epic banality.”
The first eight pages of the book dispense with cinematic efficiency the facts of Hunter’s life: the attacks by Trump and his Republican surrogates, the death of his mother and baby sister, his fatherhood and degrees from Georgetown University and Yale Law School, his professional life as a lobbyist and his service on various boards of directors, the death of his brother, the special love among the three Biden men, his children, his addiction and his recovered life with a new wife and son. “I’ve bought crack cocaine on the streets of Washington, D.C., and cooked up my own inside a hotel bungalow in Los Angeles. I’ve been so desperate for a drink that I couldn’t make the one-block walk between a liquor store and my apartment without uncapping the bottle to take a swig … My two-decades-long marriage has dissolved, guns have been put in my face, and at one point I dropped clean off the grid, living in $59-a night Super 8 motels off I-95 while scaring my family even more than myself.”
The addiction memoir is complicated to pull off. The narrative arc is grimly predictable: the first drink, the first crack pipe, the first lie, rinse, repeat, over and over and over again. The gratifying moments of getting high interspersed with violence, physical illness, demolished families and the complete surrender of a life to whatever is contained in the pipe, or syringe or bottle. Then there are the attempts at recovery: frequent, frustrating, briefly successful but then doomed, until one of them works, and a book contract follows. The modifiers inevitably attached to these works are “brave,” “unflinching” and “honest” with an occasional “devastating” thrown in for good measure. But as the late New York Times writer David Carr noted in his brilliant version of the genre, “The Night of the Gun,” “Beyond the grime that is bound to accrue from a trip through the gutters of one’s past, what is the value in one more addiction memoir to me or anyone else?”
Biden’s story is indeed singular. Not many addicts spend time as children with U.S. senators as babysitters, or scamper freely through the halls of Congress, or enjoy as fiercely loving a sprawling family as the Biden boys did. His was a childhood in the public eye, but also the classic American boyhood of bike rides in the neighborhood, fishing trips with his deceased mother’s brother, his Uncle Mike, and leaps into swimming holes. There’s also the undertow of being bullied in school, a sense of “not being understood or fitting in” and his utter dependence on his older brother for maintaining any sense of equilibrium.
Those who might turn to this book for effective rehabilitation strategies will be disappointed. Biden spun in and out of recovery options: Alcoholics Anonymous and the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a lurid treatment in Mexico of 5-MeO-DMT therapy (made from gland secretions of the Sonoran Desert toad, in case you’re interested) and ketamine infusions in Massachusetts, and a host of other facilities too numerous to count. Repeatedly Biden relapsed and repeatedly he would reassure his family that he was in treatment, not to get clean but for the sole purpose of getting them off his back. What finally worked was falling in love with Melissa Cohen, a multilingual South African “aspiring documentary film maker” whom he married a week after they met and who was determined to clean him up. And finally, he succeeded. But this is hardly a replicable treatment modality.
How to answer David Carr’s question? Clearly, this addiction memoir mattered a lot to Biden, to tell his story and to present himself to the world as the writer he always knew he was. And yet, to make these stories rise to a different level, they require not just the candid chronicling of how-bad-it-got, but also compelling writing that delivers a measure of insight and empathy for others — such as worried family members and hotel maids who are left to clean up his messes. Near the end of his memoir, Biden describes the moment of looking into the eyes of the woman who would become his new wife, and seeing a “reflective gaze,” by which he means one that not only truly sees him, but in which he fills up the entire field of vision. From her deep blue eyes to what was contained in them, he was struck by the similarities to the brother he lost. And somehow that provided a reason to recover for good.
“My dad has often said that Beau was his soul and I am his heart,” Biden writes. There’s a lot of pain in that observation. A soul is eternal, soaring, the purest and most invulnerable part of our being. The heart? A fragile organ, and one that can be broken.
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak is the editorial operations director of the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones, a ghostwriter and the author of “I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary.”