“There’s a popular theory that an addict needs to hit bottom before he or she can be helped. The addicts I know who hit bottom are dead.” So writes Hunter Biden in his new memoir, Beautiful Things. His father, Joe Biden, clearly knew this too: “So as busy as Dad always was, he never, ever gave up on me.”
For those who somehow missed the news coverage during the recent US presidential campaign: Hunter Biden is the younger son of President Biden. He was born a year and a day after his older brother, Beau. When Hunter was two years old and Beau three, they were in a car accident that killed their mother and younger sister and fractured Hunter’s skull.
Joe Biden was sworn into the US Senate mere weeks later; his sons were allowed to come with him to Washington, DC, whenever he needed to take care of them, and he commuted by train between the Capitol and his home in Delaware to be home for them. In 1977, Joe Biden got married again, to Jill Biden, whom Beau and Hunter called Mom (the president and first lady later had a daughter, called Ashley).
Joe Biden became Barack Obama’s vice-president in 2009; at that time Beau, who had served in Iraq and was attorney general of Delaware, was the son destined to follow in his father’s political footsteps. In 2015, Beau died of brain cancer.
While Joe Biden was still serving as vice-president, Hunter accepted a position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. A couple of years later Hunter, a recovering alcoholic, developed an addiction to crack cocaine. In July 2019, former president Donald Trump attempted to pressurise Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to open up an investigation into Hunter’s position on the energy board. During the presidential election debates, Trump also made hay out of Hunter’s struggles with drug addiction.
Over the past few years there have been countless headlines and news stories about Hunter Biden. This memoir, following two years of sobriety and his father’s ascent to the White House, is Hunter’s attempt to tell his own story, his way and in his own words.
Beautiful Things takes its title from his late brother’s Beau’s promise that the two of them would work on only “beautiful things” after Beau recovered from brain cancer. It is both an easy book to read – I finished it in less than a day – and a challenging one, because to read it is to listen to a man recount a journey into despair: the end of a marriage, a return to alcoholism, crack addiction and an attempt to push away the people who love him.
The timeline is not linear, and Hunter jumps from his early years to 2014, then back to his early years and then forward again to 2010, but the narrative is clear.
Hunter went to rehab for alcoholism in 2003, and then again after a relapse in 2010. In 2014, he was discharged from the US Naval Reserves after he tested positive for cocaine. His brother died the next year. His marriage unravelled. His drinking got worse. He started using crack cocaine, and then became addicted. His dealer moved in with him. He was in and out of rehab. His family tried to intervene. He wrote letters to his late brother, full of regret. He ended up in California, where he met a woman whom he credits with his sobriety, and who he married a few days after they met.
The book is moving in its reflections on pain and grief. Hunter writes about going with his father, shortly after his brother died, to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, shortly after a white man had murdered nine black members of the congregation. Hunter writes, “listening to others’ heartbreaking stories only underscored that loss is not unique”, but then reflects, “there were also times, I have to admit, when I felt as if no one else could understand my pain”. Hunter recognises both the universality of suffering and the specificity of one’s own hurt, which is both poignant and sad.
Hunter shares some of the letters he wrote to his brother while in California, where he spent most of his time smoking crack cocaine. “Dear Beau, How do you expect me to be the one who’s left behind? I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do it. I don’t seem to be doing anything but causing more pain by sticking around. What would be so bad about us being together?”
The weakest parts of the book, by far, are Hunter’s political analysis and considerations. He recounts how his father learned never to question another senator’s motivations, and how important it is to try to reason with people of all political stripes – a kind of hackneyed call for civility in politics.
The chapter on his role at Burisma shows none of the self-awareness that you find in the rest of the book. Hunter insists he did nothing wrong by taking the position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine. In fact, Hunter believes that his presence on the board was supporting opposition to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. It is an embarrassing self-justification.
The fact that Joe Biden did not step in to help Burisma or engage in any corruption, does not diminish how wildly inappropriate it was for his son to be on the board of that company while he was vice-president and actively working to root out corruption in Ukraine.
Hunter does, however, have one sound political reflection: he told his father before his first televised debate with Trump that he should not shy away from talking about his son’s addiction. “I told him that there were tens of millions of families who would relate to it, whether because of their own struggles or the struggle being faced by someone they loved.”
This book is at its best when the author reflects on addiction – how powerful and merciless and all-consuming it can be. He extends empathy to himself, but he extends it to others struggling with addiction too. Hunter writes about a crack addict that at one time lived with him, “her lesson is stark and unrelenting and holy: we’re all just human beings, trying as hard as we fucking can”.
If this book can convey that message, not only to understand Hunter Biden, but to reach out to the millions of other Americans struggling with addiction and move the politicians who shape drug policy, it will indeed be a beautiful thing.
Simon & Schuster, 272pp, £20
This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people