(The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Mood, Masochism, and Murder. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009)
In my husband’s family if you’re reading a book and put it down on the coffee table to go get a snack, your book is fair game. You hold no claim to what you’re reading and you may never get it back. Fiercely protective of my reading, I have always been appalled by this. Reading a book is like having a relationship—I don’t like sharing.
Two days into The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott’s new memoir of “moods, masochism, and murder,” my husband found it lying on our coffee table and began reading it. I stole it back immediately. But strangely found myself, as I continued, wanting to push the book back in my husband’s direction, just so that I could say “have you made it to the part where?” I don’t like to ruin a book or give away big plot twists to someone who is trailing me by a chapter, but these interlocutions were never about what was actually happening in the book’s plot. They were about the great lines, the true moments, the dirty sex acts.
Elliott’s memoir is about him trying to write a true crime novel about the murder of Nina Reiser. It’s not that the murder itself isn’t filled with intrigue—Hans Reiser, her ex-husband, is accused of murdering Nina after she leaves him for his best friend, Sean Sturgeon. Sean happens to have just confessed to “eight murders maybe nine” (he’s not sure if one was already dead), the names of whom he refuses to release—but there are so many shocking moments from the author’s life, and these carry a somehow truer, more voyeuristic thrill. Elliott writes:
[My ex-girlfriend] kept a knife by my bed. . . . It had a grip handle. My breathing would slow down when the blade opened my skin. I would close my eyes and feel my body lift from the mattress. It was like being on a raft. One time I was blind-folded and my chest was bleeding and I tried to kiss her while pushing up against the knife which she held to my jugular.
Using sex as escape: normal. Having sex while blindfolded: slightly less run-of-the-mill. Letting someone slice lines down the length of your back: scandalous. Voyeurism, of course, only goes so far, and these moments would seem cheap tricks and vapid transcriptions without Elliott’s explanation of the emotions, the enjoyment. He wants his lovers to literally make him bleed. Yet, when his girlfriend follows his attempt to kiss her with the line, “You have no sense of self-preservation,” you understand it to be true. Honesty of this variety is hard to come by—in life and in literature.
Halfway through The Adderall Diaries, my husband—an economist by trade—proclaims that he wants to write a competing book review to mine and that he doesn’t need to finish the book to do it. He says the book is just a series of stand-alone anecdotes and uses as proof that up to page ninety-four, at least, all the internal monologues and reflective passages are not about Elliott’s emotional world, but about how other people want to be written about. But “Nobody ever likes what’s written about them.” My husband argues that there is no reflection at all after the scene where Elliott, homeless, living in a car, ends up going home with a man who lets him stay in the spare room “where he kept a wooden cross with eyebolts and leather shackles drilled into the wall.” The man says, “If you come home drunk I’m going to chain you to that and fuck you.” Elliott’s response, “I prefer if you didn’t.”
My husband has a point. There are many moments that are retold and then not explained fully. But there is an inner pulse, something vital embedded in Elliott’s words, that makes me convinced he should read on. It’s not just about each individual interaction or scene; it’s about crawling into Elliott’s mind and experiencing how he connects these moments, the circuitous nature of our thoughts. It’s about watching him piece his life together.
Elliott writes, “I’m working on this book, which is supposed to be about a murder, but I don’t know 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.” This is a manifest struggle by a person, a real person, to piece together the disparate parts of his life, and find a connection, a meaning. Elliott tries to connect his father’s story of having allegedly murdered a boy, Sean’s confessions, the murder of Nina Reiser, the trial of Hans Reiser, the orphaning of Reiser’s children, Elliott’s own orphaning and drug addictions, his need for S&M. He’s endeavoring to tell the story of him.
At every turn, his story is torture and pain, and moments of random violence. He tells the story of two of his friends who as teenagers “spotted a homeless man in a loading dock, sleeping on his left side on top of a cardboard box. Dwight idled the car while Ted pulled on a pair of leather gloves, slid a razor-tipped arrow into the bow, aimed from the window and shot the man in the heart.” Elliott is traumatized not by the fact that people are violent, but that in the midst of it, he never fought back—especially towards his father who was emotionally and sometimes physically violent. He reenacts this failure over and over, at one point literally laying himself out in front of woman who makes him call her “Daddy” as she threatens to shave his head (what his father actually did) and who hits him, and scratches the words “MY DIRTY WHORE” on his thigh with pins. He lies there and he takes it, and he loves it, at the same time that he hates himself for it. He hates his constant impotence in the face of power, and this, he tells us, is precisely why he does it: to torture himself because he hates himself.
Elliott writes about a post-coital moment when his partner leaves the room to wash her hands: “‘Don’t go,’ I almost scream, wrapping my arms around her leg. The panic shoots through me, turning to a cold, familiar fear. I’ll never see her again. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. I say it over and over and over. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’”
On the page I mark down: this is how I feel. Not meaning, I love my husband so much and this is how I feel after sex. Meaning, this is how it feels to be a survivor of sexual abuse. This is how it feels to hate yourself. It always strikes me that survivors of abuse talk about the same emotions, the same quirks: desperation, guilt, sorrow, and a sense of being worthless. You will leave me, and know I deserve it. And I can’t help but notice that his abuse and need to relive the pain manifests itself sexually, instead of, for instance, through getting in bar fights. Whereas my sexual trauma manifests itself not through seeking pain in sex, but in causing emotional pain, raging pain, to those I love.
I always earmark pages of books when I read them, even though some people say that it’s disrespectful to the writers. And I always scribble notes in the margins, whether I’m reading for myself or for more academic reasons. But writing in a book in which someone is trailing you is different. When I scribble down “this is how I feel” I look down and consider scratching it out. I wonder if my husband will try to decipher my hieroglyphic handwriting and read what I’ve said. I don’t want to let him see this because I am embarrassed to have written it. But in a way, I also hope he does read it so that maybe he can understand. Because I explain and explain, and my words never seem to mean as much to him as they do in my own head. For a moment I consider that where I have failed to explain to my husband, somehow Elliott—not knowing me at all—will succeed.
My husband is right in a way; Elliott doesn’t explain. He simply writes that he doesn’t want his girlfriend to leave. He reports what he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t explain it because it doesn’t make any sense. He hates himself enough, he is desperate enough to apologize for his very existence, but to those who love you, you are not hateable, and they can never understand, not truly, what you feel unless they too hate themselves. And then of course, you don’t have to explain anything.
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Jena Salon is the Senior Editor of The Literary Review.
This review originally appeared in TLR’s Fall 2009 issue, Therapy!