The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir

Author: Stephen Elliott

Type of Book: Memoir, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I don’t even know anymore. I finished it months ago and put it in the “Odd – To Be Discussed” pile. It may not be odd but I don’t recommend a normal person with normal interests and a normal constitution read this book, not because it is outre, but because I suspect normal people would have given up within the first few chapters.

Availability: Published by Graywolf Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: You know, I’m gonna go ahead and cop to the fact that this is not going to be a favorable discussion of Elliott’s book. But I also want to make it clear that this is not going to be the full-bore assault I think the book likely deserves. You’ve seen what happens when I really loathe a book. But Elliott’s book discussion comes after the mental assault of discussing a mass murderer’s manifesto. I’m pretty sure I would be kindly disposed to even the biggest pile of crap ever to be released in trade paperback after 1500 pages of bigotry and murder blue prints. So just remember my perspective may be favorably skewed even as I skewer the book.

I bought this book because I found it in the True Crime section at BookPeople. The memoir part didn’t alarm me or seem out of place. James St. JamesParty Monster is a drug memoir and is one of the best true crime novels I have read in years. I think that is what I expected when I picked up this memoir about a man with a drug problem who was writing about what the back cover described as a “notorious San Francisco murder trial” and an “electric exploration of the self.” But the back cover gets it very wrong when it asserts that Elliott “seamlessly weaves them together.” Alas, Elliott is no St. James. The murder trial at times doesn’t even seem like a side story in this book. After reading this novel unless I flip through it again I cannot tell you even the most basic details about the murder. But I can tell you a whole lot about Elliott and, frankly, most of it is devoid of emotional meaning and context.

I don’t intend to demean the power of the addiction or sexual discovery narrative, and I don’t want to demean those who may have found something relevant in Elliott’s narrative. And I fully admit that I may have missed something because I have not read any of Elliott’s other works. I wonder if I would have cared more if I had read his other books. But the fact remains that I did not care much about this book. The narrative was flat and uninvolved. The addiction barely registered as being damaging. The bondage and S&M details were seemingly tossed out with no emotion or attempt to lure the reader into a deeper sense of understanding Elliott. It’s a bizarre condemnation of a memoir to say it was self-absorbed, but that was the problem I had with this book.

How can a memoir be self-absorbed? Well, it’s easy, actually. When someone you find interesting goes on and on about him or herself, your interest trumps the self-absorption. It is subjective, to be sure, but a memoir has to contain content that makes the reader care that they are reading a stranger go on and on about him or herself.  Given the proliferation of it, this flat, disengaged writing style must appeal to someone. But I am not that person. ( Which is odd, in a way, because I am fully aware that my book discussions are utterly self-indulgent, written to please myself as much as to entertain and inform.)

The subject matters of this book – addiction, sexual taboos, a murder trial – should all be interesting. But conveyed through Elliott’s numb prose, it is all unexciting. It’s the literary equivalent of tapioca with a dash of tequila. It’s white bread with a dab of mold on it. It’s a boring man telling boring stories to a barely interested audience. I contrast the content of this book with much more taboo writing, like the non-fiction of Peter Sotos, and it becomes clear why Elliott’s writing did not appeal to me. Sotos, in his extremity, forces the reader to think, or to react at the very least. Elliott’s numb tale was like watching a Warhol movie. As I read this book, a quote from Charles Bukowski came to mind often: “Boring damned people. All over the earth.”

And in the course of any sort of discussion I can have about this book, how can I convey how little it interested me? Discussing the plot is hard – Elliott does drugs, has extreme sex, comes to terms with some of feelings about his family and muses about the murder, the discussion of which ostensibly was the focus of this novel. In a way, this is no different than many other memoirs, but when I consider the emotionally numb and at times alienating manner in which Elliott writes, any structure would be lost behind the veil of ennui his words provoke. At times the meta in this book irritated me, but perhaps some will find it delightful. Perhaps some will also report back to me on what it feels like to snort ketamine and take an icepick to their frontal lobes. Perhaps some will find this book so utterly transcendent they will be forced to leave me half-assed, unintelligible comments to show their indie cred. Perhaps some think I should stop typing entirely until I am in a better mood. Perhaps those people are right, but fuck it, I’m sitting here, computer in my lap, so let’s get this over with.

So let me give my examples of why this book was terrible so I can move on to something else.

The meta. I swear, if I never again have to read a book about a person who writes about how they are writing the book as they write it, I will die happy (or at least, happier). Take this scene, as Elliott is listening to a lawyer give a terrible argument in court:

“If the platypus doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” I whisper to the producer seated next to me.

“You should use that in your book,” she says.

Of the various issues I have with this book, this is not so bad but I just loathe this sort of thing.

More problematic for me was the jarring way in which Elliott writes. His idea flow is not what I consider logical, even for a man writing under the influence. For example:

In the morning I take ten milligrams of Adderall and then ten more of the extended release. I sit down in the coffee shop then go into the bathroom and snort a few more lines. I thought I had stopped snorting Adderall, but I keep coming back to it. In the 1950s when Dexadrine and Dexamyl and other amphetamine combinations were being mass consumed as diet pills, research started coming out about tolerance and the return of lost weight. When the National Academy of Science advised the FDA that amphetamine weight loss products were not very effective, the pharmaceutical companies suppressed the information for years. Now Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie are taking Adderall for weight loss like fifties housewives, because it’s the same thing. The amphetamine hasn’t changed. They are all forms of beta-phenyl-isopropylamine: synthetic adrenaline.

The closing arguments are over and I bicycle through the city. All the pot clubs are open at night, their unlocked doors throwing green light onto the streets. I pass the line of bike messengers waiting to get into the Zeitgeist for a cold beer. I bike Valencia, Guererro, Dolores. These streets are noisy, crowded. This is where I live, in the city I arrived at accidentally. It’s good to have a home, to know I am going to be here for a while. That I’ll stay where I am, sharing a one-bedroom apartment close to the park and the coffee shop I like, in the middle of everything, with my young roommate, for as long as I can.

“Little kids need their mother,” Paul Hora said in his summation. “Little kids miss their mother.”

Just for the record, this cited portion is a new section that followed directly after the platypus mess I quoted above. There are a couple of reasons I cited this chunk of text to show why this book wore so very, very thin for me. Okay, Elliott is evidently seamlessly weaving together his story and the story of the murder trial, if we are to believe the blurbs on the back cover, but this passage shows that no, oh no, he is not weaving anything seamlessly. In fact, one could argue the seams he weaves are not even on the same garment. He snorts Adderall in a public john, he muses on the history of amphetamines and their current use amongst third tier starlets, he bikes and vomits up locations as if they mean anything to anyone who doesn’t live there and then he segues into the trial. I see the seams.

Additionally, and I hit on this above, the details that mean nothing were tiring. Why did we need that information about amphetamines following an explanation of why he can’t stop snorting Adderall? What sense did this make? Why include pop culture references that were dated when Elliott threw them out? You tell me.

I get that Elliott was writing a memoir that just happened to feature a murder trial but there were contrived moments like this:

I tell her what Hans said, his last words before he was led away, “He said, ‘I’ve been the best father that I know how.'”

“By killing their mother?” she asks.

“It was as if he was talking to me,” I say.

“Does he know you’re writing a book?”

“I doubt it.”

I don’t know. I guess as an aficionado of the true crime genre, I find moments like this hackneyed. I didn’t think I would ever long for the detachment of a pulp true crime writer but it is infinitely preferred to scenes like this wherein Elliott somehow creates such a strange and irrelevant connection with the killer and then follows up the statement with an observation about Hillary Clinton’s stance on Israeli politics and a fear of holding babies. Stream of consciousness has its place but generally I can do without it when a person is relating to me details of a crime, even if it is wrapped up in a memoir.

And perhaps that is part of the reason I find this so self-absorbed and self-indulgent. There is a fine line between exploring the self via exploring others and exhibiting a level of egoism as you insert your emotions where they don’t necessarily belong that would have made Truman Capote blush. The following is an excellent example of what I mean:

Nietzsche said there are no facts, only interpretations. Nina Reiser was five feet five inches tall and weighed 114 pounds. She was the mother of Cori and Lila. She met Hans through a bride service in St. Petersburg, Russia. These are facts. There are things that can be known.

I know I entered the mental hospital August 31, 1986, and was released three months later into the McCormick House, where I shared a room with Cateyes, a member of an all-black gang called the Vice Lords. These are facts. He tattooed a dagger on my left shoulder, which I later covered up with a larger, more colorful tattoo. He called himself Cateyes because of his large green eyes that pinched slightly at the corner toward his ears.

These may be facts but they don’t flow in anything approaching a coherent or relevant narrative. And one thing that can be known is that if Elliott had decided to simply write about his life without this half-assed juxtaposition with a murder trial, I may have been more kindly disposed toward it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be self-absorbed. It’s just best to be clear about it.

I also wonder what it is that I was supposed to take away from Elliott’s descriptions of his sexual predilections. The next scene begins descriptively enough, as he is in thrall to a woman whom he describes as “European and Asian and looked like Jessica Rabbit if Jessica Rabbit had starred in Venus in Furs.”  He describes his interactions with her:

“I don’t like giving people pleasure,” she said. Then she sat on the sofa and I kneeled in front of her and she slapped me several times. She held her cigarette near my face and I could feel its heat about to burn my eyelids. She laughed loudly. Then she pressed the cigarette into the back of both my hands. “Those are going to blister.”

I left passages like this empty because I don’t think I ever understood what it is that motivates Elliott. The pain? The thrill of enthrallment? The danger? The deep pleasure that comes from submitting? I have no idea. He tells me the details but he never lets me into his brain and this is why I invoked Sotos earlier. As much as Sotos disturbs me to my very core, he explains himself so thoroughly. There is no sense in giving the details of the wallow without giving us the feelings in it, as well. I focus on this passage because I am a person who suffered a terrible burn and remember the white hot searing pain that left the taste of lemons and chalk in my mouth during debridement treatment and because I scar with every bump it seems. I feel like a walking autobiography in a language few others can read. Elliott and I have some similar damages beyond that – drugs, unsettling personal histories. I wanted to understand him because it would mean he likely understood me but he kept too much to himself. I wanted to know how he felt when he was burned. I wanted to know so much more about him because even as he reveals all sorts of acts and tells all sorts of details, I know little about his psyche. He was an interesting study in how it is one can be utterly honest without laying one’s self bare.

Take another scene of intense sexual experience that reads like pure fucking nihilism:

The house madam leaves and I take my clothes off and the woman from Culver City fastens leather cuffs around my ankles, latching a spreader bar to them to keep my legs forced apart. She fastens nipple clamps with weights on the ends, pushes me over the bed and slides inside me with her strap-on. I’m wearing a rubber mask and a blindfold so I can’t see her boyfriend moving behind us with the camera. She leans over me, one hand gripping my throat and the other pressing down my back. This is fine, I think. I’ll just stay like this.  When the filming is over and I’m getting dressed, the boyfriend offers me a can of energy cola. “You were great,” he says. “We couldn’t ask for a better victim.”

Why did he do this? Compulsion? Maybe but it seems too remote for compulsion. He has no affection for the woman from Culver City, so it was not passion. It was not a test of his limits. It was not a financial transaction. I have no idea why he engaged in this interesting extremity and much of the book is exactly like this – a recitation of interesting facts that reaches no conclusions, emotional or otherwise.

And this was all the more infuriating to me because there were moments when he described so perfectly the problems I often have in my brain:

Sometimes I think of this depression setting its hooks in me as a failure of my file system. I call up files I shouldn’t be thinking of. I mislabel documents and store them in a folder I’d rather bury.

Modern file systems don’t just catalog data; they move it into the best available space. This information is continually shuffled into equal-sized digital blocks. It’s the most human part of a computer. We remember events in our lives in specific order and importance relative to our identity.

Later in the same musings, he discusses how he more than doubled his prescribed Adderall dosage.

The speed lets me lock into my own thoughts, build and rebuild my framework for understanding the world.

“You have to be careful about not sleeping,” Roger tells me. “You can do permanent damage to your memory.”

Don’t I fucking know it. And it annoys me that this was as close an understanding and a kinship I had with Elliott’s words.

There were moments wherein I think Elliott was conveying that he had no idea how to convey feelings, only facts:

Katie sprawls across me, crying. She’s been seeing someone else since a little before we met. She likes him and she likes me too.

“Last night,” she says. “I was going to break up with you. But I was enjoying your company too much.”

I keep my arms around her. I feel my stomach harden and try to look behind us into that little room where she keeps her washer-dryer. I was with her when she picked that thing up. We’d gone to the Best Buy below the highway. The store was full of bright plastics, shelves covered in gadgets nobody needed. We found help from a salesman in a blue polo. This is what couples do, I thought.

And that’s it. A sobbing woman sprawled across him and he has a tightening of the stomach and that sort of consumerist familiarity that often gets mistaken for real memories and kinship. He concludes with this, told after he goes off on a tangent about meeting a woman who told him about another lonely man, a woman to whom he had told he loves Katie:

I run my finger along Katie’s cheek. I tell Katie I’m not trying to audition to be her boyfriend. She’ll have to make up her own mind and fuck whoever she wants.

He thought he was falling in love with this woman. Selecting an appliance with her has created in him the notion of being a couple. And this is what he says – make up your mind and fuck who you want. As much as I may have in common with those whose minds have been affected by chemicals, whose psyches are bent and scratched, I cannot tolerate this level of nihilism. I am constitutionally unsuited for it, and to read this nihilism wherein Elliott is pumped full of drugs, burned, tied up, fucked, loved and abandoned and saved, and to see it summed up in a sort of “whatevs” shrug is more than I can bear.

This scene actually illustrates my lack of tolerance for emotional nihilism pretty well:

It’s a quiet evening with fifty students and faculty sitting patiently while I read an essay about Lissette carving “possession” in my side. She spelled it wrong, leaving out one s. The metaphor was too obvious. It was like Jim Morrison dying or Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts. It meant exactly what you thought it meant.

And what I think it meant was nothing because he does not long for Lissette, he does not belong to her, and she does not possess him. What is the point of enduring this prose that describes damage with no revelation?

Hilariously, to me at least, that is followed with this paragraph:

In Los Angeles, Bearman had told me I needed to find a new story. I had written four novels based loosely on my life and multiple essays. “Listen,” he said. “Stick to Hans and Sean and keep yourself out of it. My friend Kay encourages me to write something accessible, and to keep a journal for the rest. “Write something that people want to read,” she says. “Think of Dave Eggers. He wrote a book about himself and moved on to other things.” Twelve years ago, when I was hospitalized following my overdose, my friend Louie came to visit me. He said, “You better never write about this.” He was trying to distinguish between being a real human being and someone who only lives on the page.

Is this what Louie was warning about? Is this book the end result of living one’s life on the page? Having written four books about himself and then producing a fifth that is so remote, so wordy yet insistent that the reader cannot get close to him, I have to wonder if Elliott is, in fact, living his life on the page. Thoughts and conversations and actions reproduced faithfully but to what real end? Few readers, even those with similar damage, can find much truth in this true crime/memoir hybrid.  I ask again, what is the point of sharing the scars if you don’t explain what they mean and how they haunt you?

So I read the scars, I read the horror, I read the words of a man who was struggling to be human outside the page and it failed because Elliott’s writing does not show enough emotional depth for me to give a crap about the scars, the horror, or the struggle. I don’t recommend this book, but that pretty much went without saying, didn’t it? I need a reason other than recitation for sex, violence and internal struggles or it’s just mental abuse. And despite my own scars, I’m too mentally healthy to see the appeal anymore.

14 thoughts on “The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

  1. It’s strange how your comment about lemons and chalk is much more evocative and interesting than any excerpt in the review. As someone who loves a self absorbed venture into another life, a good memoir is a thing is priceless and wonderful. But none of this seems to actually be anything. It’s all just words and what are words without meaning? Thanks for reading this so I don’t have to!

  2. Does the book come across as he equivalent of a “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” for the Adderall imbiber? Is the author attempting to demonstrate that the chemical substance itself creates an absence of emotional depth through the literary means of composing a text that is equally affectless?

    1. I have not read “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” but within the paradigm you described, I don’t think that is what Elliott was going for. The addiction hardly seemed… urgent, I guess. It seems very much as if Elliott was as he is in this book long before he ever took Adderall so the drug cannot be blamed for his flat affect. Also, the book is too jumbled for me to believe that there was such a goal in mind, to show the lack of affect that drugs can cause. It was all over the place in terms of content and arrangement for me to buy such an organizational idea.

  3. I’d like to echo the first comment. Your description of being burned IS far more evocative than anything Elliot has to offer in these passages. It actually made me stop and think, you could be a writer. Really.

    Also, though I haven’t read this book, and it’s probably unfair of me to say this, but I always see this book HEAPED with praise, to the point where it comes off as suspicious, so this was a rather refreshing take. I had been somewhat curious about this book, thinking eventually I might read it, but based on the passages you quoted I think I’ll pass.

    (thanks for always doing that btw, it definitely helps paint a clearer picture)

    1. I do my best not to read any reviews of a book before I discuss it and after posting this, I checked the book out on Amazon and was floored. I was so shocked so many people loved the book. Had the reviews been split between good and bad, I could see it, but so much praise? I had a twinge of fear that I had missed the point but if I’m honest and clear about my dislike with no greater agenda, I try not to worry. But I too noted the praise heaped on this novel and was surprised.

      And thanks for the praise. I always fear I go on too long, and it’s not like I could change it if I tried, but it’s good to know it helps in some manner.

  4. I have to admit to some (mean-spirited) satisfaction in reading your review, because I’ve read some pieces by Elliott in The Believer and other places, and he comes across to me as an insufferable narcissist, whose writing screams “OMG I can’t even believe how fucked up and damaged I am, and also I sleep with lots of hot girls, albeit in a fucked up and damaged way. Are you believing this shit? Why am I so complex???”

    Obviously, I don’t get the love for this author, but I imagine his work appeals to a certain kind of 18-30 year old reader.

    1. You may be on to something, about this book appealing to a younger person. Details of debauchery without any emotion or greater purpose have their place, I guess, and perhaps that place is with those who have not yet felt the sickening fist in the face of prolonged damage.

      But regardless of the spirit behind it, I can see your assessment of his writing. Perhaps I was too bored to see the narcissistic boast in his words, but in retrospect, that could be an explanation behind throwing out so much detail without any real attempt to connect. Braggarts want our admiration, not our attention. Who knows.

      It’s good to know I’m not the only one who disliked his writing. As i said in a comment above, the rave reviews on Amazon baffled me.

  5. I’ve been meaning to read this because it looked interesting and I enjoyed his other book, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. It reminded me a lot of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, which I read for a class last year and hated. Hollywood adapted the movie, Secretary, from one of the stories in Bad Behavior, although the movie was a lot different and much better than the story. Mary Gaitskill just seemed like she never knew what the hell she was talking about as far as her characters enjoying giving and receiving emotional and physical pain to and from her other characters while Stephen Elliot’s stories seemed genuine. They were inspired by his experiences, so mixtures of fact and fiction.

    1. I also found Bad Behavior to be strangely empty. I was surprised because I had enjoyed Veronica.

      If you read this Elliott offering, come back and let me know if the same sort of deadness popped out at you. I just never connected with the narrative and felt like it was a quilt of unrelated and strange experiences stitched together in a manner that means something to Elliott but nothing to the rest of us.

  6. Wow. I’m amazed and intrigued how your opinion of this book differs so far from my own. I loved the book and couldn’t put it down, finishing it in two days. I found the story to be tragic yet inspiring, enlightening, thought-provoking, smart, deep, funny…

    The author’s, sometimes snarky, but always honest, stream-of-consciousness writing style was easy to follow and entertaining. — The way real thoughts ebb and flow and manifest into other, related ideas.

    I found your review to be an interesting and valuable read. However, I have one point of contention: I disagree with your comment that the subject matter was about addiction, sexual taboos and murder. That misses the point entirely.

    The theme is about contradicting memories (faulty by design), conflicting perceptions, and our intrinsic desire for our own truth, Reality is a construct we create by balancing on these precarious stepping stones.

    The abuse, addiction, and bdsm, are just the murky waters Stephen Elliott has to navigate in order to balance out this thing called life. The more tragic the.childhood, the muddier those waters are.

    1. JaimieLeigh, it seems we don’t have much in the way of common ground regarding this book. I have to imagine you aren’t alone in finding merit in this book – it was even adapted into a film (that evidently has Ed Harris in one of the roles, and Ed Harris is always a good thing in my book). Thanks for taking the time to leave such an informed and thoughtful comment – tastes vary but I really appreciate it when people leave comments that can inspire conversation.

      I think my main issue with the book is that the style, that sort of muffled style that meanders even as it attempts to tell a very specific story, was ill-suited for what was marketed as a true crime book. It defies resolution and shielded Elliott from genuine expression and prevented me from giving a damn about Elliott because his numb recitation of events shielded me from emotion as well. I’ve never been constitutionally suited for most alt lit, and while Elliott is not alt lit, per se, he brings enough of the hallmark characteristics to his work – relentless meta, self-promotion as a side plot, factual openness that ultimately reveals little about authorial motivation – that at the end the novel didn’t mean anything to me at all.

      And as your comment shows, mileage always varies. Thanks again for such a good comment – hopefully it will show another perspective should another fan of the book come across this discussion.

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