Review: The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder by Stephen Elliott Print E-mail

Adderall(Contrary Magazine Spring 2010)

Still Addled After All These Years

What is Adderall? A partially controlled stimulant made with amphetamine. Improves attention span and decreases impulsivity. Used for attention deficit disorder. Works quite well, so say its takers. To me it sounds like a venomous snake or a recess game for sixth graders. But for Stephen Elliott it’s a lifesaver. Or, better, a life-enhancer, a necessary tool in the creative writer’s kit. In 2006, suffering writer’s block, Elliott needs help. After four self-referential novels, a book of real-life erotica (My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up), and a nonfiction chronicle of the 2004 presidential race, he’s dried up, a has-been at 37. So he takes Adderall, and voilá, this book. Of course, he finds that it’s not the not-writing that’s got him down. It’s his own still-addled life he hasn’t faced up to since he’s merely recreated its doppelgänger in fiction.

Enter the other writer’s pick-me-up, a surefire story. It’s a dramatically licentious Bay Area murder trial, covered rabidly by Wired and local TV, with two centerpiece bizarros: Hans Reiser, a devilish Linux computer programmer, who is accused of murdering his estranged wife Nina, though her body is missing, and Sean Sturgeon, a man whom Elliott knows peripherally from his occasional nipple-clamping forays in San Francisco’s sadomasochism culture (Sturgeon is a heavy player, Elliott, a lightweight).

Surgeon was Reiser’s best friend, dated Nina after she and Reiser divorced, and, finding Jesus, confessed to eight murders. Though he wants to go to jail for his "crimes," he won’t say who the victims were, except "there’s fewer abusers on the street than before." A friend reminds Elliott of the boast’s meaning: "If he killed eight people, or believes he killed eight, he’s crazy either way."

What a story! But to get it Elliott must negotiate "terms of coverage and access" with these whackos who are cagey at best and mostly unwilling to tell him the truth.

If that’s not enough, Elliott companions the murder tale to his family story—a mother who died when he was 14, after which he ran away from a brutal father, lived in group homes, excelled at petty crimes, embraced drug addiction, and entered a mental hospital. It seems his father once bragged that he, too, had murdered a man. But he won’t say whom either. Rightly so, Elliott is fascinated by his father’s claim that he killed a man for humiliating him. (In there is a Freudian link to Elliott’s masochism.) And yet, researching high and low, the son cannot corroborate his dad’s bluster.

So here we are in one of the contemporary memoirist’s favorite funhouses: an unsolved and unfolding celebrity case (with sex and violence) that resonates with the author’s past, itself unresolved and more than a bit gamey, and with enough ping-ponging similarities for our unblocked writer to make connections he would otherwise not have made unless he had a case and a drug that helped him stitch all these seams together.

One peculiar thing about this book is how its sad, almost regretful stints with S/M—whose lure I can’t begin to grok—reflect the pain/pleasure M.O. of the writer, flushed from publication and notoriety to the fallow horror of "what’s your next book?" That I can grok. How contemporarily apt the drug metaphor: "An author looking for a story can be like a junky looking for a fix."

Despite all this prurient in-breeding, we get through the trial and Elliott’s discordant reconciliation with his father, the journey there cut by injudicious and judicious Adderall consumption. The second half of the book is saved for the trial; and it’s well-done, the hard boil of true-crime. Elliott overnights his stay in the minds of Reiser and Sturgeon, big-time sado-narcissists, who, in turn, allow Elliott to enjoy/justify/reveal to us and himself his masochistic self-regard.

Make no mistake: the bad guys are right out of Fargo. Reiser is a sociopath. But Elliott feels they would have been friends as adolescents. Elliott’s father is a "familopath." He lies and self-justifies his beastly behavior to his son and is always a turd. He actually posts negative reviews about his son’s books on Still, with Elliott’s sympathy for pa growing, by the end we get the point: mad love (angry and crazy) is all some men have to give. We also relish the dramatic irony: Elliott trying to understand that Reiser’s fixation on Nina mirrors the same, minus the murder, of Elliott’s on his father.

Another fine madness is that the Adderall (the MFA writing program of the future) distills a new style, the flat affect: "She said she was a hypnotist and could read my mind. We drank beers from tall glasses shaped like boots before going to my hotel room where I lay on the floor and she walked across me in her heels." Can you feel the emotionlessness, little to signify care, concern, or closeness? Such a tack predominates. Elliott is unsentimental, never histrionic; he hews to the facts, though he often reflects on the mess he’s in.

And yet his road-grader prose does not flatten the story. Why? The style integrates a lot of shape-shifting, moving between past and present and between his inner turmoil with outer events, then and now. The flat affect, done consistently, smooths the quirky leaps, stabilizes the soiled content. It’s the half-dozed hum of riding your bike down Valencia Street in San Francisco, trying to ignore all the shit—sidewalk drunks, garbage stench, flack-jacket macho—you encounter but registering it all the same.

Elliott’s closing strategy is to communicate with or quote several memoirists whose help in ending the book he seeks. O Brother, Where Art Thou? One guide is the ending of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, whose tragic inconclusiveness he admires. The best writers do not conclude; they exhaust the material, seem better off and back where they began. How curious this chumminess—memoir writers inviting each other into their books. Or, in Elliott’s words, "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."