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Authors: Stephen Elliott

The Adderall Diaries

BOOK: The Adderall Diaries
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Acclaim for
The Adderall Diaries

“If you’re the type of reader who always wants to know what to expect, Stephen Elliott isn’t your guy. But if you can take your literary sharp turns without hitting the brakes—or knowing exactly where you’ll end up—you won’t find a more provocative, masterful, thrilling ride than this.”

—Meredith Maran,
The San Francisco Chronicle

“The book’s most affecting passages are unlike anything being written today. They manage to fuse the radical subjectivity of the individual struggling to understand himself with a tender bafflement at the psychological evasions of modern life in America.”

—Steve Almond,
The Boston Globe

“Stephen Elliott’s superb, sprawling meta-memoir might be just what the genre needs… . [It] is at once skittish and deeply focused: In a single rotund paragraph, Elliott can ping-pong between webcam sex, financial anxiety, hypothetical affairs with college students and murder confessions.”

—Scott Indrisek,
Time Out New York

The Adderall Diaries
is neither a Kerouac-like brag, nor an ‘Oprah’-ready record of suffering and recovery. Rather, it is its own weird hybrid, a painfully honest and meticulously crafted memoir wrapped around a true-crime story that gets to the very essence of its time and place.”

—Scott Timberg,
The Los Angeles Times

“A book that begins as a true-crime tale of a murder trial and becomes a searing, self-conscious memoir of drug addiction, obsession and art as a means of survival… . Powerful and unusual.”

—Craig Morgan Teicher,
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Ambitious and emotional and brilliantly orchestrated, an embroidery of memoir and true-crime reportage that’s so stunning that I can’t imagine Elliott writing about the above-mentioned murder case without also confronting his past (or vice versa)… . Each strand is insightful and lucid; woven together, they form a thriving work of art.”

—Michael Miller,

“The intensity of Elliott’s often beautiful prose evokes the effects of Adderall, the attention deficit medication. Yet the book shows a concern for order . . . [B]eneath these devices throbs an all-pervasive sense of the elusiveness of truth. Memories deceive, and almost everyone in this book—including the author—is a fantasist.”

—Juliet Wittman,
The Washington Post

“Though it sidesteps traditional memoir elements of revelation, redemption, and closure, it affords both reader and author something much more valuable: a transcendent inquiry into the nature of the self.”

—Sean Nelson,
The Seattle Stranger

The Adderall Diaries
, a brutally open-eyed memoir about growing up surrounded by violence, clad in the scattered threads of Capote-style crime reporting, is a strange beautiful thing.”

—Chris Michel,
The Brooklyn Rail

“A daring and riveting memoir of acute observation and astringent honesty… . Inspired by the blood-dark lyricism of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Elliott not only pieces together chilling (his ‘urge to be hurt and humiliated’) and mordantly funny (his dot-com interlude) stories from his rough, boldly improvised life, he also ponders the enigmas of Sylvia Plath and Paris Hilton and shrewdly reports on the murder trial of a mad-genius computer programmer… . Elliott is a poet of pain.”

Donna Seaman,
(starred review)

“An endlessly fascinating memoir by a profoundly courageous writer… . Despite the luridness of the subject matter, the author creates a refined, beautiful work of art… . Deserves a place on the shelf next to such classics of uninhibited American introspection as
On the Road
A Fan’s Notes

(starred review)

“You don’t just read
The Adderall Diaries
; you fall right into them. You read as if you are a few words behind the writer, trying to catch up, to find out what happens, to yell at him that he’s doing a great job. And he is. It’s a brilliant book.”

—Roddy Doyle

“Stephen Elliott is one of those ‘people who keep searching when everything is dark’—I don’t know a more hauntingly fearless writer, and this is an immediate, visceral, and ultimately beautiful book.”

—Nick Flynn

“I felt like a voyeur reading Stephen Elliott’s memoir—what is shocking and unbearable to most of us is commonplace to him… . Reading
The Adderall Diaries
is like taking a step toward the edge of a cliff so you can peer down and imagine what it might be like to slip and fall.  Normally we shudder and step back. Stephen Elliott jumps, and his harrowing, riveting memoir convinces you to follow him vicariously.”

—Amy Tan

The Adderall Diaries
is a startling and original concoction, an irresistible melding of reportage and memoir and reconstruction. This is Stephen Elliott’s best book, perfectly suited to his gifts as a seeker, as a storyteller, as a poet of wounds, unwelcome and otherwise.”

—Sam Lipsyte

“Phenomenal. With jittery finesse and a reformed tweaker’s eye for detail, Stephen Elliott captures the terrifying, hilarious, heart-strangling reality of a life whose scorched-earth physical and psycho-emotional dimensions no one could have invented—they absolutely had to be lived. By all rights, the author should either be dead or chewing his fingers in a bus station. Instead, he may well have written the memoir of an entire generation.”

—Jerry Stahl




Happy Baby

What It Means to Love You

A Life Without Consequences

Jones Inn


My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up


Looking Forward to It

As Editor

Where to Invade Next

Sex for America

Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction

Politically Inspired: Fiction for Our Time

 This is my best novel. You should read this one first.

 This is my first book and I don’t recommend it. I was twenty-one when I wrote most of it and the publisher, a good friend operating on a small budget, misspelled my name on every other page.

 This is a diary of the 2004 presidential campaign. Due to deadlines, the footnotes are in the back, as endnotes, and the narrative ends at the Democratic Convention, instead of the election, which some readers find unsatisfying. It’s my only funny book.


A Memoir

Stephen Elliott

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2009 by Stephen Elliott

Photo/Illustration Credits
Chapter 1: View from Window, by Justin St. Germain. Chapter 3: Vietnamese Girl Fleeing in Terror after a Napalm Attack, by Nick Ut. Still from Hans and Nina’s Wedding Video. Chapter 7: Paul Hora in Court, by Vicki Behringer. Beverly Palmer, by Norman Quebedeau. Chapter 9: Ramone Reiser, by Norman Quebedeau. Prosecution Puzzles, by District Attorney Paul Hora. Still from Hans and Nina’s Wedding Video. All other photos by the author or Anonymous.

This publication is made possible by funding provided in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and private funders. Significant support has also been provided by Target; the McKnight Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America

Cloth ISBN: 978-1-55597-538-8
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-55597-570-8
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-55597-012-3

2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1

Library of Congress Control Number: 2010922922

Cover design: Rodrigo Corral

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

—Janet Malcolm,
The Journalist and the Murderer

Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme—

why are they no help to me now

I want to make

something imagined, not recalled?

I hear the noise of my own voice:

The painter’s vision is not a lens,

it trembles to caress the light.

But sometimes everything I write

with the threadbare art of my eye

seems a snapshot,

lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,

heightened from life,

yet paralyzed by fact.

All’s misalliance.

Yet why not say what happened?

Pray for the grace of accuracy

Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination

stealing like the tide across a map

to his girl solid with yearning.

We are poor passing facts,

warned by that to give

each figure in the photograph

his living name.

—Robert Lowell, “Epilogue”

This is a work of nonfiction. Situations may have appeared in other works in different forms and significantly different context. Characters are not conflated. Events are sometimes presented out of sequence but timelines are not intentionally altered. Many names and details have been changed to protect identities. Much is based on my own memories and is faithful to my recollections, but only a fool mistakes memory for fact.



My father may have killed a man.

It was 1970, the year before I was born. The year the United States invaded Cambodia and the voting age was lowered to eighteen. He was thirty-five, the same age I am now, living in his parents’ house with my mother and one-year-old sister on the north side of Chicago, trying to make it as a writer.

They lived across from a park, a large park for a city block but not a green park. Chicago ran on a system of patronage with Richard J. Daley, the kingmaker, at the top of the pyramid. It was a crooked town, and proud of it. Someone got paid off with a contract and covered the park in cement, a swingset, and a baseball diamond, turning it into a hard place filled with rocks.

The neighborhood was changing. Older residents, mainly immigrants who had arrived following the First World War, were moving to the suburbs. The new people were from Tennessee and other points south. They had less money and more children. They were louder, or at least that’s how it seemed, especially to longtime tenants like my dad, who wasn’t doing so well financially himself.

He was at work on a book about euthanasia and retirement homes, an idea given to him by an editor at a large publishing house. He wrote on the sunporch, constantly distracted by the sound rattling through the screens. It was almost Independence Day and the explosions had been going off all week. Occasionally he clenched his teeth and let out a yell that my mother and grandmother ignored. The anger was part of the package. To love my father you had to accept the outbursts, wait for them to pass, and move on to the next thing. It was something he had been doing since he was a child when his mother would tell the other siblings not to challenge him. “Your brother’s nervous,” she would say. Anyone who stays with my father over time has come to this basic fact.

On the Fourth of July he sat on the front steps with his neighbors, a crippled man and his wife, watching the park, cursing the firecrackers blowing off all around them. The neighbors pointed to a couple of boys right across the street. My father stood in the afternoon sunshine. He wasn’t happy with the way his book was going. He wanted to impress the neighbor, and anyway he’d had enough. It was hot and humid, a concrete swamp. He gave no warning. He grabbed one of the boys, searching his pockets, taking whatever stuff he had. The boy said something smart and my father smacked him across the mouth. The boy was thirteen, fourteen years old.

In the evening my father walked to the corner drugstore to buy the Sunday paper. It had gotten cooler and he walked slowly past a gang of teenagers, friends of the boy he’d hit earlier. The boys said a few words under their breath and my father ignored them. Returning through the park, he stopped at the fountain to take a drink.

A man called out, “Did you hit my kid?” The man was drunk, barefoot, striding diagonally across the park. Two men followed behind at a distance, eager to see what would happen. The streetlights were on and the fireflies were blinking. My father didn’t run; he just stood there.

The man punched my father and my father didn’t fight back. The house was just across the street but he made no move to run and get up the stairs. He was paralyzed. Seeing there was no danger, the two friends joined in. The three men hit my father from all sides, his eyes swelling, his mouth bleeding. But he never went down. He stood, holding his newspaper, getting punched in the face.

The men walked away, laughing, and for some reason my father followed. They looked back at him and told him to fuck off. They didn’t want to go home; they didn’t want my father to know where they lived. And then a police car pulled to the curb and the men were arrested.

My father pressed charges but nothing happened. He hired an attorney and they tried to bribe an official with $500 to get the charges raised to aggravated assault. But their attempt failed in court and my father lost what little faith he had in the institutions that are supposed to protect us and provide justice. Or maybe it was a faith he never had. He’d lived in Chicago virtually all his life and knew how the game was played. This was his neighborhood and he had been humiliated on his own block. His doctor told him he was as close to having a concussion as a man could be without actually having one. He told himself he would never again doubt his ability to take a punch.

There are pictures of my father from that summer in 1970, his shirt covered in blood, giant bruises fading from black to purple around his eyes, wearing sunglasses and without. I’ve seen the pictures, or I remember seeing them. I don’t always trust my own memory. He talked about the beating to me, my sister, my uncle. It loomed over him, hovered around his shoulders like a coat he couldn’t get out of. He never talked about the rest.

My father’s writing career never really took off. His hardcovers weren’t released in paperback. I got the impression he was too concerned with what editors wanted and how much he was getting paid per hour, which is death for a writer. He told me he didn’t believe in rewriting. He penned two pulp novels populated with characters averse to exploring their own motivations. He also wrote pornographic books, some of which he republished under other names. They lined his office shelves with titles like
Visiting Aunt
Sin Safari.
One of his favorite stories involved telling a woman he wrote pornography and her responding, “You write pornography? I live pornography!” He also published a book-length interview with Al Capone’s piano player called
My Years with Capone.
Except it wasn’t actually Al Capone’s piano player, it was Al Capone’s lawyer, and at the last minute the lawyer backed out. The interview was the best book my father ever did, but it was a lie, like a lot of other things.

My father got out of writing and into real estate. When I was eight my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, confining her to the living room couch for most of the next five years. She died when I was thirteen and I ran away from home a month or two later. After a year sleeping on the streets, I was taken into custody by the state and spent four years in various state-sponsored institutions. My father made money, married someone with a good job, moved to the suburbs, and had new children. My little brother and sister went to private schools.

In 2001 my father sent me his memoir along with a box of correspondence and an unfinished novel. I was living in a studio next to a transient hotel and across from a chocolate factory. The prison bus stopped down the street and the crack whores crossed back and forth in front of the factory, breaking into the dumpster after hours and digging out mangled boxes of toffee. That Christmas Eve a man tried to jump in my window from the building across the echo chamber. He missed and fell three stories to the ground and broke his leg.

I had just published my first hardcover novel,
A Life Without
set in the group homes where I spent my adolescence. My father clearly hoped that I would write about him. There was no other explanation for sending me his correspondence. He had three children in Chicago he could have given it to.

When I was young he used to give me books to read about strong, silent men who did the right thing and didn’t care what anybody else thought. They were criminals and soldiers who never backed down from anything. They were tough and lived according to a simple, unspoken moral code. “That’s your dad,” my father would tell me.

According to the memoir, after he was beat up, the children in the neighborhood mocked him and his friends abandoned him. He felt spooked, unsafe, like he could get “made.” His masculinity shattered, he moved with my mother and sister to a small, furnished rental on the North Shore where he bought a shotgun and practiced shooting in the woods behind the house. Or he says he did. All I have is what people tell me and what they write down.

A year had passed since he was beat up. By then he was done with his euthanasia book and doing work in a rehab, counseling drug addicts and having an affair with one of the junkies, which would cost him his job. He sawed off the barrels of the gun. When he fired toward the trees there was just a puff of smoke. He bored holes in the gun so he could run a belt through it and bought a raincoat and tried strapping the gun inside the arm using the belt over his shoulder. He knew the work schedule of the man who had beaten him. Barry Kling promised to get the police patrol schedules outside the man’s house, but he never did.

In his memoir my father refers to the man as Jerk Number One and the two men that joined in as Jerk Number Two and Jerk Number Three. He wrote,
“I set up a check list of procedures.

“Unfortunately wearing the long coat over the sawed-off shotgun was impractical now, in the heart of Chicago’s warm July summer. Even the mornings were warm. I could still do it, but people would notice it and it would look peculiar. And the mornings were bright. Jerk Number One came out to his station wagon about 7:30 AM, the sun had already been up quite a while. I’d be visible like nobody’s business.

“Still it had to be now, as I was leaving the country. Then the case would die a natural death.

“I had a black vinyl hat to wear. I could put on a false beard and mustache, and eyeglasses with no glass in them. I was nervous but determined.

“Jerk Number One was killed one morning while sitting in his car. Apparently someone got out of a car behind and across the street from his and put both barrels of a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun through the side window on the driver’s side.”
He finished the section with this strange caveat:
“If any state’s attorney or Chicago policeman is reading this, I am stating categorically that I had nothing to do with Jerk One’s death. I suppose he must have had other enemies besides myself.”

Shortly after that my parents moved to England where I was born.

I stayed home from work sick as I read through the entire manuscript. His denial was typical, with its hope to take credit and claim innocence at the same time. I didn’t doubt he killed that man. It fit everything I thought I knew about my father: driven by pride, anger, and violence. Especially pride. The most startling detail was not the murder, but the lack of remorse for the child who grew up without his father as a result of my father’s actions. The boy is never again mentioned in the text. I wanted to meet him. I imagined getting to know him, going to bars together and drinking Budweiser, and one day saying, “My father killed your father.” He would be around fifty now. I looked for information everywhere but I came up against a dead end. I combed through microfiche of Chicago newspapers from the time. I hired students to help me with research. I went to the neighborhood looking for long-term residents who might remember something. I contacted the Chicago Bar Association trying to find the attorney who had represented my father and they told me he was deceased.

The University of Michigan did a study on murders committed in Chicago in the 1970s. There was no white man shot with a shotgun, sitting in his car.

I’ve been holding on to that information for a long time. Wondering where it fit.

BOOK: The Adderall Diaries
9.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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