Reviewed: The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder, by Stephen Elliott

(Graywolf Press, 224 p.)
Review by Tobias Carroll

A few months ago, writer and editor Stephen Elliott initiated a lending library for galleys of his forthcoming nonfiction work The Adderall Diaries. Currently, copies are traversing the country, with each reader forwarding their copy along to the next reader in line, but not before inscribing their name inside the front cover. I suggested a review of the book in question to Vol.1’s Jason Diamond, which led to the piece you’re now reading. Shortly after that, however, an essay I’d written on the musician and novelist Chris Eaton was accepted by the Elliott-edited online journal The Rumpus. All of which means that the writing of this piece has become a bit more complicated than I had initially expected. Given the layered narrative and meditation on ethics that Elliott constructs here, however, that may be entirely appropriate for the writing of this review.

The book’s title may seem unwieldy, but it turns out to be painfully accurate. While the 2006 murder of Nina Reiser is at the heart of the book, The Adderall Diaries is less a true-crime work than a meditation on issues that the murder and subsequent murder trial unearth. Reiser’s murder is not the only crime on display here: murders are confessed to by men who may not have committed them; murders are admitted to that may or may not have taken place. The trial of Reiser’s husband Hans, and the confession of Hans’s former friend Sean Sturgeon, is both the subject of Elliott’s book and the starting point for a series of meditations on his own life and work.

As with much of his nonfiction, Elliott’s life and writing process are tangible presences here: Adderall fuels his reporting of the trial and prompts several meditations on the role of stimulants in the process of writing. The title’s “diaries” also proves accurate: the book’s 2007 setting gives us not only multiple glimpses of Elliott’s personal life but also of the state of the country, as political debates anticipate the 2008 election, and the film Juno is omnipresent.

It’s Sturgeon who emerges as the book’s most unsettling figure. When he initially appears, he seems to be a figure mirroring Elliott: each endured childhood abuse, and the two spent years traveling in the same San Francisco circles. As we learn more about Sturgeon, those parallels begin to break down, even as others come into focus. What seem to be disparate threads and vignettes — scenes from Elliott’s troubled childhood, anecdotes told by his father, encounters with editors and colleagues, discussions of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome — converge as The Adderall Diaries reaches its conclusion. And the final encounter between Elliott and Sturgeon is genuinely haunting.

Elliott invokes Janet Malcolm both in the quotes that open his book and later, when discussing journalistic ethics. Malcolm emerges as one of the stylistic reference points for The Adderall Diaries; like her work, Elliott’s is both a solid account of an event (in this case, the Reiser murder trial) and a meditation on the act of writing about it.

Another reference point would be James Ellroy’s My Dark Places: both are true stories of awful occurrences in California, narrated by writers fueled by outrage and intimately enmeshed in their subject. The scope of Elliott’s book, encompassing a murder and its aftermath, his own life story, subcultures and perceptions of the same, may not seem like the stuff of a concise narrative, but for all of its intentionally rough edges and ambiguities, the extent to which The Adderall Diaries comes together makes for a pleasant, emotionally draining surprise.

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