Stories of sex, drugs, and murder are usually best left to reality TV. Rarely does one pick up a book with the notion of being tantalized by such sensational subject matter. Stories about sex, drugs, and murder are junk food for the brain—they go down smooth, and we’re hardwired to crave more. Despite having the subtitle A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder, Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries is no McBook. Rather, Elliot serves up a feast that may look like decadent dross, but satiates the need for literary sustenance.
Just published in 2009 by the Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press, the rights to The Adderall Diaries have already been purchased by James Franco, and it’s no wonder: the story is an intriguing one. Elliott had initially signed on to write a true crime book about a murder trial happening in California circa 2007, but ended up coming to understand himself through the events of, and parties involved with, the murder. It may sound a little sick and twisted, and maybe it is—coming to realizations about a sick mother and an abusive father through the story of a murdered wife and a murderous husband—but it’s also exceptionally raw, and understatedly poignant. However, like a drug, those positive feelings about the book may take a while to kick in.
Though the drugs are covered in the title and the back cover blurb has touched upon the murder, where does the sex fit in? Stephen Elliott’s accounts of his sadomasochistic activities weave into the book at sometimes shocking, but always eye-opening moments. Towards the end of the book Elliott writes, “I feel uncomfortable and not sure of what to say. It seems like I should have been prepared with a plan. I thought if I just kept my heart open everything would be OK. But the truth is that my heart is not as open as I want it to be”; eight pages from the end, I underlined it assuming that those words succinctly summed up my feelings about the book. However—and this should give you an idea of how tightly packed with emotion, psychology, and discovery Elliott’s pages are—I did my best to open my heart over those last eight pages, and really found a new perspective on the memoir. Elliott’s memoir does bring up, in a very meta fashion, how the final bits of a memoir can really affect a reader. And those final eight pages clearly demonstrate that he has learned from the mistakes of others how to end a memoir.
It is my personal philosophy that a reader should take away something—some kind of lesson—from each book or story he or she reads. I’m not sure exactly what I took away from The Adderall Diaries, but if Elliott can take away important knowledge of himself from a terrible, senseless murder that had nothing to do with him, I’m certain I’ve got interesting navel-gazing coming to me.
The Adderall Diaries is the February selection of Books and Bars, taking place February 8th at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. The memoir itself is available for purchase at Magers & Quinn, or via an amazing interactive app created by for the iPhone and iPad by Electric Literature.