The Adderall Diaries²

Feature by Nine | 26 Aug 2009

Stephen Elliott is hooked on Adderall. It’s basically speed in a capsule, prescribed by his psychiatrist. He takes too much; sometimes he opens up the capsules and snorts the powder. Sometimes he feels suicidal. He lives in San Francisco and has a string of often undefined, blurry relationships with women. Sometimes they tie him up, beat him, cut him.

He thinks back to his youth as a runaway and tries to make sense of his adversarial relationship with his father. And he goes to Oakland every day for months to watch the trial of Hans Reiser, a Linux programmer accused of murdering his estranged wife. The Adderall Diaries was meant to be a true crime book but it turned into a memoir. True crime authors don’t usually let their own lives into the story, do they? But the end result here is truth, it’s honesty. Every writer has a personal reaction to what he or she documents; the difference is that Elliott acknowledges his, and allows it to take centre stage if it needs to. It’s refreshing that he abandons the pretence of keeping his subject matter at arm’s length. Hans Reiser’s story links in with his own story, with his father’s story, with other people’s stories: ex-girlfriends who’ve moved on to more conventional lives, childhood friends who overdosed on heroin or got sent to jail for murder. Hans Reiser may have been the starting point of the book, he may be its unifying thread, but in the end it’s not exactly about him.

I’m on a short trip to York. I stay somewhere different every night. I get abuse for being American, even though I’m not, and a stranger gives me a lift in his car. One day I trek round the city aimlessly for hours, try to sleep on a park bench. I get off with a boy and it’s awkward and he feels weird and I do too, and then it’s too late to know what to say. I act like it isn’t the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. And I read The Adderall Diaries and Elliott’s voice echoes and I see parts of myself, only parts, because just as there are places where Hans Reiser’s story connects with his, there are those where Elliott’s story connects with mine. One passage in particular remains with me long after reading it. Elliott is trying to have a 'normal' relationship: "reassuringly mundane", he describes it. An ex-lover tells him about a man whose desires are so masochistic he’s had to accept that he will probably never have a real partner; he must get used to being alone. Elliott excuses himself, bursts into tears in a supermarket. His relationship does not last.

I discuss the book with a sex worker. She says, "Some of my clients are into such specific things. If they were queer, they’d have no problem being accepted. They’d find enough people who were okay with their desires. They’re good people and it makes me sad that it’s so hard for them." I think about how statistically so many more people are straight, and yet there’s a better chance of acceptance, broadly speaking, within queer circles. I think about how hard it must be for straight people who don’t have access to a supportive community.

After my encounter in York I feel like I’ve just messed with someone’s boundaries but I’m not entirely sure what I’ve done wrong, or whether I’m imagining it to be worse than it really is. I wonder if it’s cost me what could have been a good friendship. All the conversation flowed so easily and then suddenly it slowed down and became unrecognisable, like a familiar tape being chewed up by a cassette player. Sometimes when that happens it feels like I have to gamble, say something or don’t, and no words I can come up with will fill the space adequately. It’ll always be either too much or too little. I’m not particularly looking for a meaningful relationship, or a future with someone; I’m content with the path I’m already on, which is full of surprises. My stories usually involve undefined relationships, people who are more than friends, and I have learned not to need to name whatever's going on between us. Yet all the same, I can taste Elliott’s despair when he considers that maybe he won’t find someone who’s really compatible with him.

These are the things I think about while I’m in York, and reading The Adderall Diaries amplifies them. Elliott’s writing is raw, confessional, and addictive. It draws you in. He flits between the present and the past, but his timeline is sufficiently clear to avoid confusion. His life has been unorthodox, shall we say, from the start, but he doesn't seek to present himself as special, doesn't romanticise it, though he acknowledges the adolescent bravado that made it tolerable. I think about my own teenage years. I drank, but I didn't get into trouble and I didn't take any real risks. But I was sixteen the first time somebody told me they'd killed someone, when I felt something shift away from my comfortable middle-class upbringing, my drama-free home. I learned to just observe, to not ask awkward questions. If I'd asked those questions, would I still have been safe?

There are many differences between Elliott and I. But I have complications going on too, and it’s a learning process, figuring out what I’m okay with, what it’s safe to express. Sometimes I feel disconnected. I’m looking at an uncertain future and I’m trying to be upbeat about it, to see it all as an exciting adventure. This is where I’m at, drifting, reading a book by someone who’s drifting too.

Published in September by Graywolf Press; $23 hardcover from