I admit I was shocked when I saw that Nic Sheff's latest autobiographical offering about his struggles with hardcore drug addiction was classified as a "book for young adult readers." That designation tells me more about life among young adults than I care to think about. WE ALL FALL DOWN --- a sequel to his first book, TWEAK, in, if I may say, a similar vein --- is anything but youthful in its underlying theme. It speaks blandly of suicide and throws its author/narrator into scenes of degradation that we wish never to see our young adult children in. It is written in the four-letter lingo of the street and is a necessary dose, as it were, of reality about the sickness, self-loathing and repeated flame-outs that characterize the life (if it can be called that) of a serious user.
In TWEAK, we were right up against the lowest, most horrifying physical basics of the meth/heroin sub-subculture. In WE ALL FALL DOWN, things have improved somewhat for our hero, as Nic finds himself in a restrictive treatment center, sent there by his caring journalist father and author of BEAUTIFUL BOY, a parent's anguished take on the desperate, criminal, self-destructive lifestyle of his son.
In the treatment facility, Nic's life is greatly curtailed with many heavily enforced rules: no touching allowed, for example, except under the eyes of a staff witness. Nic is trying to simultaneously fake out his therapists and, on some saner level, agree and comply with their rules and their philosophy. This includes renouncing his supposedly former ex-girlfriend, the drug-hag he has nicknamed Zelda. This he does at first to fool his keepers, but gradually with more conviction. He soon falls afoul of the system anyway by falling in love with a fellow inmate, a girl who is screwed up but not an addict. The transgression of touching lands him in a no-bull, 24-hour lockup facility based on the 12 Steps and the companionship of other men. Nic freaks when he realizes that these people are so doctrinaire that he is not allowed to express his doubts about their system. That and their refusal to acknowledge that his completing his book (one assumes he refers here to TWEAK) might be a good, self-affirming "step."
So he cuts and runs to Charleston, South Carolina, and his new girl. At this point I'm cheering for him, frankly. No one should be trapped in a closed system. Later, when Nic finally sloughs off many of the elements of addiction and is seeking treatment for bipolar disorder, he finds a therapist who acknowledges that the 12 Step program is not for everyone. She also gives him permission to be kind to himself and encourages him to write, something that no one else except his family had done.
But before he climbs out of the hole, there are many more flirtations with drugs and death, and many, many more with women. At one point Nic is slavishly nursing passions for three females simultaneously --- his steady, surprisingly normal partner in Charleston; a Christian fanatic he met in an airport; and his ex, the fiery, sick, siren Zelda. Nic drinks vodka, smokes pot, steals, and fails to hold job after job --- but he's getting better all the time. He's in the world, he's beginning to take care of himself, and he has a dog, a street orphan not unlike his old self, to take care of as well.
No doubt the book tour, taken with his father, is a grounding point. He finds himself spouting truth to high school kids, and the results are moving, showing himself to himself and gyms full of potential Nics, serving as a warning and a beacon. These days, Nic may be very much better. He has, after all, successfully completed another book. He is not unredeemable. He has friends and is in treatment.
If you are a parent of a troubled teen, you could offer this book as a lifeline. Ignore the four-letter words because you don't have to read them. But give your kid a chance to see how far we can fall down, into the snake pit, and to realize that there is a way out.
--- Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott