Many coming-of-age stories—in fiction and memoir, literature and film—place their protagonist at the center of the world, ignoring his effects on others en route to self-actualization. The effect can be mawkish. I, for one, loved Catcher in the Rye at 15, but suspect that Holden may seem less of a role model upon a second reading.
Timothy Denevi’s Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD avoids this pitfall. As Denevi recounts his struggles with ADHD growing up in the Bay Area in the 80s and 90s, he acknowledges the struggles of his teachers and parents as well. He also traces the history of ADHD diagnoses and treatments from the late 1800s to the present day, including debates over the definition and causes of the disorder.
Denevi frequently threw tantrums and got into fights, and was haunted by the sense that something was fundamentally wrong with him. Undergoing a brain scan as an elementary-school student, Denevi “understood the message being transmitted along the veil of wires, spoken as if in my own tongue: I am evil.”
He and his parents often clashed with teachers and medical professionals. His third-grade teacher Pamela Kovalenko is a particularly insensitive figure: she said (in the author’s words) “that my specific therapy for hyperactivity amounted to special treatment,” and, once, after dragging his desk into the hallway, replied to his protests with “I have twenty-five other students.”
The passages about Kovalenko demonstrate Hyper’s fortunate lack of easy villains. Rather than turning Kovalenko into a two-dimensional cruel authority figure, Denevi lets the reader see her as a teacher struggling to deal with a challenging student without neglecting the rest of her class (“I have twenty-five other students”). This isn’t to approve of Kovalenko’s attitude, of course: students with special needs should be placed where they can most interact with their mainstream peers.
Likewise, Denevi writes that “monstrous” as some early treatments for ADHD may seem, they often represented a step forward from existing treatments, or at least an attempt at one. In the 1950s, doctors experimenting with a sedative that adversely affected muscle movement were looking for a “less-drastic treatment than seclusion in a residential center.” (I’m woefully unqualified to fact-check the historical parts of this book, but can say that, just like the memoir, it’s free of suspiciously simple statements.)
“Is it ever possible,” Denevi asks, “to explain yourself in a medical fashion and not come off like you’re making excuses?” Yes. He succeeds in doing so here by looking empathetically at figures in ADHD’s treatment and his own development, even those who are less than sympathetic, or plainly wrong.
–Published September 2nd by Simon & Schuster