We’re living in a time of doubt and cynicism, knowing we shouldn’t believe the choreographed confrontations on “reality” TV shows, but buying into the carefully edited dramas anyway. The problems of veracity even extend to our bookstores — once places where we felt we could trust the neat divisions between the fiction and nonfiction sections, but which now seem to hawk their wares at any moral cost. It has become increasingly harder to read autobiographies — those books touted by publishers as “true” by every dictionary’s definition of the word — without feeling like we’re swallowing a large pill of skepticism.
Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder comes in the wake of “shamoirs” penned by authors purporting to be gay truck-stop hustlers, drug-addicts refusing novocaine during a root canal, or (in the case of Misha Defonseca) a Jewish woman raised by wolves in the forests of Europe during the Holocaust. In the wake of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the concoctions of JT Leroy, Nasdijj, and Margaret Jones/Seltzer, we’re wary, our eyes are jaundiced, and no amount of authors’ notes saying they’re taking liberties with names, places, etc., can heal our wounded trust. And if the antics of Frey & Co. mean little or nothing to you, you might have a hard time tunneling to the heart of Elliott’s chronicle of what it means to be a memoirist in the Golden Age of Chagrined Liars.
The “murder” portion of Elliott’s title revolves around mild-mannered computer programmer Hans Reiser, who was accused of killing his wife Nina in 2006. Her body was never found, and incriminating evidence against Reiser appears to have been destroyed — but those aren’t the only complicating factors. Reiser’s friend (and Nina’s former lover) Sean Sturgeon comes forward and inexplicably confesses to eight unrelated murders. Elliott, who once had a tenuous connection to Sean, is intrigued by the case and starts to explore the contradictions of the two men and the woman who was the fulcrum between them.
As he is drawn deeper into the mystery of Nina’s disappearance and Sean’s puzzling confession, Elliott is also trying to sort through his relationship with his father, who once claimed to have killed a man — a crime for which Elliott has no tangible proof. Like the reading public, the author is adrift in an ocean of lies and half-truths.
That is the scaffolding of The Adderall Diaries. Over it, Elliott has draped an account of his struggles with depression, drug addiction, and writer’s block. This book, he confesses, “is structured around the depths of my own psychic pain.”
One part true-crime and one part self-abasing “misery lit,” The Adderall Diaries straddles a fuzzy border. If Hans Reiser’s murder trial never fully grips us as it might in the hands of a Mailer or Capote, at least the account of the author wrestling with the pen never flags in intensity. Elliott is always aware of what he’s doing, and there’s a good argument to be made that The Adderall Diaries is a parody of the memoir genre. At the front of the book, after giving the standard names-have-been-changed-to-protect-identities caveat, Elliott admits, “Much is based on my own memories and is faithful to my recollections, but only a fool mistakes memory for fact.” Later, he writes, “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?”
Ah, truth, that slippery eel.
In the past, Elliott’s novels and short stories (including Happy Baby and My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up) have often injected autobiography into fiction. Now, it might be the reverse. In The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott the author writes about Stephen Elliott the character, a tortured artist trying to find direction for his future and freedom from his past: “It’s been a long time since I knew what I wanted, since I had something to strive toward. I keep floating, head poking above the waves, waiting for a purpose to arrive like a boat in the middle of the ocean.” While Elliott’s attention is intermittently focused on the Reiser case, the core of the book is his effort to rise above depression. The murder is just a piece of flotsam to which he can cling.
It’s like watching self-conscious performance art as Elliott labors to write a book which will eventually be called The Adderall Diaries (his friends advise him to “keep yourself out of it” and “write something that people want to read”). We also have a front-row seat for his daily consumption of amphetamines, his futile longing for companionship from a parade of lovers, his S&M fetish and the need to be dominated, and his “lonely, pointless existence.” He writes of overdosing on heroin; of being gagged, tied to a bed, and spanked by women; of girlfriends pressing knives against his jugular. He dredges through the muck of his past — humiliation at the hands of his father, shuttling between a series of foster homes, sleeping in abandoned houses, and trying to kill himself six times in one year. His father, described as a brutal unstable man who was himself an unsuccessful author, once told a Chicago Tribune reporter that Stephen’s stories about his childhood were distortions and publicly called his son “a bad seed” and “human garbage.”
Yes, there is a whiff of James Frey rising from the pages as Elliott relishes documenting his squalor. He’s an admittedly pathetic figure who suffers from headaches, insomnia, obsessions, erratic decision-making, and fingernails he has chewed until they bleed. If he doesn’t keep himself dosed with Adderall, the volume knob gets cranked on his misery. “Without the Adderall I have a hard time following through on a thought,” he 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.”
Elliott is certainly adept at shaming himself on the page, but to what end? What purpose does hooking our attention with sordid details serve? Like seeing the red flags dotting A Million Little Pieces, we wonder how much of this we should accept as truth, how much we should compartmentalize as fabrication.
Unlike others guilty of Freydian slips, however, Elliott seems to be in on the joke, fully aware that he’s raising serious questions about the reliability of his narration:
People often feel exploited when they find themselves in my work. It doesn’t matter if I call it fiction; I know as well as they do that’s not an excuse. I don’t bother trying to defend myself. It’s not defensible, it’s just what I do. I spend years crafting a two hundred-page story, all the time my life sits next to me like a jar of paint.
Elliott’s loose-thread, careening style can irritate even the most patient readers, but something about his raw honesty keeps propelling us onward, despite the fact that at least one mystery of the book has already been answered: in our hands, we hold the proof that he succeeded in finishing The Adderall Diaries. As for the Reiser murder and Sean’s eight-corpse confession, there are still nagging doubts by the time we reach the final page. In the end, this is less a book about a murder than it is a book about a man struggling to write a book about a man struggling to write a book about a murder. “I’m working on a book,” Elliot tells us, “which is supposed to be about a murder, but I’m not sure where I’m going with 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.”
Just as howls of protest greeted Capote’s In Cold Blood, objecting to the author playing fast and loose with the facts, The Adderall Diaries is bound to raise hackles. Stephen Elliot pushes even harder against the boundaries of creative non-fiction, taking us to a foggy territory that lies somewhere between truth and nothing-of-the-truth. Asking readers to resist the instinctive need to shelve literature in categories is a bold, smart move. Even if it’s laced with lies, I was completely hooked by Elliot’s memoir. And that’s the truth.