Not To My Recollection
In college, I once started a term paper at 3:00 in the morning. It was due at 8:00 AM. “Just take some of my Adderall,” my roommate suggested. “It’s the only way you have a prayer of finishing that thing.” My roommate was diagnosed with ADHD, but she frequently used her medication to perform all-nighters so she could cram for exams and finals. Realizing the pill was my only hope, I took it. I finished the paper with time to spare and I ended up getting an A. In The Adderall Diaries, which has been released in paperback this month, author Stephen Elliott uses Adderall to clear his writer’s block while he documents a murder trial and unearths new revelations about his own upbringing.
In the opening lines, Elliott breaks open his prescribed Adderall capsules and pours them into his orange juice. Adderall is an amphetamine medication that provides the patient with a steady, sharp attention span when taken in small doses. “Without the Adderall I have a hard time following through on a thought,” the author writes. “My mind is like a man pacing between the kitchen and the living room, always planning something in one room then leaving as soon as he arrives in the other.” Although Elliott’s dosage fluctuates throughout the book, there is no doubt that by snorting or dissolving the pills to get a stronger amphetamine boost, he is not taking the medication the way his doctor has prescribed.
Elliott has a routine: He writes, or tries to write. He sleeps with a revolving group of women (Miranda, Caterina, Lissette, Raina . . . ) He platonically spends the night with some and allows others to dominate him—Elliott is a member of the sadomasochist, or BSDM community. But even with all of his female companions, Elliott still pines over Josie, an old love who fell in love with his best friend. “It’s a lonely, pointless existence, but that’s what happens,” he writes. Hoping to infuse some excitement and a sense of purpose into his life, Elliott interviews a murder suspect in an upcoming trial out of his own curiosity and the hope that it may spark the idea for a book. The suspect, Sean, has an ex-girlfriend in common with Elliott. He also claims to have killed “eight and a half people.”
Elliott, who has written in his previous books about his rocky childhood, ran away from home at age thirteen after his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Shortly after he left home, his mother died. Elliott describes his father as both emotionally and physically abusive. “I received a note from a journalist who, after interviewing me, had been contacted by my father,” Elliott writes. “My father told him I was a liar, a spoiled child from an upper-middle-class home looking for attention.” Elliott’s father leaves anonymous bad reviews for his books on Amazon.com and disputes everything Elliott writes or says about his father in print.
With Adderall as the catalyst, facts about the murder trial and the author’s own life swirl onto each page. The book feels disjointed, strangely paced and confusing at times, but Elliott has not promised anything. Instead, the author is simply telling the story as he perceives it. “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 writes.
The Adderall Diaries is devoted, at least in part, to the trial of Hans Reiser, who was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nina, in 2006. Sean, the man Elliott is convinced may have actually committed the murder, was Reiser’s best friend until Nina divorced Hans and began dating him. Sean confessed to a multitude of other murders, but not Nina’s. The details of the trial are complicated and never-ending, as they tend to be, and Elliott offers no concessions to his readers. Rather than carefully calculating his memoir to include tidy characters and a story arc the way a work of fiction would, The Adderall Diaries reads more like real life. It is meandering and frantic at times, and slow and plodding at others. As a narrator, Elliott feels trustworthy, because he’s not trying to pull the wool over our eyes or craft an artificial, sensational ending.
Elliott has had a rough upbringing, and his abuse and abandonment issues bleed (literally—Elliott enjoys being cut by his girlfriends and the memoir includes a photograph of his back covered in bloody, swirling knife marks) into his adult life. The author’s relationship with his father seems to be the deepest wound, and hearing Hans Reiser’s testimony about his young son draws direct parallels to Elliott’s memories of his troubled, abusive father. Although the author’s comprehensive coverage of the trial may conjure the image of Capote’s In Cold Blood, there is a very personal feel to Elliott’s writing style. We are watching the trial through the author’s biased and sometimes unreliable lens, but why pretend this lens doesn’t exist?
For the majority of the memoir, Elliott focuses on his own hardships, which may have felt self-indulgent were he not capable of self-reflection. Through his observation of the trial, the author discovers that an individual may skew his own memories in order to convince himself the way he acted was reasonable and correct. “We think our actions are justified by someone else’s actions,” he writes. “But in actuality, we’re responsible for what we do.” Although Elliott is still hurt and frustrated by his relationship with his father, he is able to understand why his father may have felt justified to act the way he did.
Could Elliott have written The Adderall Diaries without taking Adderall? It’s hard to say. The author criticizes Kerouac’s drug-influenced masterpiece, On The Road, stating that “the book defined the exuberance and promise of a generation, but it’s actually a story of children scrambling across the continent strung out on speed.” But Elliott, who is not afraid to highlight his own weaknesses in his writing, feels like a reliable narrator because he’s willing to divulge anything. The reader knows all of his secrets: BSDM, his childhood, his drug addiction. Still, the author warns in a short disclaimer at the beginning of the book, “much is based on my own memories and is faithful to my recollections, but only a fool mistakes memory for fact.”
Books mentioned in this column: