This past weekend I saw my life on the screen for the first time, when the movie version of my memoir The Adderall Diaries premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. For the record, I’m grateful — primarily, to be frank, I’m grateful for the money, which changed my life more than the seven books I’ve published. And, from a less crass and self-serving angle, I’m grateful that my own art was deemed a worthy stepping stone for someone else’s art. I support art being made from art. Still, what I saw rattled me. What I saw was a very different Stephen Elliott than the person I believe myself to be, and it made me question some of my fundamental beliefs about art.
There are facts and there are memories and there are interpretations. You could add that there is honesty and there is truth. You could write an essay about any one of those words. The only one that is simple is fact. Facts are the easiest place to start because there are relatively few of them. When we confuse truth, or memory, or any of the others, of which there are so many, with fact, we always end up in a tailspin.
I’m writing this on an old word processor. That’s a fact. This table is round and made of wood with a metal base. That’s a fact. Arguments are rarely over facts; why fight with someone who says a window is made of glass?
In The Adderall Diaries, the movie, the author Stephen Elliott, played by James Franco, cares nothing about facts. He writes a best-selling memoir, called A Part, in which he claims his father is dead. The memoir appears to be based on a novel I wrote 15 years ago, called A Life Without Consequences. The important difference being that in the movie, the book is presented as nonfiction. When Stephen’s father, Neil Elliott, played by a very convincing Ed Harris, shows up at a reading and tells everyone in the audience they are fools for believing his lying son, the son’s career is almost ruined — as it should be. Stephen Elliott in the movie only cares about moving ahead, though he does it in a remarkably ineffective way. He’s unlikable, and he tells lies in which he will obviously be caught. It’s very hard to get away with calling a living parent dead in a best-selling nonfiction book. To compound matters, he lacks the introspection to see what he’s done wrong. He blames his father for showing up and humiliating him, rather than questioning what part he has played in his own tragedy. A writer with no respect for facts is not a very good writer. Even the most notorious dishonest authors, like Stephen Glass, were more clever in their deceits.
When writers intentionally present things as facts that they know to be false, they end up in trouble. James Frey said he was in jail for 87 days, but in fact, he was in a holding cell for five hours. JT LeRoy said he was a homeless teenage male truck-stop whore; in fact, she was a woman in her mid-30s. When an author is caught changing facts and presenting fiction as truth, they lose all credibility. Their work becomes suspect.
But the truth is a lot more slippery than just facts, and disagreements frequently occur around the details. Truths are often personal, cobbled together from memories and interpretations of events. If memoirs were made up only of facts, they’d be very short, and there would be very few of them. When reading a memoir, we know we’re reading an interpretation based on a faulty memory. We know the memory is faulty because we know all memories are faulty. If the author is introspective enough to know this, too, we follow them on their journey. A good memoir reads like a detective story where the protagonist searches relentlessly, and honestly, for the truth.
Stories about truth tend to deal with grey areas. In my memoir, ostensibly the basis for the movie, I wrestle with my father’s memories, which stand in stark contrast to my own. In the stories I always told, I was an abused child who was homeless for a year and then made a ward of the court. In my father’s memory of events, I was a spoiled kid who could have come home anytime he wanted. The idea that two people can hold truths that contradict each other but are still true for them is where I find much of the energy of the narrative. I realized while working on the book that to write about my father, I needed to understand his truth, even as it contradicted my own. I needed to see the world through his eyes.
The movie handles this in a less complicated way. In the movie, there is only one truth. The person on the other side of the argument is a liar.
Topics of memory and competing truths are exactly what my book is about. To lie requires intent. Over the course of my life and conflicts, I’ve rarely come across a real liar, someone who knows they’re lying. Occasionally, sure, but most people are better than that. Most people believe what they say — including me, including my father.
This is not splitting hairs. Only a fool thinks his memory is perfect (or a genius). If you can’t live in a world where honest people remember things differently from how you remember things, then you can’t live in any world. But a memoir where the author intentionally makes things up about other people isn’t a memoir at all.
Almost nothing in the movie is “true” — in terms of both the source material, as it was published, and my life, as it has been lived. After Stephen is outed as a liar by his father, his publisher, amazingly, is still interested in his next book, for which they’ve given him an enormous advance. This is foreign to me, because as a writer, I don’t pitch. I write books and then I try to sell them. Not always finished, but at least 80 percent of the way. I never get big advances. For The Adderall Diaries, I was given $20,000; for the book before that, $2,500. In the movie, Stephen’s agent got twice what they were asking for for this unwritten book. The publisher doesn’t drop him until he doesn’t show up for a meeting after going out on a drug and sex bender. But they wait for three hours first. The movie is filled with these kinds of unbelievable details, eroding its verisimilitude, challenging us to believe this created world.
In 1986, I was a 14-year-old runaway. I’d been sleeping on the streets for a year. I sneaked into the house my father was trying to sell and spent the night on an old couch, the only piece of furniture left. My father caught me in the morning, beat me, and shaved my head. After beating me and shaving me bald with clippers, he saw a cigarette burn on the windowsill and declared, “You deserve it.” That’s my memory. My father almost certainly has a different memory. In his memory, he didn’t shave my head; he gave me a haircut. In his interpretation, he was trying to sell this house, and he needed the money and to teach me a lesson.
The movie version is much simpler. In the movie, Stephen Elliott destroyed the house, broke holes through the plaster, burned the carpet, graffitied the walls. It’s possible the compression and removal of subtlety was necessary to fit a complicated story onto the screen. And art is subjective. But what was shown isn’t true.
To list everything the movie got wrong might take many pages and require rewatching the movie, something I’m not willing to do. Most of it doesn’t matter: I don’t ride a motorcycle, I’ve never taken a boxing lesson, I didn’t date a reporter at the New York Times. I also don’t date women who aren’t kinky and try to convince them to choke me. I date women whose desires are compatible with my own.
When I teach writing classes, I always encourage my students to protect identities where possible. The important thing, I point out, is that no one should lose their job over something you write. When I finally got to watch the movie (I wasn’t allowed on set, nor was I shown earlier cuts), I kept wondering, Why did they use my name? I’m not sure why calling the character Stephen Elliott was necessary. I make my living writing honestly.
Given the choice to sell my movie rights, I’d do it again without hesitation. Maybe that seems like a contradiction, but that’s exactly what I mean: I’m complicated, we’re all complicated. The money I got from the movie was significantly more than my book advance, more than I’ve gotten for anything. Refusing that much money for someone in my position would have been absurd. And while I expect the movie will be watched by many more people than will read the book, I’m also hopeful it’ll make people curious to see what’s on the page. And I’m flattered by being portrayed in a movie by James Franco. I’d love to say things like that don’t matter to me, but they do.
That a movie will always take license with a true story is the nature of the beast. But when it goes too far, even the imagined world becomes unbelievable, puncturing our suspension of disbelief like a pin in an eardrum. In the happy ending (spoiler alert), Stephen Elliott has made up with his father, realizing that his father was essentially right about everything. Now he sits across from his agent, played by Cynthia Nixon, as she finishes reading the last page of his 200-page new memoir called The Adderall Diaries. We don’t know how long he’s been sitting across from his agent, waiting while she finishes the manuscript, but when she looks up at him, they both smile.
“Did you really write this in two days?” she asks, cutting Jack Kerouac’s speed record in half for effect.
“Yes,” he responds, adding that in a way, he’d been working on it for years.
She tells him she thinks she can sell it. Maybe not to Penguin, but maybe to a press like Graywolf.
It’s a tragic happy ending. Tragic in that it rings so false. Not just emotionally, but obviously. Good art always strives toward honesty, illuminating the dark corners of our psyche. Bad art tries to hit the nail on the head, and in missing, it smashes the audience’s collective thumb. Adderall or no, the last time someone wrote a 200-page book in two days was never.