In the first pages of The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott lays out the realities of his “lonely, pointless existence,” both past and present. He is a former heroin addict now hooked on Adderall; the son of a cruelly abusive father who in rages would “grasp for whatever meant the most to you and destroy you,” and who now posts negative reviews on Amazon of Elliott’s books ; motherless at thirteen then a runaway and ward of the state, subject to the usual cruelties of group homes and psych wards; doomed to “fragmented, thin” relationships with women; self-destructive, suicidal and addicted to violent sex.
Any one of these would fuel an entire woe-is-me memoir. But this is not that kind of book; there’s nothing sensational here. First, because the narrator seems to lack self-pity. Instead, the story comes to us in the flat, affectless tones of the depressed (which I found both relieving and unsettling). More importantly, though, this memoir is not really about Stephen Elliott’s pain, it’s about writing.
Two years into a writer’s block when the book’s events begin, Elliott faces the annihilation of the one positive identity he’s forged for himself: a writer. Deep in the maze of Adderall and depression, he grasps at the thread of a story—an acquaintance confesses to “eight, maybe nine, murders”—and begins to find his way out. This confession doesn’t ultimately give Elliott the “true crime” story he hopes it will—it turns out to be false—but it leads him to another, real crime and its subsequent legal trial.
Like the confession of Sean Sturgeon, the trial of Hans Reiser, who is accused of murdering his wife, gives Elliott not only material, but purpose. And like any fine writer, Elliott has the resources to ponder from the writer’s remove what these events mean to him and why. The result is a multi-layered memoir about following both threads, real and made-up, and coming to realize that their attraction for him lies in their echoes of his own family relationships and sado-masochistic desires.
Elliott resists the typical memoir story arc: from trial to triumph over adversity. For him, “to follow an interest out of the darkness is a trick, a small Band-Aid for a larger problem,” and his rescue by writing is partial and will not last. Still, it’s awfully fine writing. The sections devoted to his life and pursuit of the story are sometimes non-linear, almost musical in the interplay of the book’s several leit-motifs. And the sections of trial reportage show off Elliott’s gift for tight plotting and suspense, insightfulness into motive (his own and others), and attention to telling detail.
Even so, writing will not ultimately save him, and the larger question, “How do we remind ourselves to start again?” seems without answer. There is no shiny bow of epiphany when The Adderall Diaries ends, but a series of thoughtful understandings and an ongoing search.