Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tom Wolfe and Ritalin

I came across an article written by Tom Wolfe (author of Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff). It was originally published in in 1996 by Forbes magazine. The article is called "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died." This full article is really great, but I especially loved this section on ADD and the drug Ritalin. You can find the full article at

"I have children in school, and I am intrigued by the faith parents now invest--the craze began about 1990--in psychologists who diagnose their children as suffering from a defect known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this "disorder" is an actual, physical, neurological condition or not, but neither does anybody else in this early stage of neuroscience. The symptoms of this supposed malady are always the same. The child, or, rather, the boy--forty-nine out of fifty cases are boys--fidgets around in school, slides off his chair, doesn't pay attention, distracts his classmates during class, and performs poorly. In an earlier era he would have been pressured to pay attention, work harder, show some self-discipline. To parents caught up in the new intellectual climate of the 1990s, that approach seems cruel, because my little boy's problem is... he's wired wrong! The poor little tyke --the fix has been in since birth! Invariably the parents complain, "All he wants to do is sit in front of the television set and watch cartoons and play Sega Genesis." For how long? "How long? For hours at a time." Hours at a time; as even any young neuroscientist will tell you, that boy may have a problem, but it is not an attention deficit.

Nevertheless, all across America we have the spectacle of an entire generation of little boys, by the tens of thousands, being dosed up on ADD's magic bullet of choice, Ritalin, the CIBA-Geneva Corporation's brand name for the stimulant methylphenidate. I first encountered Ritalin in 1966 when I was in San Francisco doing research for a book on the psychedelic or hippie movement. A certain species of the genus hippie was known as the Speed Freak, and a certain strain of Speed Freak was known as the Ritalin Head. The Ritalin Heads loved Ritalin. You'd see them in the throes of absolute Ritalin raptures...Not a wiggle, not a peep... They would sit engrossed in anything at all...a manhole cover, their own palm wrinkles... indefinitely...through shoulda-been mealtime after mealtime...through raging insomnias...Pure methyl-phenidate nirvana...From 1990 to 1995, CIBA-Geneva's sales of Ritalin rose 600 percent; and not because of the appetites of subsets of the species Speed Freak in San Francisco, either. It was because an entire generation of American boys, from the best private schools of the Northeast to the worst sludge-trap public schools of Los Angeles and San Diego, was now strung out on methylphenidate, diligently doled out to them every day by their connection, the school nurse. America is a wonderful country! I mean it! No honest writer would challenge that statement! The human comedy never runs out of material! It never lets you down!"

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