September 2009

Guy Cunningham


The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder by Stephen Elliott

It's difficult to sum up Stephen Elliott's new memoir, The Adderall Diaries. In part, this is because the book takes on so much -- it is by turns a coming-of-age story about Elliott's troubled childhood, an exploration of the author's complicated relationship with his father (who may or may not have been a murderer), an addiction story, and a true-crime account of the murder of a woman named Nina Reiser. It's got drugs, violence, suicide, sadomasochistic sex, and a cast of characters so skewed that some of them would be implausible if they weren't real people.

Complicating things further, the book isn't really about any of these things. It's about itself. Or, rather, it's about Elliott's struggle to use the raw material of Reiser's murder to get at his own personal demons. It's easy to imagine the whole project spiraling into a self-indulgent postmodern mess. And if the execution had been anything less than brilliant, that probably would have happened. But it didn't. Instead, Elliott has written a harrowing, honest, and -- yes -- brilliant memoir.

In 2007, the Russian-born Reiser disappears, and her ex-husband, Hans Reiser, is suspected of murdering her. However, in the midst of the investigation, another man, Nina's former lover Sean Sturgeon, confesses to a separate crime, claiming to have murdered more than half a dozen people -- all "abusers." Sturgeon and Elliott are both involved in a rather small S&M scene, and know each other slightly. With his career stalled and his life revolving more and more around his addiction to the prescription drug Adderall, Elliott sees this as a big break, admitting: "I think of In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song, two of my favorite books, both set around spectacular murders and written by novelists. I know people who have known Sean for more than a decade. I have the inside track." Sean's "confession" doesn't add up, however, and police come to view it as a fantasy. But Elliott's involvement in the case triggers something in him anyway; as he says: "now I'm remembering all these things I thought I left behind."

Elliott has had the kind of life that even James Frey couldn't invent. A teenage runaway, who spent part of his youth in a state home, he has at one time or another been a stripper, a participant in pornographic photo shoots and films, a heroin user, and a small-time criminal. To speak nothing of his involvement in the world of S&M. Elliott's strained relationship with his father looms over all of it. Things were so bad between the two that Elliott neglected his mother on her deathbed -- she died of multiple sclerosis when he was still in his teens -- in order to avoid his father, an angry man given to emotional and verbal abuse. As Elliott explains: "Like her friends, I was chased away by my father's rage. Transformed by it, perhaps." The elder Elliott was a writer too, and years later, gives his son the manuscript of an unfinished memoir. In it, he implies he once shot a neighbor who had embarrassed him in a fight. (Elliott investigates the claim and can find no evidence it is true.)

The connection between Nina's death and Elliott's traumatic early life is never explicit. But he is drawn to Nina's world, which reminds him of his own: "If Hans Reiser, a strange kid with an absent father, had grown up in West Rogers Park, there is no doubt he would have been one of us." Then there's Sturgeon, a manipulative, angry man given to (seemingly) false confessions of murder, just like Elliott's father. And most importantly, the drama of Hans Reiser's trial mirrors the haze through which Elliott views his own life story. The defense questions the believability of seemingly everything, even whether or not a murder has even taken place. As Elliott puts it: "The point of the defense is that there is no truth."

The possibility of "truth" is Elliott's chief concern. He peppers The Adderall Diaries with photos, newspaper clippings, and other pieces of "evidence," as if to suggest he doesn't expect readers to take his account at face value. He concedes, "People often feel exploited when they find themselves in my work." And his writer's block -- which is what first pushes him to pursue Reiser's story -- stems from an incident where his father publicly disputes the veracity of some of Elliott's earlier works:

He 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 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?

More than any other genre, memoir allows a writer to explore the way people self-mythologize. The way they "arrange (their) experience to highlight…successes and excuse…failures." Elliott, his father, Sean, and Hans all delude themselves one way or another. The Adderall Diaries brings this into a stark relief without imposing a single, absolute truth on everything. Elliott insists, "To write about oneself honestly one has to admit a certain inconsistency and randomness that would never be tolerated in even the best of novels." He manages to capture that inconsistency and randomness without ever losing focus. It's a remarkable achievement. While some may shy away from its gritty subject matter, the book is never salacious or pornographic. Instead it feels lived-in and sincere, the way only the very best memoirs can.


The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder by Stephen Elliott
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975380
224 Pages

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