Book Review: Hyper: a personal story of ADD Timothy Denevi, Simon & Schuster, 2014
Timothy Denevi introduces all of his characters– historical and contemporary — with a description based on memory, jacket cover, or photograph image and also on his personal impressions of the person. I’ll do the same for him.
Denevi looks out at you from the back flap of his book with a gaze that belies his tenacious relationship with authority. The three-quarter view of his face, with a neat beard softening his tight-lipped smile, sharp nose, and trendily ‘squinching’ eyes, is a story in itself; a hard-won adulthood emerging from a long battle with mental health and self confidence. His forward-facing torso, draped in a bookish professor jacket, leans casually against a wall as if to invite either challenge or earnest inquiry.
Part memoir, part review and critique of the history of ADHD, Hyper is ambitious in trying to intersperse Denevi’s personal experience with the story of ADHD’s changing and expanding scientific, medical, and pharmaceutical paradigms.
Denevi’s recounting of life from toddlerhood to university is compelling. He is as successful as one can be in helping the reader understand what is going on in the mind of a child who, at various points throughout history, might have been institutionalized, imprisoned or otherwise segregated, corporeally punished, and called repressed, hyperkenetic, or minimally brain damaged. One early thinker, we learn, might have even threatened him with execution.
Denevi takes no hostages, and calls out those who helped and hurt him along the way– an act that also reveals how crucial good mentors and friendships were to him and to those whose growth and development are similarly tumultuous. His parents, though they struggled alongside him, were ultimately his biggest advocates and supporters as he went from being Goomba to Timmy to Tim. His psychologists were trustworthy and nonjudgmental, and a teacher’s cooperation, understanding, or lack thereof was highly correlative to the degree of academic and social success that Denevi would achieve throughout his years in school.
The nearly 120-year-old history of ADHD as described by Denevi, and the development of associated treatments and medications, does not exactly parallel Denevi’s experiences. However, the information in the book is well researched and interesting in it’s own right. Along the way, we encounter the jerky and meandering trajectory of research, and the confluence of psychology, educational philosophy, and pharmacy which have brought us to today’s standard of diagnosis and care for people with ADHD.
As a mother, what struck me the most as I read this book was how much time energy Tim’s mom devoted to the wellbeing of her eldest. While, on one hand, devotion and motherhood tend to go hand in hand, I can tell you, based on my own experience, that Mrs. Denevi’s standard of care went above and beyond. Perhaps it’s the ADD in me talking, but the commitment to weekly psychiatry sessions and teacher correspondence, monitoring, and medicating, not to mention her perseverance through some of Timothy’s more rueful behavior as a young adult, on top of the usual homework and extracurricular duties and taking care of her other two children, working a full time job, and keeping house, is an amazing accomplishment. Even when suffering from her own newly diagnosed and debilitating arthritis while Timothy is in middle school, Mrs. Denevi is a pillar and a guide to her child. Denevi also describes his father as being supportive and loving throughout the challenges they faced as a family.
Of course, the degree to which it was necessary for Denevi’s parents to persist in advocating for him also reinforces the degree to which Denevi is affected by ADHD, and how severe his condition was. One shudders to think what happens to children whose parents or teachers do not have the resources to deal with the disorder, especially in a form as extreme as Denevi seems to have experienced.
I also felt connected to Denevi for the fact that he and I are just about the same age. Although I did not seek a diagnosis until adulthood, I was aware of my differences in the same way as Denevi describes. I remember the growing awareness of ADD in the school system from the time I first became conscious of it and until today when at least half the families I know are affected by it. As an educator, I have learned so much about it. I hope that books such as Hyper will help policymakers, educators, parents, and society at large understand Attention Deficit Disorder and develop strategies to maximize the potential of those with ADHD while minimizing the detrimental effects it can have.