Hunter Biden: ‘Dad tells me he’s proud of my sobriety every day’
Hunter Biden can’t be sure that his earliest memory is actually his earliest memory, or if it is a combination of family stories and news accounts he has heard and read over the years. He was only two when he set out in the car with his mother, baby sister and older brother to buy a Christmas tree that December day in 1972. (His father, Joe was in Washington, interviewing staff, having just won a place in the US senate.) Hunter remembers his mother’s head turning to the right, and his brother, Beau, being hurtled towards him. His mother, Neilia, and baby sister, Naomi, were killed instantly by the tractor trailer. Beau broke his leg, Hunter suffered a skull fracture. When he came round in hospital he saw his brother “looking like he’s just been clobbered in a playground brawl”. He was mouthing three words to Hunter, over and over: “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
When I talk to Hunter now about this awful moment, he tells me that all he remembers from that time is love. Love is writ large across the Biden family story – for each tragedy that has befallen them, and there have been many, they only seem to move closer to each other. You can listen to our interview using the audio player at the top of this article.
“The thing about that loss for me is that it is so wrapped up in the love that came after. My uncle, my aunt, they all moved into our house. We saw my grandparents every day. Who gets to do that? My dad [who was sworn in to the senate by the hospital bedside of Beau] commuted to work, two hours each way, so that he could be there to put us to bed and wake up with us. He had a rule that we could go with him anywhere, any time. All we had to do was ask. And we did.” He chuckles at this memory, of the three Biden boys going on trips to Washington DC. “But that’s the thing about trauma. I was always afraid to even acknowledge that anything other than love came after. It’s only recently that I have been able to do that.”
The pain came out sideways. It always does. For Hunter, it was there in his alcohol and drug addictions that have blighted much of his adult life, even as he was managing to carve out a career as a lawyer (he has now added artist to his CV which also includes lobbyist and director of private equity firms). For his big brother Beau, it was channelled into a promising political career that was tragically cut short when he died of a rare brain cancer in 2015. Hunter nursed him through his final days, and it was after the death of his “soulmate”, his “polestar”, that he really began to spiral. Now Hunter has written an unflinching memoir, Beautiful Things, which details his descent first into alcoholism, and then into crack addiction. When we meet – over Zoom, from his home in California, on his father’s 100th day in office – he is almost two years clean and sober, a fact he attributes partly to the “unconditional love” of the president, who never gave up on him.
He looks fresh-faced, far better than a 51-year-old who almost destroyed his life through crack addiction has any right to look. He is a man who has spent much of his life running from the truth, and now having surrendered to it, it has given him a new freedom. He has critics – among them, the former president Donald Trump, who spent much of the 2020 election campaign trying to exploit Hunter’s many failings for his own political gain. But it has been a relief for Hunter to be able to address all these issues honestly in the book. When you’ve been this truthful about all the ways you‘ve hurt yourself, there isn’t much anyone else can do to hurt you too.
He has agreed to come on my podcast, Mad World, to spread the message that recovery from addiction is possible. I tell him I was surprised by the candour in his book – he spares no detail about the crack binges he found himself on, and the darkness he found himself in. In his desperate search for the next high, he found himself living in motels off highways, guns being pointed at his head as he tried to buy drugs. At one point, he went 13 nights without sleep, so addled was he on the drug. There are vast periods living in hotels that he has no memory of, great yawning chasms of seedy darkness where people came and went and used with him, until there wasn’t an establishment in Los Angeles that hadn’t blacklisted him from staying. He took off, trying to disappear, driving across the country high as a kite, able to sniff out a crack dealer in each new place he arrived at.
As a recovering addict myself, there is a sort of comfort and relief in his candour. “Well I wrote it for you,” he says, completely sincerely. “I wrote it for those people who can identify immediately with what it’s like to be mired in that awful space of addiction. And most of all, I wrote it for people to let them know that they’re not alone. That even the son of the Vic-” he catches this mistake and quickly corrects himself, “the president of the United States has gone through some of the things that they may be going through right now. Because the thing that I think trapped me in my addiction was this idea that no one could possibly understand me. No one could possibly have gone through what I’ve gone through, the degradation, the feeling of shame and guilt, the abject loneliness.”
Like most addicts, he thought that nobody was as bad as him. Today, after being in recovery, he sees himself as just another person who couldn’t deal with life. “My story is a universal one, really. I think there’s only one thing that human beings are guaranteed in life, and that’s pain. Everyone has their own struggles. Everyone experiences pain. What we do with it is the real question of how our lives will unfold.”
We speak a bit about the absolute insanity of addiction, of its power even now, from the safety of sobriety. He experienced a sort of euphoric recall writing the book, recalling the highs as he cooked up the crack and then lit the pipe. “The thing I am asked most by non-addicts is: why did you do drugs? And I have a really simple answer, that’s not easy to hear: I did them because they work. And they work until they don’t, until they become your greatest enemy and you chase after that solution literally, physically, physiologically and chemically. Your brain is saying: ‘This is what I need. This is what I need not only to stay alive, but this is what I need in order not to feel the pain that I am trying to avoid’.”
His father tried to stage multiple interventions. In 2019, he invited his surviving son for dinner, along with some counsellors from a rehab. Hunter ran away, and his dad chased after him, hugging him and crying and not knowing what to do. Hunter feels immense guilt at the pain he caused his father, at the disappearing acts over the years. It was only when Hunter went on a date with his now-wife Melissa that things began to change for him. He admitted he was a crack addict. She replied that he wasn’t any more, and took him home to detox him. They now have a 14-month-old son, Beau, to add to the three daughters he has with his first wife, Kathleen (in between there was a brief relationship with Beau’s widow, Hallie, which they both acknowledge now as a sort of grief madness, an attempt to feel closer to what they had lost).
Hunter was in the early days of his recovery when Trump started using him as a campaigning tool. “Where’s Hunter?” he would cry during rallies, and the slogan was soon being sold on T-shirts. “It was comical at times,” he says. “I’m able to laugh at it now. It’s like they’re cartoon characters of themselves.” Trump’s sustained attacks on Hunter “had the exact opposite effect of what he intended. He knew that there was nothing more important to my dad. There’s nothing more important to him than his family and me. But I found that once I kind of lived in the light of my truth, there was nothing that could hurt me. There was nothing that could break the armour of unconditional love from my family.”
In one of the presidential debates, Trump made “an ad hominem attack on me about my addiction, and my dad turned to the camera and said: ‘My son suffers from an addiction. He’s in recovery. I’m proud of him.’ I don’t know how many people reached out to me since that moment to say how great it was for them, because they’d had a similar struggle.”
He wants to continue to “be of service to other people by letting them know they’re not alone”. He hopes “that we begin to look at addiction not as a criminal justice issue… [but] primarily as a mental health issue. Meaning that people who suffer from diseases of the brain are treated from a healthcare perspective rather than… thrown into the criminal justice system.”
Some have painted Hunter as a sort of burden to his father, but I get the impression that the president still sees his youngest son as the two-year-old boy in the hospital that day. His father must be proud of him and his sobriety, I say. “He is. I can say that with total certainty, because he tells me that every day. He tells me all the time. And that’s a beautiful thing in and of itself.”
The Biden family motto is that if you have to ask for help, it is too late. “What it means is that when someone is really in trouble, when they feel completely lost and helpless, sometimes it is almost impossible for them to imagine reaching out for help. Those are the times that I hope I can be the example, because my family never stopped coming to me. They never stopped trying to find me when I disappeared.”
His father would call and send “incessant text messages”. Hunter wouldn’t reply to them. “However hard my suffering was, it is harder on those who are watching you essentially killing yourself; seeing you consciously choose pain, drink and drugs over them.
“But my family never, ever, ever let me disappear into the abyss; that bleak, dark space that I so desperately thought was my answer. And I am so lucky for that.”
Beautiful Things: A Memoir by Hunter Biden is out now, £20 (Simon & Schuster). You can buy your copy for £16.99 from Telegraph Books or call 0844 871 1514