The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder
Although Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries is in part a memoir, we learn early in the book that while the author was working on it, friends gently urged him to stop writing about himself. Elliott had already published four works front-loaded with autobiographical content, novels that the author admits were based on his own experiences. The best of those early books, Happy Baby, revisited his youth in Chicago, where he fled his abusive father, became a homeless teen, and wound up a ward of the court. It was time to move on, the friend said, to rake over some new literary soil, and Elliott was in a good position to do just that. He was pursuing a new story that, on its surface, had little to do with him: a live-wire 2007 Bay Area murder case that grew so bizarre that even shows like 20/20 wanted a piece of it. The author had become an expert on the trial. His friends, for the most part, thought he was fine, well-adjusted. Maybe it really was time to move on.
This was sensible advice, but The Adderall Diaries, Elliott’s most autobiographical work yet, is not a sensible book. It’s ambitious and emotional and brilliantly orchestrated, an embroidery of memoir and true-crime reportage that’s so stunning that I can’t imagine Elliott writing about the above-mentioned murder case without also confronting his past (or vice versa). The book takes major risks, particularly with its range. Subtitled ‘A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder,’ it’s also about writer’s block, Elliott’s father, the friends from his troubled youth (some of whom die in the course of the book), his past of drug addiction, local and international politics, and child abuse. Most important, its about the thorny complexities and potentially soul-stealing powers of storytelling itself. Elliott handles all of these topics with charisma, emotional depth, and a raconteur’s gifts, but what’s stunning is how subtly he causes all of the book’s individual elements to interact. Each strand is insightful and lucid; woven together, they form a thriving work of art.
It turns out that murder and memoir aren’t so distinct after all, and in fact they’re wound together in Elliott’s own historical DNA. We learn in the prologue that his father, once a struggling author, wrote a never-published autobiography in which he suggests that he killed a man in 1970, less than a year before Stephen was born. In Chicago, Elliott’s dad had hit a sassy teenager who was setting off fireworks. Later, the injured boy’s father and other men beat Elliott Sr. badly. He didn’t fight back. In his account, he quietly seethed, planned his revenge, until one day he found his attacker and murdered him with a shotgun. Elliott’s father, we learn in The Adderall Diaries, is an abusive control freak, a swaggering, moody man with delusions that alternate between victimhood and grandeur. He is also, we find out, a liar. Maybe he did kill a man, but despite Elliott’s extensive research, he can find no record of it.
Cut to May 2007, when Elliott is living in San Francisco. Hans Reiser, a Bay Area computer programmer, has been charged with killing Nina Sharanova, his estranged wife, who he met through a matchmaking service in Russia. Nina left Hans for his best friend, Sean Sturgeon (and later left Sean for another man). Just after Hans is accused of murder, Sean himself claims to have killed nine people (or 8.5—it’s complicated), but won’t say who they were, only that they abused him when he was a child.
Elliott has ties to Sean. The author is a masochist, and Sean, though now a born-again Christian, used to be a “heavy player.” The author meets Sean, but nothing about his confession makes sense (he is never arrested). It’s an inversion of spooky proportions: Hans denies a murder that he did commit, while Sean takes credit for murders that seem, to all the investigators involved, to have never occurred. Fact turns out to be a very unstable category. But it’s here, in the blurry territories between truth and falsehood, that Elliott begins to find his energy—his voice.
* * *
But it’s more intricate than that—just look at the title. Elliott is stuck in the midst of near-suicidal despair and a two-year bout of writers block. He’s popping and snorting Adderall in an attempt to snap out of the latter, hoping that getting his thoughts down on the page will help him break through the former. In one of the book’s most resonant links, it turns out that the blurring of truth is what initiated the block in the first place. Elliott returns us, over and over again, to the brutal scenes of his youth—his dad’s violence, his claims that Stephen “killed his mother” (who died of MS when the author was 13), his decision to move after Stephen had run away, refusing to reveal the new address. Elliott has described all of this in his previous books, but his father can’t resist contradicting the facts: He tells a reporter that Stephen was “a liar, a spoiled child from an upper-middle-class home looking for attention.” That “he could come home any time.” He writes Amazon reviews of Elliott’s books with lines like: “Sadly, he’s never been the same since he had electroshock therapy at Reed Mental Hospital.”
“He was trying to obliterate me,” Elliott writes of his father’s attempts to regain control of the story. “He was stealing my past and I was trying to hold on but felt it slipping through my fingers. I started to disappear.” The author was losing his grip. He thinks of Joan Didion’s famous line from her own mashup of memoir and true crime, “The White Album”: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But Elliott had lost the life-sustaining thread. He writes:
“I had based my identity on a year spent sleeping on the streets and the four years that followed. It wasn’t much of a foundation. [My father] was questioning my story, telling anyone who would listen that I had made up the whole thing, my entire life. I began to qualify everything. I wouldn’t say anything about myself without first saying there were other people who remembered things differently. I wondered how much I had mythologized my own history, arranged my experiences to highlight my successes and excuse my failures. How far had I strayed from the truth?”
There is a running theme about “fighting back” in The Adderall Diaries. Elliott didn’t fight back when his dad beat him up. Later, he asserted himself with words, but words are tricky, and Elliott knows this. Someone can simply say, “You’re lying,” and the foundation shakes, it dissolves.
But that question—“How far had I strayed from the truth?”—is honest, not rhetorical. Elliott knows that he, too, has frustrated people he’s written about, that he has contradicted their own versions of the story. He encounters old friends who are angry about the ways he’s presented them in his books. He thinks of another Didion quote, “A writer is always selling someone out.” He blurts out to Sean, who wants attention but doesn’t trust Elliott, “Nobody ever likes what’s written about them.”
Elliott has recorded his unhappy youth in print, but now he’s not so sure. He remembers a fairly easy time in his life, when he had a cushy, if ludicrous job during the dot.com boom. Why hasn’t he written about that before? Is he editing out the high points, swimming in the glass half empty? He needs a new approach to the truth, and at this point in the story, he almost has it. He’s so close.
* * *
This is all in the first half, the book’s dark night of the soul, finding the author attending funerals for his childhood friends, feeling despair at book parties, drifting through a series of S&M relationships with women, and worrying about the long-term effects of his growing reliance on the amphetamine of the title. The prose in these sections has a remarkable emotional complexity—at once wildly sad and charismatic, vulnerable and stubbornly assertive. Elliott is in flux, and we feel that. One of the few things that grounds him is masochism, being tied up and cut (one of the book’s W.G. Sebald-ish photos shows Elliott’s carved-up back). “How could I be so many different people?” he asks, referring to his past as a stripper, a graduate student, a depressive. But nothing can shake his decency. He aspires to be good, whether he’s talking about Hans Reiser or himself. “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.” A storyteller himself, Elliott is not going to let himself off the hook.
In the book’s second half, which anchors itself in Reiser’s trial, Elliott solidifies the framework in which he can sort through the conflicting narratives that have left him disconnected from his own history—and that have left a woman dead without an explanation. The recaps of the proceedings are expert. In a style that brings to mind some of Norman Mailer’s best nonfiction, he captures the courtroom’s major players—the lawyers in particular—with verbal agility and moral acumen. Cast under Elliott’s discerning eye, Hans emerges as a remorseless sociopath with a prickly aversion to the truth. Nina’s body hasn’t been found—yet—but key pieces of evidence are missing, particularly parts of Hans’s mother’s car, where the murder probably occurred, and which Hans has washed so thoroughly that it’s found with an inch of water pooled on its floor.
“On the stand he recites the license plate number of the officer who followed him five days after the murder, but can’t remember other, more basic things. He can’t remember where he was when he removed the passenger seat from the car and he can’t remember where he threw it away. He says that he threw it away instead of storing it at his mother’s house because his mother was trying to get custody of [his children] and he wasn’t allowed to be there. But he went there almost every day, and slept at her house at least three times that week. He also removed the rear assembly from the car and threw that away. He says he was going to fill it in with futon foam and bring his mother her new, fixed-up car, a bed on four wheels.”
So here is another story in which a man is attempting to control the facts. Elliott has not only a fascinating story, but an analogue for his own autobiography-in-crisis. Hans can rewrite Nina, a woman who by most accounts was generous, magnetic, a good mother. He can say that she was manipulative, that she was cruel to their children. But there are limits—there’s accountability—and Elliott inhabits these limits with fierce intelligence, grace and a deep empathy for the deceased. And from that space he catches a glimpse of how his own story works—or rather how it can work for him and still exist in the world, where others might try to rewrite it. This high-wire act requires a showdown: Elliott will have to meet his father, and he’ll have to let their truths mingle and clash. It’s messy, a lot like democracy itself.
* * *
After reading The Adderall Diaries, you could make a chart, with lines linking multiple names and themes. Sean, like Elliott’s father, claims to have committed murder, and both of them might be lying. Hans presents Anna as a woman who, hoping for attention, intentionally tried to make her children ill; Elliott’s father, likewise, calls Stephen a spoiled liar. Meanwhile, Elliott’s representations of friends in previous books become analogues for his own father’s representations of him. Keep going: Hans’s computer breakthrough, ReiserFS, is a filing system that decides how a computer organizes its data, and Elliott is deeply concerned with how people structure information to suit their own agendas (in one scene, Elliott rejects 20/20’s attempts to use him in a segment that aims to sensationalize the case). Sean, who grew up in communes, claims that he suffered abuse in the hands of careless adults, just like Stephen does (though in Sean’s case the abuse is sexual). You could keep going. The chart would end up sending vectors all over the place.
In fact, a prosecutor might create this sort of chart for use in the courtroom, and it would convey, without a doubt, the complexity of Elliott’s book, its deep interconnectedness. What it wouldn’t capture is the author’s tone, his rhythm, his pace, all of which lend the stories a dimension of ethics and a melancholic hum. He’s a master of analogues, but he’s not interested in simple x = y scenarios so much as the tensions between x and y, and how to deal with those tensions—between parents and kids, or even between America and Iraq.
Elliott is a dogged pursuer of truths, but what gives his book its real heft is how well he navigates the shadier areas of uncertainty. Take, for example, his proclivity for masochism, the one storyline that never quite integrates itself into Elliott’s broader narrative. Explanations for his taste for domination are suggested: The author’s sadist girlfriends take care of him like a mother, and beat him up just like his dad did. But the author knows this is too tidy, and he knows how to let these scenes provocatively float among more rigorously described events. Storytelling can be a form of domination itself, but it can’t control everything. Just look at Sean: He’s become a born-again Christian.
“Understanding,” Elliott writes, “is not always an option.”
* * *
But writing still matters—for Elliott, you get the urgent sense that it has to. And so he goes to see the cause of his writer’s block: his dad, a man he still loves.
“I can’t wake up one day with a healthy relationship with my mother and father and a sense of abundance. I wake up instead and I think my father hates me, and I know that I am partly to blame. I’ve written about him and made him into a villain. I’ve made him unhappy. I’ve mythologized myself and withheld my love, pretended my actions were justified by his actions. I put that on with my clothes and wear it throughout the day.”
The father and son meet up in Chicago, but don’t call it resolution—it’s more of a showdown between two conflicting interpretations of the past. What does feel resolved is the author’s newfound approach to contradicting narratives. He knows that this is his story, and other people are going to disagree with it.
In a way, Elliott is just another storyteller, justifying his actions and selling people out. But I think he’s earned his right to tell his history. He’s not perfect, and he must get some things wrong. But it’s inspiring to watch him work to find varying shades of truth. He’s stubbornly interested in getting things right, whether he’s writing about himself or someone else. He’s not going to let 20/20 use him to sensationalize the trial.
And why should he? A truly gifted writer, he can make the trial fascinating without relying on truth-bending gimmicks. Nor does he need any gimmicks when writing about his own hardscrabble past or his depressive present. He’s a mess, but he dives into his own personal volcano with the same rigor and style he uses when writing about the trial. I truly enjoyed visiting his inferno—and the moral calculus he developed while emerging from it. I’m sure he still has problems, but so it goes. If we’re lucky, that means more books.
Michael Miller is an editor and writer at Time Out New York. He lives in Brooklyn.