Author: Andrew Solomon (Scribner’s, New York, 2012)
Reviewed by Doris Friedensohn
Andrew Solomon is an exponent of “revolutionary love against the odds.” It is the animating subtext of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. In the last chapter of this ambitious, tender, and mind-expanding book, he writes, “pain is the threshold of intimacy, and catastrophe burnishes devotion.” With these words, Solomon summarizes the bonds—beyond language and logic—that hundreds of parents he has interviewed over a dozen years experience with their “different” children. One needn’t be a parent of a child with disabilities or other special qualities—in fact, one needn’t be a parent—to feel enriched by his capacious perception of human connectedness.
At the core of this study are deaf, dwarf and Down’s syndrome children, autistic and schizophrenic kids, children of rape and children who are criminals; also transsexual kids, musical prodigies, and those who may never lift their heads off a pillow. How do these children (commonly labeled disabled, special needs or exceptional) develop? How do they experience love, get educated, live in the world, find community and some measure of contentment?
Much of the answer rests with their parents, the metaphorical tree in Solomon’s title. Parents are often the principle actors in his stories; and they are usually the most powerful narrators, telling how they raise and care for these “different” or “exceptional” children; how they feel about their outsized needs; and how they deal with the difficulties and gifts which come from a commitment to offspring who differ radically from themselves
In Far from the Tree, the author’s own history figures prominently. The issue of difference is deep in Solomon’s experience, from childhood, when he recognized he was an odd kid and gay, to his present life as a happily married homosexual who is the father of two children. Being gay, he tells us, gives him a special sympathy for all of those different kids who are his primary concern. More remarkable—most remarkable, I would say—is Solomon’s connection to their parents. In interviews, he is fearlessly present, intimate with suffering, and non-judgmental (even as mothers and fathers sometimes wish for their children a normalcy which they and the writer know is impossible). So many parents, accustomed to bottling up their anguish, speak to Solomon as an instant intimate. He registers their pain in the face of social conventions and public cruelty, along with their Herculean efforts to accept the biological and psycho-chemical givens which have shaped their children. Repeatedly, he is inspired by their capacity for love and sacrifice, by the unexpected joys they have found in giving and nurturing.
Masterful distillation of research: Solomon is also an indefatigable researcher. Among the 700 pages of text and an additional 200 pages of footnotes and bibliography is a masterful distillation of research about difference on medical, bio-chemical, neurological, and psychological matters related to the conditions of these children. In addition, Solomon and his research team have synthesized information on disability laws, schooling options, medical and support services, and public policy debates on educating and caring for the disabled.
The search for a horizontal identity, apart from family history and genetics, is one of Solomon’s abiding interests. In each of the 10 chapters devoted to particular differences, he pays attention to such networks as exist for nurturing a (non-mainstream) sense of self. Deaf kids of hearing parents discover in Deaf Culture and Sign possibilities of full self-expression which would otherwise be denied them. LPA, Little People of America, runs conventions which help dwarfs enjoy experiences where their stature is irrelevant, where they can forget for the moment how other people stare at them and the problems of living in a world not suited to their small size. Gender Spectrum, based in the Bay Area, helps liberal families of kids in transition (male to female and female to male), including those dressing as the opposite gender, considering surgery to help match a felt identity, changing their names, and dealing with the problem of public bathrooms.
Still, group support has it limits. Tragedy overwhelms many individuals and families. In the chapter on schizophrenia, Solomon, employing biblical cadences of the begats, lists dozens of American parents who have killed their children. Generally, the courts have shown great compassion for such parents, a fact that drives members of the organization Mad Pride quite “crazy.” There is no uplift, no unexpected positive spin in Solomon’s discussion of raped women and their children. Often, these brutal rapes are within the family and in the context of years of abuse.
Guilt and shame: A special kind of devastating distress and deep confusion confronts parents whose children commit serious crimes. “Responsibility” haunts them. So often, they suffer from guilt or shame or both. To what extent is their bad parenting (or denial of the gravity of their child’s aggression or depression) a factor? Solomon’s interview with the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine shooters, stands as a marvel of revelation (and, yes, surprise.). In the face of 13 people shot and killed by their son and his companion, the Klebolds decide not to move out of town, not to run from the pain and humiliation of their son’s violent acts. “What I’ve learned from being an outcast.” his mother told Solomon, “has given me insight into what it must have been like for my son to be marginalized. He created a version of his reality for us: to be pariahs, unpopular, and with no means to defend ourselves against those who hate us.” In due course, the Klebolds feel able to live with this horrible history, to accept their son’s aberrant deeds and their love for him.
In every chapter of Far from the Tree, readers are challenged to rethink assumptions about the normal, the different and the good. For example, should we encourage the deaf to use cochlear implants that may improve their hearing while implying that being deaf (and participating in deaf culture) is somehow inferior? What is the best fate for a child who will never walk or talk, whose brain is radically damaged at birth? Julia and Jay, the parents of a child named Imogene, knew that they were not the right people to care for their baby and allowed the (British) National Health Service to find the right foster mother for her. In a book on the experience, Julia wrote that they could not live with Imogene but also could not keep her from the center of their consciousness. Ambivalence, Solomon reminds us, exists in all relationships. Most parents with very seriously impaired children keep their children and tolerate their ambivalence. Julia’s ability to be honest with herself, Solomon writes, “makes what those other families do look like a choice.”
Those who are “far from the tree” may be closer to a new normal than we’ve been willing to see. Gay marriage is now (almost) mainstream. The Special Olympics are a regular feature of the athletic landscape. Everyday there are reports about the growing incidence of autism and ADHD. Transgender kids are starting to come out in elementary school and are now a lively presence on college campuses. Andrew Solomon knows this still rugged terrain. The rest of us, confronting so much new science and so many moral complexities, need his vanguard vision and contagious compassion.
Doris Friedensohn, professor emerita of Women’s Studies at New Jersey City University, is the author of the food memoir Eating As I Go: Scenes from America and Abroad and Cooking for Change: Tales from a Food Service Training Academy.