>>Hi everyone, and thanks again for coming
to another [email protected] event from the San Francisco office.
Today we’re very pleased to welcome Stephen Elliot to San Francisco.
Stephen’s a novelist. He’s written seven books, one of which includes
his most recent book, “The Adderall Diaries,” which he’ll be talking
about today. His novel “Happy Baby” was the finalist for
the New York Public Library’s Young Lion Award, as well as Best Book of the Year in Salon.com,
Newsday, Chicago Newcity, the Journal News, and the Village Voice.
Stephen’s writing has been featured in Esquire, the New York Times, the
Believer, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading for 2005 and 2007.
Best American Erotica and the Best Sex Writing in 2006.
He is — he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and is
a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. And he’s also the editor of the Rumpus.
Please welcome Stephen Elliot. STEPHEN ELLIOTT: I wonder — I wonder if it’s
possible to convince people to move up a little bit.
And, like, sit over here, maybe. So we can have a little more of a conversation
going on. [PAUSE]
I thought — so I’ll talk a little bit about my book “The Adderall
Diaries,” which you all get for free. Which I think is just — it takes so much
pressure off of me. I’ve been on this crazy book tour.
I’ve been in 33 cities, and I did this thing. You guys can copy this if you want for your
marketing strategy. I let anybody that wanted to read a copy of
the book get an advanced copy for free.
They just had to forward it within a week to the next reader.
So 400 people signed up for that. The early reviews are really strong, and I
was encouraged to do a bigger book tour.
And — but I didn’t want to, really. I mean, because it’s my 7th book.
And I know what it’s like to show up in a small town, and do a reading
in the nice local bookstore to ten people, and then sleep in a crappy
hotel. And it’s just very lonely.
And it can be soul crushing even. So instead I sent a note to those 400 people,
and I said I would do a reading in their home.
Anybody who wanted me to do a reading in their home, I would come, and
I would sleep on their couch. And I would read to their friends.
And they would have to promise to get 20 people. And so that’s what I’ve been doing.
I’ve been crossing the country reading to groups of 20 people,
generally none of whom have heard of me. Because it’s like the person that’s invited
me to their home has heard of me and read the book —
It’s not somebody I know but it’s somebody that read the book.
And I’m just reading to their friends. Their friends are just coming to a party at
the house, and they tend to stay until one in the morning — cause
nobody leaves a reading in a home.
It’s a party, kind of. And I think, I’ll never have stage fright
again, you know? Cause I’m selling books like Tupperware to
people I’ve never met. And I’m stuck there.
I can’t leave. I got to sleep on their couch.
And so, to read to a audience of people that already has the book.
And I don’t have to sell you the book. Well, I’d like to convince you to read it,
and maybe get an extra copy to give as a Christmas present.
But I feel like the pressure is kind of off. So this is a story that in a way, there is
actually an intersection with Google in a way.
Because, the book — I’ll give a brief description. I had had, like, writer’s block for a year
and a half, two years. And I’ve always written.
I’ve written since I was like 10-years old. And I would write to communicate.
I used to write poems. When I was literally 11-years old, I had poems
wallpapering my room. I was in this, you know — my mother was dying.
It was a very abusive home. And then, eventually the State took custody
of me. And I was in group homes, and I would just
write poems and stories all the time.
And I’ve always written to communicate. And then I got this really bad case of writer’s
block which I think was partly, was in part because I had started
making a living as a writer. Which was — and so now those expectations.
And I don’t know how to do that. It wasn’t something I had ever set out to
do. So I just started, after a year, two years,
I went back on Adderall which I had taken when I was younger.
You guys know what Adderall is? It’s like ritalin.
It’s an ADD medication. It’s basically pure amphetamine but we prescribe
it to young children. And I just started documenting going back
on Adderall. Right about that time, Sean Sturgeon confessed
to eight and a half murders.
How many people here know who Sean Sturgeon is?
See, you don’t know who he is because there was a gag order.
I’m going to tell you, Sean Sturgeon is best friends with Hans Reiser,
who was on trial for murdering his wife Nina Reiser.
Hans Reiser created a file system for Linux, which he, in fact, came to
Google and did one of these presentations about his file system.
And so that’s the intersection with Google and the file system.
Have you heard of the Hans Reiser trial? That was a giant trial, right?
Wired blogged it. So Nina left Hans for Sean.
And they couldn’t find the body. And Sean confessed to eight and a half murders.
And so, so you would think that he would be a suspect.
And, of course, he was. He was investigated pretty extensively.
And there was a gag order on that so that the Chronicle couldn’t write
about it. One second.
And then, Sean and I had — our lives had overlapped quite a bit.
We knew a lot of people in common. And in 1999, I’d done a bondage photo shoot
in his apartment which he had rented out to professional dominatrices
as dungeon space. And I won’t even go into all the details.
But, our lives, we had, you know, really overlapped quite a bit.
And so I started looking into that. And that led me to the Hans Reiser trial.
And that’s the book, kind of. But there’s quite a bit more, actually.
Turns out in 200 pages you can fit a lot. You have a question?>>I was wondering what’s a half a murder? STEPHEN ELLIOTT: Half a murder?
Well, originally, I thought he didn’t know if the person was dead.
But when I actually got the confessions — when I got the entire
investigation into Sean Sturgeon, it turns out the half murder is —
was that he didn’t know if she was dead when he found her or if he
killed her. So it’s the first murder, when he was very
young. So, that’s — so Sean Sturgeon was kind of
the untold story. Ultimately this book, though, you know, it’s
not about Sean Sturgeon. And it’s not really about Hans Reiser, either.
It’s really there is a full, the full Hans Reiser story is in this book
and there is a full true crime book within The Adderall Diaries.
But really it’s a memoir. And more specifically it’s really a book about
writing and being a writer. And the file system turns out to be a really
potent metaphor. Because the file system is really the most
human part of the computer. It’s the identity of the computer.
Cause it’s how the computer organizes its memories.
And that’s who we are. You know, we’re a series of memories and interpretations
of those memories.
So I thought I’ll read just — I’ll read kind of that part, maybe,
where I first find out about Sean’s confession. And I’m going to read, I’ll read one short
section. Then we could do some Q&A if you guys have
any questions. And then I’ll read another section and then
we can do a little more Q&A.
So this section should take about eight minutes. The morning the after the fight, I get a call
from Josh, a staff writer at Wired magazine.
He’s working on a profile of Hans Reiser, a brilliant computer
programmer accused of killing his estranged wife.
I helped Josh track down Hans’ former best friend, Sean Sturgeon.
Sean and I have several girlfriends in common, and I once did a bondage
photo shoot in his apartment when he wasn’t home.
When I say girlfriends, I don’t mean that we were engaged with the same
women just that we knew, we had girls who were friends.
Legally, since this is being videotaped I should be clear about this.
I don’t remember ever meeting him. But our paths have crossed so many times it
almost doesn’t make sense. Josh’s calling to say he found out something
incredible about the case. Your guy Sean just confessed to eight murders,
maybe nine. Why maybe nine?
He isn’t sure if one of the victims is dead. Josh says Sean’s not under arrest and he’s
refusing to tell the district attorney the names of the people
he killed. Sean told Josh that he confessed to D.A. because
he’s a born again Christian and thought the jury would want
to know. It seemed the right thing to do or rather,
he posited the question — don’t you think the jury would want to know?
But then he said Hans knew about his murders and he was confessing in
order to beat Hans to the punch. Maybe he confessed for both reasons.
Or maybe he confessed for reasons that had nothing to do with Reiser or
the jury. He denied having anything to do with Hans’
wife disappearance. He told Josh give me some Sodium Pentothal
or any truth serum, put a little bit of Ecstasy in there and ask me
if I’ve killed Nina. I have never been a threat to her.
Josh told the police and the district attorney that his victims had
physically and sexually abused him and his sister in the East Bay
commune where they were raised. He claimed he hadn’t killed anyone since 1996.
The commune interested me. I know the places where adults come in conflict,
or — I know the places where the adults come in contact with
unsupervised children. Between 14 and 18, I was in five different
state-funded childcare facilities including three group homes, a
mental hospital, and a temporary youth shelter that stuffed 30 children
into each room. In those places, you can never tell who to
trust. When I’m done talking to Josh, I feel like
I’m waiting for something. The group homes were a long time ago.
It’s still morning, and I put a pot of water on the stove.
I call Josh back and ask him for Sean’s phone number.
If Sean committed eight murders, it’s a huge story.
I think, here is a man willing to wait eight years, willing to wait
years, to get revenge on the people who stole his childhood.
I think of In Cold Blood and the Executioner’s Song.
Two of my favorite books, both set around spectacular murders and
written by novelists. I know people who have known Sean for more
than a decade. I have the inside track, and there’s something
else about the case. Nina Reiser’s body was never found.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t know if Sean will talk to me.
If he did kill eight people, surely the police would have arrested him
by now. And why isn’t he a suspect in the disappearance
of Nina Reiser? After calling Sean and leaving a message I
bicycled through the city down Market, toward the Castro, my right pant
leg rolled up so as not to get caught in the chain.
My bicycle is my prize possession, an old Peugeot I picked up for $150 nine years ago.
I live a spare existence. I haven’t owned a car since I first got to
this city. I cut right past the Gay and Lesbian Center,
the Three Dollar Bill Cafe.
Something is tugging on me. I had heard of Nina’s murder.
But never the full story. I’d heard about Sean and how Nina’s disappearance
crushed him. He took to bed, paralyzed with grief.
He was in love with his best friend’s wife. It was all just passing information.
But eight murders? Revenge killings?
Eight murders isn’t revenge. Eight murders is a serial killer.
I go to the park to meet a girl I know. Someone who has taken a habit of coming to
my readings. She’s engaged and lives with her fiance between
the Marina and Russian Hill.
I’ve only seen her once before and she explained their relationship.
It was simple. He was monogamous and believed in monogamy.
She cheated on him and always would. She arrives —
It’s very San Francisco, I think. She arrives wearing a black dress and sandals.
Her skin is so pale all I can think of is milk.
I don’t think of my complicity in her unfaithfulness. I don’t want to.
I don’t love her. She’s just someone I know.
I wait as she walks across the grass in her sandals.
A man stops her and asks if she is willing to be in one of his
paintings. She talks with him for a moment.
Her head turned his way, her body pointing toward me.
He doesn’t have any paint. He wears dark, heavy clothes, his belongings
bound in garbage bags around him.
The sun is brilliant and the colorful houses are brightly lit along the
hills. On some days, the fog catches on their drainpipes
like cotton, but today it’s easy to see why people want to
live here. Easy to see San Francisco for the gentle paradise
it is. We lie in the grass with my shirt pulled up.
I forget all about the De La Hoya’s fight and Sean Sturgeon’s
confession. I ask her to pinch my nipple and she does.
But it isn’t enough. I asked her to do it harder and soon there
is blood everywhere. There are people nearby but they don’t seem
to notice. For most of it, she keeps her hand over my
mouth and I close my eyes and drift away.
It’s okay, she says. That’s only half the day.
There’s a barbecue and then a reading. And then a party.
There’s always a party. I dance with a girl.
How do you know Eric, I ask between songs. I don’t, she says, my boyfriend knows him.
I dance better after that. It’s still a weekend, after all.
It’s still San Francisco. Everything is beautiful.
Really, it seems perfect. The DJ looks like Napoleon Dynamite and spins
pop songs from the 80s on vinyl.
I’m 35 years old. The woman I’m dancing with has curly black
hair and moves with steady grace, her silk dress rolling in waves down
her arms. I feel loose and fine.
I take five dollars from another writer who put his money inexplicably
on De La Hoya. Always bet on youth, I tell him.
It’s one in the morning. I don’t imagine anything can ever go wrong. So that’s — that’s that section.
[APPLAUSE] I keep a little timepiece over here so I know
where we’re at. Questions on anything?>>I’m curious in general how much of this
book is — is it all nonfiction or is any of it artistic liberty? STEPHEN ELLIOTT: No.
Well it’s all nonfiction. I don’t take artistic liberty.
Let me read the disclaimer, how about that. There’s a disclaimer.
You know, a book, when you write a — you know, a memoir is an exercise
in kind of a radical honesty, you know. You have to be willing to, like, explore yourself
and really question your own motivations.
If you’re really trying to write and create a work of art you shouldn’t
know where you’re going. If you know the answers already, you know,
then why bother? Why bother writing it?
So you find out things. But of course, you know, when people — people
in the same room having the same experience will remember them —
these things differently. You know a lot of the book concerns my father.
And, you know, I had left home very young and we were at odds over what
had happened. You know, he would leave bad reviews of my
books on Amazon. We had a toxic, toxic relationship.
There’s a copy of one of those reviews in the book.
Cause I would write books set in group homes. And that would make him look bad.
And, you know, I remembered being an abused child and leaving home.
He had a memory of a spoiled son who could have come home anytime he
wanted. So ultimately I had to — I had to accept
that his memories were valid, you know.
They’re valid because it takes — to lie requires intent.
You know you can’t, you have to, you can’t accidentally lie.
You can be wrong. But the rule of a memoir is you can’t intentionally
lie. But — there’s this idea of a truth, you know,
it’s very fluid. You know, do you remember that?
Is that your interpretation? I would never present, like, a false conclusion.
Like, for example, there’s a fair amount of the book that’s dealing with these romantic
relationships where I’m unable to achieve a solid,
stable romantic relationship. And it would work so well narratively, if
I just finished the book with and then, you know, I met a nice girl we moved
in together and we figured it out.
But that’s not life, you know. Things don’t wrap up that easily.
I know someone who did a memoir like that. And now the book’s coming out a year later,
and she’s already broken up with the guy.
You know, you don’t want to do that. So that’s what I mean by like a radical, kind
of, a radical honesty. You have to be open to things but here’s the
disclaimer. This is a work of nonfiction.
Situations may have appeared in other works in different forms and
slightly — and significantly different context. Characters are not conflated.
So characters are not combined into one character. Events are sometimes presented out of sequence
but timelines are not intentionally altered.
Many names and details have been changed to protect identities.
So that’s — you know, that’s really significant, of course.
Much is based on my own memories and is faithful to my recollections
but only a fool mistakes memory for fact, you know.
One more thing about honesty, you know, I think of it as, like, you
know when you you’re in your early 20s, and you break up —
You have this relationship and it ends because that person lied to you
or because you lied to them. I mean everybody had that relationship in
their early 20s. Either you were the liar or you were lied
to. But then later you realize that nobody lied
to anybody. You didn’t, you just didn’t know yourself
well enough to be honest. You didn’t know yourself well enough to present
what you wanted and ask for it.
And so the other person felt lied to because they thought you had
hidden your desires but actually you just didn’t have the necessary
self-knowledge. And that’s the thing about the memoir.
It’s not about — it’s not about just not lying, you know.
It’s more about finding out these things, knowing yourself well enough
to be honest. I mean that’s the challenge of the memoir.
That’s was a long answer. But there you have it.
Any other questions? [INAUDIBLE SPEAKER] STEPHEN ELLIOTT: I did read The Night of the
Gun by David Carr. [INAUDIBLE SPEAKER]
[PAUSE] STEPHEN ELLIOTT: It’s really interesting.
The thing about The Night of the Gun by David Carr, this memoir that came out last year.
This comes out a lot. This really fun and interesting memoir.
And I loved it. He interviews all of his friends.
And basically uses their quotes to tell his story.
The problem is The Night of the Gun — and this is not David Carr’s
fault, but it’s everybody else’s fault. People say, “This is the new memoir.
This is how you write something true.” But it’s not more true.
In fact, it’s less true. I mean, nobody remembers your life better
than you do. And if you interview all of your friends and
use their quotes you could create anything out of that.
Your friends actually — my friends don’t remember me as a coward.
You know, I have to admit to being a coward to doing the wrong —
You know, your friends don’t think of you that way.
You know, if I want I could interview all my friends and present this
very happy and, you know, strong person. I could, I could present you with an entirely
different person all through quotes.
And I’ve done a — I’ve done a series of interviews with my friends.
I mean, it’s good to interview people and they spark it.
I had been doing this project called on oral history of myself where I
interview at length people that I grew up with, with a lot of them
because it was group homes. So some of the places I was in it was like
30 guys to a room. And I interview them.
The stories they remember, you know, they remember us getting in fights
together like back to back like Batman and Robin.
You know, people do not — your memories are more true for your
experience than their memories are. You know, and the author really has to be
the one taking the hard look. Nobody else was paying as much attention to
you as you were paying to yourself.
You know, so it’s not, it’s just not more true.
It’s an incredibly compelling book and really well written.
But I don’t think that that’s a good model in terms of like a more true
memoir. Cause it’s not more true.
But it’s super fun to read. It’s extremely well-written, you know.
Any other questions? Okay.
Maybe I’ll — see how much time I have. Maybe I’ll just read one more section cause
this section will take about 12 minutes.
And then we can — well, maybe I’ll read two. We can do some more questions after this.
But this — this is from the verdict which is not the end of the book
by a long shot. So don’t worry about that.
Because ultimately the book is about a lot more than the Hans Reiser
trial. You’re too late, a woman tells me, on the
first floor of the courthouse.
It’s one of the producers from 20/20. She’s pregnant with twins and she’s waiting
near the information desk. Oh, again, this is like 12 minutes I said
already? I like to — so everybody can kind of —
expectations. She hoping to catch some jurors on their way
out. I bolt up the stairs and emerge from the 5th
floor stairwell into a scrim of boom mikes and tripods.
The vestibule is packed to the walls with local and national media
outlets. In the short hallway to the restroom, the
video techs are replaying the verdict on the double monitor.
The on-air talent are already relaying their stories back to the
viewing audience, the cameraman wrangling long coils of electrical
cord. I crouched beneath the water fountains near
the machine where the professionals re-dub Beta tapes.
And there are agreements already in place between broadcasting
companies for pool cameras. The producers are whispering trying to keep
secrets from each other. The union crews hustle to stay busy and earn
a spot on the next job. I’m thankful for their monitors.
Two small screens sitting on top of the series of beams with wheels
full of media decks, cassettes popping out like toaster waffles.
It’s the first time Goodman has allowed cameras in his courtroom.
One of the — one in the front row of the gallery, another from the
witness stand staring at all the participants. I ignore what’s going on around me and focus
instead on the screen. Inside courtroom nine, every seat is taken
and a large crowd stands back near the doors.
The bailiffs make no move to clear people who were enable to find
seats. Hans, DuBois, and Hora sit at the long table
in the center. DuBois is sad.
His cheeks seeming to slide from his jaw. Eyes drawn and bewildered.
He knows the jury is coming back too soon. Hans looks like he was yanked out of bed,
the top button undone on his shirt.
His thick red tie hanging loosely from his collar, begging to be
tightened. He leans toward DuBois, whispering in his
ear as the jury files behind them, settling into two rows of seats out
of view of the cameras facing the accused.
Juror Number One is chosen as the foreman. I remember him listening closely during Cory’s
testimony nodding and encouraging the boy smiling thoughtfully as
the child squirmed uncomfortably on the stand.
He gives the bailiff a note, which the bailiff then walks over to Judge
Goodman. The Judge opens the envelope, reads it, hands
it back to the bailiff. The bailiff returns the note to the foreman.
Does that — does that represent your true and final verdict, Goodman
asks. Each jurors says yes in their turn.
Murder in the first degree, premeditated with malice.
[PAUSE] Bailiff, remove Mr. Reiser, remove Mr. Reiser
from the courtroom. I shift from one leg to another while watching.
There’s commotion behind me, heels clicking rapidly against the
linoleum. But on the screen is the court is stunned
silent. “I’ve been the best father I know how,” Hans
says. He has more to say but he doesn’t get a chance.
The bailiff taps him on the shoulder, grips his arm at the elbow and
wrist, pulls him from the room. He will no longer be granted the courtesy
of the accused. The holding cell door closes in front of Hans,
his mouth still open. The Judge thanks the jury for their service.
The camera focuses on Paul Hora leaning back of the table, folding his hands together.
DuBois shuffles a folder under a briefcase. I watched the verdict again but now from another
angle. The view from the witness stand, each juror
answers affirmatively. This case has aged DuBois.
He’s a highly regarded defense attorney. And I’ve come to like him immensely even if
I never believe a word he says.
The camera drops to an empty trash bin beneath the table, a bag folded
loosely around its rim, then rises again to his face.
Then Hans — Hans looks stunned as the clerk reads,
“We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder on or about September 3, 2006, in the
County of Alameda, Hans Reiser did, and with malice, murder Nina Reiser.”
“I’ve been the best father I know how.” The bailiff stands ready behind Hans, taps
him on the shoulder, leads him forcefully from the room.
Can you rewind, I say. Play it again.
There are press conferences. DuBois promises appeals.
Hora says justice has been served. The jurors slip out a side door.
Late in the afternoon, the building is mostly empty.
I look in on courtroom nine. Boxes of tape, documents, and displays sit
at the front of the room. The jury hardly requested any of it and now
it will have to be stored somewhere.
The transcripts of phone calls Hans made to his mother, and pleading
voice mails left for Nina, the photographs of Nina and the children,
and her blood sprayed across the beam. Swabs, DNA lab results, recordings, videos,
maps charting Hans’ routes through the East Bay as he tried to evade
the police. Receipts for a water pump, for books about
murder, testimony from social workers, doctors, financial records,
everything that went into the story Paul Hora wrote for the jury having
served its purpose. I meet a friend near the courthouse.
She’s a professor of political science at Berkley.
We drive south and find a restaurant in a residential district nestled
between the hills and the freeway leading onto the bridge.
I have a beer. And another.
I tell her what Hans said. His last words before he was led away.
He said, “I’ve been the best father that I know how.”
“By killing their mother,” she asks. “It was if he was talking to me,” I say.
“Does he know you’re writing a book?” “I doubt it.”
Hillary Clinton is on the television above the bar the scroll runs
below her chin repeating an earlier statement about what would happen
to Iran if Israel were attacked. She says, “Iran would be obliterated.”
It’s nearing the end the Democratic primaries. And it occurs to me that for the last five
and a half months, I have hardly thought about anything except Hans
Reiser. I haven’t been following the news or playing
cards for more than two years I went to my friend’s house every Sunday
night to watch television.
But during the trial, my friend had a baby and we stopped doing that.
I saw the baby once and held her awkwardly. Terrified I’d drop her as she made circles
with her tiny mouth. She was a colicky baby but recently she stopped
crying. The trial is over.
“You seem excited,” my friend says. We’re outside on the sidewalk near an ice
cream shop and a closed down bookstore.
There are lots of lights and teenagers everywhere. In the morning, I’m back in court, mildly
hung over. Hans is there but doesn’t get to say anything.
The Judge scheduled the sentencing. Murder one is a mandatory 25 years to life.
DuBois asks for some words with his client. The two men lean toward each other like lovers.
They pat each other’s arms whispering. Hans spreads his fingers over DuBois’ shoulder
reassuring him until Hans is taken from the room and returned to
his cell. “What now?” I say to one of the reporters.
“I’m so glad to be done with this bullshit,” he replies.
When Hans said, “I’ve been the best father that I know how,” he meant
that he did for his children, for specifically for his son .
I remember his testimony, the thing the jury absolutely had to know was
that Nina didn’t love Cory after the divorce. He interrupted his own lawyer to say that
when Nina informed him she was leaving, she also switched her affections
from Cory to Lila. Hans said it was important to understand that
Nina changed this way. Otherwise it would seem like he was contradicting
himself and nothing would add up.
None of us knew when he was talking about. I shook my head and whispered to one of the
journalists, “What is he referring to?”
“He’s gone off the rails,” he whispered back. But we were wrong.
We were ignoring something consequential. The lattice of justifications a murder assembles
as he builds toward the crime.
In one of the key pieces of evidence, the wiretap phone call to his
mother three weeks after Nina was murdered, Hans said she came up with
these illness for Cory because she hated me. Cory understands that his mother wants him
to be sick and doesn’t really like him on some deep, conflicted level.
Hans sounded tired in that phone call, depressed, explaining to his
mother that Nina was killing his son. On Friday September 1st, the last day —
the last weekday before he killed Nina, Hans called District Supervisor
Gail Steele. He wanted to know what she thought of his
proposal to overhaul the child welfare system.
Hans was certain the Supervisor would take his proposal seriously.
He had donated $2,000 to her campaign. But after calling six times that week, four
times that day, he never called her again.
The bureaucracy would not bend to his will, so he took care of the
problem himself. He did it to save his son.
Except he didn’t. Nina had been with Hans for five years.
She knew Hans better than anybody. And she left him for his only friend.
This is the moment, Hans told the jury, when she ceased loving their
son. In fact, it’s the moment when Hans realizes
Nina doesn’t love him and maybe she never did.
His mind went searching for a reason. Surely she understood he was a famous computer
programmer. Her rejection wasn’t consistent with the identity
he had built for himself.
He had to reorganize the data. It was too much to take and he gave it to
his son to carry. What Hans said, “I’ve been the best father
that I knew how,” he meant, “I killed the mother to save the boy.”
When I asked my father why he moved while I was sleeping on the
streets, he said I was a drug addict so he abandoned me for the good of
the family. That was the story he had put together, the
opposite of the story I had put together about being an abused child.
But some large part of me hadn’t wanted things to work out.
Even then, I despised him for screaming. I disapproved of the way he led his life.
He never hit me until after I left home and brought shame on him.
I rejected my father. There was only my father and my sister.
And my sister would be in college soon. My grandparents were dead.
My mother’s family was in England. And my father moved and wouldn’t tell me where
he went. The family my father left me for didn’t exist.
He was referring to the family he didn’t have yet.
The family coming soon. The family hoped for or not.
He was referring to himself. All systems of domination create stories of
their own benevolence. The Imperialists arrived to tame the savage.
We tie the noose around Saddam Hussein’s neck, place a bag over his
head, the floor swings open beneath his feet, and his dead body hangs
in the gallows. I was traveling in 2004 with President Bush
three days after the pictures were published of Abu Ghraib.
He stood near third base in the Little League stadium, except right in
the middle of his speech he slid in one extra sentence.
He said, “Thanks to our actions, Saddam’s torture chambers have been
closed.” “Did he just say what I think he said?” I
asked the reporter next to me.
The crowd cheered. They had no idea he was saying this for the
first time. They thought it was part of the speech.
It was the official response to evidence to the contrary.
Hans Reiser killed Nina because she rejected him but he will never know
that. Something so selfish is beyond knowing.
My father abandoned me to the streets because I had no forgiveness in
me. I was 11, 12, 13, 14, and I sat in judgment
of my father. So he left me sleeping in some hallway and
got a new house. Those people in that stadium were not concerned
with the picture of solider giving a thumbs up next to the body
of a man packed in ice, beaten to death by American soldiers.
We were taking our revenge. Revenge for what?
They rejected us, that’s what. We respond with the violent indignation of
colonizers. We understand the world by how we retrieve
memories. Reorder information in the stories to justify
how we feel. “Thanks to our actions, Saddam’s torture chambers
are now closed.” “I did it for the good of the family.”
“I’ve been the best father that I know how.” Thank you.
[APPLAUSE] The rest of the book is funny.
Any more questions about memoir writing or Hans Reiser or — yes? [INAUDIBLE SPEAKER] STEPHEN ELLIOTT: Well, that’s complicated.
So the question is do I tell people in my life that I’m going to write
about them prior to writing about them. There’s several different situations to think
about here. All right.
So the first I’m meeting someone I don’t know like Sean Sturgeon.
Right, I meet him when I contact Sean Sturgeon it’s as a writer who is
considering writing about him. I don’t know for sure but you know I’m completely
upfront. I’m not, like, we know some people in common.
You want to get pizza? I’m like, I’m a writer and I’m considering
— I’m looking into this topic.
So I’m always open, right? Now — but then, so that’s someone you don’t
know. But then you’re really asking about the people
you do know. The problem there is I don’t know if I’m going
to write something until later, right?
I have an intense — something happens with a friend or a girlfriend,
you know, that’s a better example. Where you have an intense emotional situation
that’s really defining and important to you, and then you end up
writing about it. So my basic — I can’t ask, you know, can
I write about this because I don’t know I’m going to write about it until
I’ve already written it. 90 percent of what I think I might write,
I don’t write. So there’s not even — why even ask permission?
Because you’d be asking for permission for all these things that I’m
not going to write anyway. So then you write it.
My rule, my lines, you know, are that I would change that person’s
identity so that they would not be recognizable to their employer or to
their friends, for example, you know. That’s my line.
Like, when you’re a writer you have to come up with your own lines.
You’re responsible for your actions. So you have to say I can live with this.
It’s not defensible. I’m not saying this is okay or not okay.
People have a right to be upset about being written about.
I mean unless your explicitly contacted by a writer looking to write
about you, and you spoke to that person, in which you have no right to
be upset. And that’s most people, actually.
I’ll give you another situation. I had coffee one time with a girl, a good
friend, and she told me this story.
She’s a professional dominatrix and a client came to see her who looked
just like her father, and she had a very bad relationship with her
father. And I end up — and then so, she saw him for
a year and then just one day just beat the hell out of him.
And of course at that point , he wants her all the time
But she didn’t want to see him again after that.
She was disturbed by the situation and never saw him again.
I ended up writing like a 12,000 word essay structured around that
story. I didn’t know — when she’s telling me this
story, I didn’t know I was going to write it down, that it was going
to impact — but it just stayed with me and eventually I wrote it out.
I felt that that was her story. She wasn’t — she was having dinner or coffee
with me as a friend not a journalist.
She didn’t know I was thinking about writing about her.
I didn’t either. So I asked her permission.
Now if I’m part of the story I don’t need permission, in my opinion.
That’s just my — this is only opinions. This is all gray area.
But if it’s someone else’s story, and I can’t really change it
significantly but I have to present it the way they told it, I wanted
her permission to use it. Well, she would like to see the piece.
So I showed her the piece and she said she was okay.
I mean, I don’t name her or anything like that.
But if she would not have been okay, I wouldn’t have published it.
Because I felt that that was her story. But it’s not necessarily, you know, dating
a writer, you know, is a dangerous thing.
You know, cause writers tend to use their life in their work.
I would never give someone a promise that I would not write about them.
I would promise that I would change their identity.
But I would never promise someone that I’m never going to write about
our experiences together. I can’t promise that.
Any more questions? Yes? [INAUDIBLE QUESTION] STEPHEN ELLIOTT: So the question is about
what include, what to leave out and writing style.
You know, Elmore Leonard said writing is just about cutting out the
boring parts. And so that’s the main thing, right?
Whenever you’re writing, you have a certain amount of tension.
And it’s like a bank account. You build up tension because people are waiting
for some kind of conclusion.
They have questions in their minds. Someone is following somebody else, things
like that. Or in a memoir, you know, they’re with you
on this quest. You’re searching for things, you know, there’s
this tension. And when you’re in the editing process, and
you’re rereading — I mean, I have hundreds of drafts of this book and
anything I write. I compulsively rewrite everything, every book.
So if I read something 30, 40, 50 times and around the 50th time I’m
reading something, I find myself, like, skipping over a paragraph, I
know I have to cut that paragraph. Because if I’m not looking forward to reading
that paragraph or it bores me, then it has to go.
And that’s the process of writing. The process of writing is rewriting.
So you continually — I mean, this book would be a thousand pages.
It’s a very heavily edited book. So you come to terms of what you have in the
bank. You know, how much of the reader’s attention
you think you have. Now, my reader, I know my reader’s attention
because my reader likes the same books I like.
You know, I’m trying to write my favorite book.
And the people that like to read what I like, I’m trying to write their
favorite book. I’m not trying to write a book for a soccer
mom in Tennessee. I mean, if we’re similar, that’s great.
But I’m not trying to target a demographic that I don’t consider myself
a part of or that I look down on. A lot of times people talk about, like, writing
for an audience and — and they’re really talking about writing for
someone that they don’t think highly of.
They’re talking about targeting people that they don’t respect.
And I don’t do that at all. So my audience, you know, I think of my audience
as smart and with a short attention span.
But intellectual, but wants to be challenged a little bit.
And that’s the audience I’m writing for. I want — my only goal is to write their favorite
book, you know. So that’s — that’s kind of the answer to
that answer, I think. That make sense?
And is that a good time to end it on? We’re going to end it on that question.
And I’m going to have a Google lunch now. So we can continue talking over Google lunch,
if you want. Thanks for coming out, everybody.