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Review of "Ritalin Nation"

By Richard DeGrandpre, Ph.D.
W. W. Norton, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 30th 2000
Ritalin NationAlthough Richard DeGrandpre's book Ritalin Nation is interesting and worth reading, I have to report I found it enormously irritating as well. His message is simple: treating children's problems with drugs does not get to the heart of the problem; the real problem is our "rapid-fire culture" and "sensory addiction." He ends his book with a set of recommendations for "deliberate living." For example:
    "If you have an ADD child, avoid making excuses, even if the excuses are in many ways legitimate. Find resolve in the idea that children deserve a better life, and then work to break him or her from overload and sensory addictions. Do this by creating a slower pace of life that over time will transform human consciousness and, as a consequence, transform your child." (222)

    "Redefine the bottom line. Spend less time at work; parent more and parent better. Learn more effective life skills, and pass them on to your children. Do these things by being less worn out, stressed out, and distracted by the perceived necessity of material wealth." (228).

A great deal of Ritalin Nation is devoted to criticizing modern culture. Although judging from the photograph of the author on the back book flap he is probably under the age of thirty, his complaining about modern culture often sounds like the moaning of an inflexible and tiresome old man. Yet I have to admit, I also found myself agreeing with some of his claims. Speaking for myself, I have an ambivalent relationship with "rapid fire culture": I have at least five e-mail accounts which I check several times each day, and I like to be alerted as soon as I get new e-mail. When on the computer, I generally keep several different web pages open at the same time, as well as a word-processing program, a spreadsheet, and an Internet radio station, and I curse when my computer crashes. Over the last few months, I have been working at least seventy hours per week, and I often wake up early before sunrise, without the aid of an alarm clock, with my brain buzzing with the things I need to do and assessing what I did the previous day. When I am in a hotel room or at someone else's house where they have cable or satellite television, I will surf the channels, flipping through them again and again, spending maybe less than a second per channel. I generally am in middle of reading three or four books at any one time. I subscribe to about ten monthly magazines. I try to have a clock prominently visible in every room at home, and I have been known to listen to the radio, watch TV and read a book all at the same time. To cap it all, while I have never taken Ritalin, I have taken SSRI antidepressants on a long-standing basis. So in many ways I live the life that DeGrandpre condemns.

On the other hand, I try to avoid visit a shopping mall more than once a year, and I find myself overstimulated and uncomfortable when I am cajoled into going to the mall. At home, our TV uses an indoor aerial, and although I do watch as much TV as many other people, I feel almost no inclination to get access to more TV channels. And of course, my chosen profession is philosophy, which generally involves detailed and slow scrutiny of long-standing puzzles. Philosophy is not a discipline in a hurry. Furthermore, like DeGrandpre, I feel more alienated than average from modern culture. I struggle to understand how people can be so naive in accepting the values that modern corporate culture furnishes us with. I am certainly am predisposed to be sympathetic to his view that people should be more critical of, questioning of, and inquisitive about the options facing them in their lives.

Maybe now you will better understand my reaction to Ritalin Nation. DeGrandpre seems to neglect how powerful and exciting modern culture is, and thus he seems far too negative about the electronic/computer/TV age. He also seems to wholeheartedly endorse an antipsychiatric attitude towards attention deficit hyerperactivity disorder, such as given by Peter Breggin, (although Breggin is not mentioned in the book). Finally, especially in the early chapters of the book, DeGrandpre combines a mixture of alarmist journalism with pretentious pseudo-philosophy. The very idea of seriously claiming that we have become a "Ritalin Nation" smacks of grandiose rhetoric. Cultural analysis is easy to do badly, and almost impossible to do well. DeGrandpre gathers together a patchwork of different social commentators, his own observations of TV, magazines, newspapers, business, and even overheard comments of passers-by, to support his case, but I didnít find his analysis very balanced.

The later chapters on ADHD and Ritalin are more focused and careful. Reading them, one still gets the impression that pharmaceutical companies and psychiatrists have conspired to dupe the American public and that all mental health professionals who use the diagnosis of ADHD are willingly joining the conspiracy. DeGrandpre seems to ignore the fact that many psychiatrists are tentative and open in their thinking about ADHD, and that they often encourage parents and schools to help children without the use of medication. But the work he cites to argue that ADHD is mostly a developmental problem is important and I am very glad that he has highlighted it. The final chapter on deliberate living has the flavor of a new-age self-help book, but its suggestions might indeed be helpful to some.

Overall, DeGrandpre's attempt to reach a wide market by popularizing his ideas (he is a psychology professor at a small liberal arts college in Vermont) seems to ironically backfire. He tries to make his ideas simple and easily digestible at the expense of balance and detail. In writing for a hurried culture, he himself has written in a hurried simplistic manner. I am also curious to know whether other readers of his book shared my experience in reading it; the more I read, the shorter my attention span became for it. By the end, I could only read a few pages at a time before having to put it down again.

I believe that DeGrandpre deserves praise for drawing attention to the issue of Ritalin and its connection with our culture. Many of his arguments are important, and while his claims may not be radically new, he has at least worked to substantiate them more than most psychiatric critics have. Ultimately though, Ritalin Nation is a polemical work, and lacks balance.

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