Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD
by Timothy Deveni
Review by Douglas C. Thompson, Ph.D., Head of School,
Mid-Peninsula High School
Timothy Denevi’s latest contribution to the literature about learning differences is a complex and engaging work. Denevi provides a hint as to what to expect in his new book, Hyper, by subtitling it A Personal History of ADHD. And while the book certainly is that, it is much more. It is also a portrait of a marriage (his parents’), and of a family. It is a biography of childhood and a story of growth and self-discovery. It is a cautionary tale about the perils and pitfalls of school, from Kindergarten through high school. It is also a very personal biography of treatment for a mental disorder, and finally, it is a comprehensive history of Western medicine’s attempt to get a handle on the concept and treatment of mental illness, with a focus on ADHD.
These strands are woven together throughout the narrative. The effect is at first jarring, especially the contrast between the everyday language of family and social interaction (F-bombs abound) and the much more formal language of the medical passages. But the eventually the pieces of the story start to fit together, like a mosaic, and the narrative takes on a life of its own.
Denevi acknowledges in his choice of two epigraphs that memory is a tricky thing, implicitly asserting that the story he is about to tell is not necessarily the truth, but his truth.
The chapter titles read more like those in a volume of poetry: “Reflection in the Low Linoleum Glaze,” “In the Way You’d Watch a Bird That’s Flown in Through a Window”--they put me more in mind of Wallace Stevens than of a serious medical study. But the seriousness of Denevi’s effort is attested to by the 20 pages of notes and the 14 page bibliography—this is a very thorough and informative analysis written in a way that not only lays out the facts but also allows us to understand from a personal perspective why the facts are important
Denevi begins his history of diagnosis and treatment by citing “the early-twentieth-century physician George Frederick Still,” who “during a 1902 presentation at London’s Royal College of Physicians, … identified several of the present-day ADHD diagnosis.” He traces the history of diagnosis and treatment through the twentieth Century and to the present, with reference to specific individuals too numerous to cite here, but including Freud, Jung, Ken Kesey and L. Ron Hubbard!
He parallels this parade of clinicians and therapists with an equally various set of teachers he worked with throughout his school career. As he does with the health professionals, he regularly provides us with highly detailed and evocative descriptions:
He’s in his early seventies, and his hair is white and sheer, capped thinly against the pink heights of his skull. He’s wearing an army-green blazer. His mouth is closed. But look at his eyes; they’re black and small, crowded together. It’s a disgruntled expression—he’s like an aging film director who’s not quite sure why he keeps demanding so many takes.
In fact, his passion for detail of all kinds illustrates the crucial central fact that ADHD is not a failure of attention, but rather a tendency to focus attention elsewhere from where someone else wants it.
In the end, the argument Denevi makes is one that I am coming to after 30-some years of working with learning differences: we all learn differently; it’s just that some differences are more obvious and, sadly, more inconvenient in a traditional social/academic structure. Denevi in middle school is a boy going through the familiar phases of growing up, but experiencing everything more immediately, more intensely, and less manageably than some of the rest of us:
To look back on that world! You wake up each morning and walk the bright corridors: the sound of voices, of lockers rattling shut. Everyone is in motion, and you think maybe this is the day things will turn around. Then they notice you. The tone drops. You hear whispers, feel the glances; you’re meant to feel them. It’s like the plunge in humidity after a thunderstorm. This is their weapon, not fistfights or taunts; the other teenagers let you know you’ve offended them, simply by showing how much your presence disrupts their own. And you’re forced to see yourself from only one perspective: theirs.
Which of us has not been there, not felt that pain? In the end we see ourselves in his story, and then his story becomes ours:
When it comes to the broader narrative of ADHD, the most important questions are the kind you’d ask about your own life. How did we get here? Where are we going next? And what’s the point of all the work—not just in the present, but also by the people before us, along with the ones who’ll be around after we’re gone?
Clear hear to support PEN by purchasing Hyper from Amazon!