The journalist, the murderer and the Adderall

Author Stephen Elliott talks about the grisly trial, and the prescription dependency, he could not shake

Published September 3, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Hans Reiser and Stephen Elliott
Hans Reiser and Stephen Elliott

In the midst of his amphetamine addiction, Stephen Elliott thought he was writing a true crime book about the murder of Nina Reiser by her husband, Hans. But that was only part of the story.

"The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder" is about that gruesome crime, but it is also a grim, soul-searching account of addiction and writer's block, all within a memoir about a life of sadomasochism, group homes and general hard knocks, subjects that have anchored Elliott's six previous works, including his acclaimed fourth novel, 2004's "Happy Baby." That fictionalized version of his own turbulent adolescence, sexual proclivities and drug use made Elliott a cult favorite, known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose.

Unlike most addiction memoirs, written from the safety of sobriety, "The Adderall Diaries" comes from the frantic depths of dependency (a doctor prescribed Adderall for depression, though Elliott notes that it is, essentially, speed). At the same time, Elliott developed a morbid interest in the murder trial of accomplished computer programmer Hans Reiser, whom he interviewed from jail for Salon last summer. Hans' brilliance, the beauty of his mail-order Russian bride and the sordid details of her death (and love life) made for a trial obsessed over in high-tech circles and TV tabloids alike. In 2004, Nina had divorced Hans and began dating his best friend, Sean Sturgeon, who would go on to play a starring role in her murder trial. As it turned out, Elliott and Sturgeon ran in the same BDSM San Francisco circles and had shared ex-girlfriends, and Elliott had even participated in a bondage photo shoot in Sturgeon's apartment (though he didn't know Sturgeon at the time). Drawn in by his personal connection to the case, Elliott sat in the trial for nearly six months, inspired by other novelists-cum-true crime writers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer.

The murder trial contained more twists than usual: At one point during the investigation Sturgeon cryptically confessed to "eight murders, maybe nine" of his own -- revenge, he said, for the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child in an East Bay commune. Add to this Elliott's own ruminations about his estranged, abusive father -- who also confessed to a murder in an unpublished memoir, though Elliott could never verify it -- and you have a frenzied exploration into the arbitrary nature of truth and innocence, with mystery and speculation at its core. As Elliott writes at the beginning of the book, "This is a work of nonfiction ... Much is based on my own memories and is faithful to my recollections, but only a fool mistakes memory for fact."

Since finishing "The Adderall Diaries," Elliott founded an online culture magazine, the Rumpus, and has both written and lectured about using the intimate details of his life as writing fodder. When I met him in a Manhattan coffee shop, he proudly held the first bound hardcover copy of "The Adderall Diaries" -- which he called the best thing he's ever written -- and spoke candidly about why most addiction memoirs are bullshit, a newfound love for his father and the connection between writers and suicide.

At the beginning of the book, you write about not always trusting your own memories and what others say. In "The Adderall Diaries," does it matter if the stories are true or not?

In the end it's weird. My father's confessions, Sean Sturgeon's confession to eight murders and even Hans Reiser's confession to murdering Nina -- which he did, but not in the way he confessed -- all three of these confessions were false. In the end it's really a book about not knowing. And about how the lie mixes with the truth and becomes inseparable. We either accept that memories are true, or we accept that there is no truth. Our memories of events are so divergent that they're completely incompatible, and it's impossible to know.

It is a fact that Hans Reiser murdered Nina Reiser -- that's a very important fact, but I don't think we'll ever know why. Hans thinks the reason he did it was for his children -- but in that case he's lying because he's lying to himself. It's complicated.

The book turned out to be much more about your father than you anticipated, and you have a tangled history with him. He's been known to even post online reviews of your books disputing your retelling of the past. Can you talk about that relationship, and why you included him in this book?

He's already left reviews for this book, and I don't even think he can get a copy yet. I love him very much because he is my father. But it took writing the book to realize that my relationship with my father is the most important relationship in my life. Our history has been very turbulent.

I left home at 13, and the state took custody of me. We made up later and there was always a lot of resentment around that. By 2004 my father was regularly contacting journalists I was talking to; even if I didn't mention him, he would tell them that I was lying. I ended up basically not talking to him for five years. In the process of writing this book, I thought I'd made some real discoveries about us and I realized that I loved my father, which I don't think I knew. So I thought it was important that I meet with him and tell him about the book.

Originally, I was going to confront him about the murder he confessed to. And then I decided that it really didn't matter whether or not he killed this guy. That was 36 years ago, and I just wanted to take some of the poison out of our relationship. Then we met and I wasn't that successful, I guess, so after a couple hours, I asked him about the murder. And he acted like he did it. His initial reaction was shock and then he made a joke about it! I think he was surprised but I don't actually know. I don't even think I'm the right person to judge my father's reactions. I'm always wrong about my father. When I started writing the book, I was sure that he didn't do it. By the time I was done writing the book, I was no longer sure. I knew less at the end of the book than I did at the beginning.

It turns out that Sean Sturgeon's confession to eight murders was completely fabricated and a cry for attention. Yet at one point after the trial, "60 Minutes" wanted you to come on and talk about Sean's sexual history and role in the case, but you refused. Why?

A lot of what drew me into the story was Sean. We knew a lot of people in common. When I first met him, I was skeptical, but I liked him -- he really went out of his way to help people and to be nice. But I felt like "60 Minutes" was exploiting Sean. They wanted me to talk about him in a very salacious way and I said no. I sat in this courtroom for six months and one thing you learned from this trial was that Sean had nothing to do with Nina's murder. So after the trial when they wanted me to talk about his sex life, I didn't know why they didn't ask me about Hans Reiser, who I was an expert on by that time. I knew everything you needed to know about this case. So why would you want me to talk about someone's sex life? So I said no, and they tried to bribe me with the rest of the money they owed me. And so I threatened to take them to court, and they paid me. I was personally offended because they were sensationalizing S/M. They were trying to make a link between sadomasochism, bondage, kinky sex and Nina Reiser's murder. But kinky sex had nothing to do with Nina Reiser's murder, not even remotely. I thought it was exploitative and kind of disgusting, but that's what television is.

You wrote a piece for Salon in which you interviewed Hans Reiser after the guilty verdict came in. What was that like? How did you get access to him?

It was easy to get access to Hans Reiser in jail. Anybody can visit in a jail. It's not a prison -- you don't have to be on the list. Still, I knew other journalists had tried unsuccessfully, and so I went in with a plan. When I got there, Hans saw me and he knew I had been at the trial because I had been in court every single day. He picked up the phone and said he wasn't talking to journalists. I told him I wasn't a journalist, but that I wrote a book about him. He said I could write him a letter and he would answer my questions. I told him I didn't have any questions but if he had anything he needed to tell me, now was the time. And then he just started talking and it was just a flood that I couldn't control. I knew once I cut in he was going to stop, so I just let him go for like 40 minutes. And it was all about his victimhood, how he hadn't been given a fair trial and how everybody was out to get him. It was an endless stream and there was no remorse whatsoever. A few days later, he led the police to Nina's body and he's saying, I'm sorry. He definitely has no remorse. He feels completely dead inside.

The book is called "The Adderall Diaries" even though Adderall is only mentioned a few times explicitly. But the tone of the book is very reminiscent of the feeling of being on Adderall -- it is extremely humorless and matter-of-fact.

That's a very astute observation. The Adderall is always there in the book, and in so many ways it's about taking it and getting back on after getting off of it. I think Adderall is really bad for you. I think you get dependent on it and you don't solve problems you would have otherwise solved. You don't confront things because you think it's just the Adderall. It hurts your sleep patterns, it makes you inconsistent in your moods and actions. Adderall is chemically indistinguishable from the original amphetamines, so however you feel about amphetamines, that's how you feel about Adderall. It's the same stuff Ginsburg was writing about and Jack Kerouac was taking, and the Nazis when they were parachuting behind enemy lines on murderous rampages.

I'm still taking Adderall, but I'm against it. I don't think anyone should get on it. The logical conclusion of the book would be for me to stop taking it, but that's the problem with all these bullshit memoirs, these Elizabeth Wurtzel books, they come to false conclusions. The writer wants to give the reader what they want. I hate that because it's phony, it's a lie. That's not what life is. Now I take 10 mg of Adderall a day. I don't know if in the future I'll take less or more or stop. I don't want to make predictions or promises but I do think that Adderall is overprescribed. People get on it and it totally fucks them up. It's insane to put children on Adderall. Medicating your child should be a last resort. The child has to learn and get through these things, and make changes and adjustments on their own. What do you do when you have a behavior disorder and you're taking pills, so you don't learn the things that you need to do to combat the depression and then the pills stop working? It's the same thing with all these drugs.

Can you talk about your own experience with drugs, and how it affects your view of Adderall and other drugs now?

I've known several people that have died from overdoses. I came very close to dying from a massive heroin overdose. From ages 10 to 16, I would take anything that passed in front of me. I just wanted to numb out. I remember taking acid for the first time when I was 11 or 12 and remember specifically thinking, this is what it feels like to be happy. I didn't know what happiness was and now I know. I stopped taking drugs when I was 16. I started again at 21 or 22, overdosed and then I stopped again. I don't drink or do any drugs. I take Adderall, I drink coffee. I have many happy moments. Most people would say I'm funny. I don't think people think of me as depressed. The problem with depression is not being happy or sad, but when you're sad, how far do you go? Even if you're only sad once in a while, if you get really sad that one time, then it's a problem. As far as how you deal with that, I don't know the answer.

At the beginning of the book you write, "I feel ready to kill myself," and near the end, there's a section where you explore suicidal urges and depression. Why do you think these feelings are common among writers?

The book comes from a suicidal urge. When you feel suicidal you can write whatever you want. It really opens you up, and you have total creative freedom, but of course it's dangerous. You could say it has to do with the dilemma of the modern man and woman -- the existential dilemma -- but in the end it's probably just chemicals. I've noticed that it helps a writer to feel kind of manic and to think that what you have to say is so valuable that someone else would want to hear it. But those moments of mania can be followed by periods of pretty deep depression. And that's always been a part of my personality.

The year I spent on the street from when I was 13 to when I was 14 I tried to kill myself seven times. I still have the scars on my wrist. And I'm kind of glad I did try to kill myself and I have these scars to remind me that this is not some new thing and I'm not going crazy, it's just something that has always been there.

You devised something called the "lending library," where you loaned advanced copies of the book to anyone who signed up as long as they would read it within a week and then mail it on to the next person on the list. What gave you this idea?

They had given me 300 galleys and I was supposed to send the book out to media outlets. I did that, but I used 75 of the books to make this lending library. So about 400 signed up to read the book in advance and it was amazing because I got all these letters from people who had read my book. I had never gotten that much feedback from people. One guy that read the book started a Facebook group called "I read an advance copy of The Adderall Diaries" and I didn't start that group! It was great.

But the idea wasn't so much to market the book as it was a reaction to someone else's idea to market it. Somebody wanted to join this program with Amazon where you pay them to send the book to their top reviewers and their reviewers do advanced reviews. I thought that was crazy. Are those my readers? I just thought it was a total waste. We only had a limited number of advanced copies and normally, you'd send five copies out and have one person read it, but this way we could send one copy out and have five people read it. I don't care about selling books. I've never made any money publishing books, so why would that change? I just want people to read it.

By Joe Coscarelli

MORE FROM Joe Coscarelli

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books Crime Drugs Love And Sex