The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder, By Stephen Elliott, Graywolf Press (September 2009)
Before The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott had written six books. Two were non-fiction accounts of his personal experience (with, respectively: politics and BDSM), and four were novels that, by his own admission, were based on his own life. His friends were advising him to find new subject material, to get outside himself. But it was difficult. He was abusing the prescription drug Adderall, sometimes snorting it. And he was in the middle of a two-year bout with writer’s block. Then he found out he had minor connections to a man involved in a sensational Bay Area murder trial. Sean Sturgeon had turned himself in and confessed to killing eight people, despite the fact that he wasn’t even under suspicion in the case, which concerned the murder of Sean’s friend Hans’s wife. The absurdity of confessing to eight murders that you weren’t a suspect for, that police weren’t investigating, that they suspected you probably had not even committed, intrigued Elliott. So he set up an interview with Sturgeon, and began to write about it.
Elliott was worried, however, that this book would, like his others, turn autobiographical. “Stick to Hans and Sean” said a friend, “and keep yourself out of it.” “Write about something that people want to read,” said another acquaintance. It’s a good thing Elliott ignored them, because the resulting book, The Adderall Diaries, a brutally open-eyed memoir about growing up surrounded by violence, clad in the scattered threads of Capote-style crime reporting, is a strange beautiful thing. Elliott weaves elements of his own life (the title’s reference to his current addiction to prescription speed, his childhood as a runaway and ward of the state, a murder his father may have committed when Elliott was a child) with details of the Hans Reiser trial, tense interviews with Sean Sturgeon, and explorations of the S & M community in San Francisco, which both he and Sturgeon were a part of. The result is a book that explores, without reservation, the way violence can take over our lives: what it takes to be a killer, what violence, both emotional and physical does to children and to adults, how it affects us physically and psychologically.
What separates Elliott from other writers on this subject is his willingness to disperse with any authorial distance. Elliott doesn’t attempt to escape self-recrimination by exploring violence solely in the lives of others. Where many memoirists choose to wait several years before writing about their vices, so that they may claim (or leave open the possibility) that they are now on the straight path, Elliott makes clear that he has made no successful attempts to end his addictive behaviors. He also hasn’t “recovered” from the traumas of his childhood. That’s the point. People don’t always get better; the road doesn’t always lead to redemption.
But neither is this book a pure descent into hell—Elliott is a successful writer with a good life, with people in his life who care about him. He doesn’t make melodrama out of his life, or ask the reader to feel sorry for him. Nor, despite his fears, is the book a foray into solipsism. The violence in Sturgeon’s life, in Hans and Nina Reiser’s lives, and in the lives of Elliott’s friends is just as much a part of Elliott’s explorations, and he examines their actions and choices with the same startling clear-eyed lack of accusation as he does his own.
A book like this can easily make the reader feel like a voyeur. The Adderall Diaries avoids this. Instead of feeling like I had just slowed down to watch the car-crash of other people’s lives (which comes accompanied with the sense of self-loathing that almost always follows that kind of rubbernecking), I came away from this book feeling like I had seen something bigger, that I had been trusted, allowed to witness all the rarest awful and hopeful elements of a person’s life, and that the witnessing itself was a source of hope for the both of us. Suddenly it was harder to make judgments about the way other people lead their lives. For a book about murder, drug use, and violent sex, that’s a startling accomplishment.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.