by Kaja Perina
What happens to a gifted, introspective child whose dyslexia is identified and corrected by a beloved parent but whose homosexuality is rued by the same parent? In the case of Andrew Solomon, one result is a life of difficult and profound reckoning in prose. In his new book Far From the Tree, the confusing messages that young Solomon received from parents, peers, and the world at large coalesce into the question of what is an illness and what is an identity. If, as he contends, the lines are frequently blurry, when does parental love dictate acceptance and when does it call for intervention? Solomon’s elucidation of these matters is majestic in scope and in its reserves of compassion, a chronicle of self-discovery that finds parallels in all humanity. He interviews families whose children are afflicted with schizophrenia, autism, Down Syndrome and multiple severe disabilities. He enters the self-reliant communities of the deaf and of dwarves. He documents the triumphant homecoming of a transgender woman who forswore her family and friends because as a male, she’d been valedictorian, class president, and quarterback. Solomon communes with the parents of Dylan Klebold, of Columbine infamy, and meets survivors of genocide in Rwanda who conceived children in rape. He interviews musical prodigies raised by overzealous stage mothers and the equally gifted progeny of parents who resist the world of performance. In each case, he examines how extreme difference informs an individual’s identity and a parent’s duty. Solomon spoke to PT about the book, ten years in the making, and about the ways in which his subjects influenced his own journey to fatherhood.
You argue that we’re all flawed and different and we are therefore each capable of empathy for others. Yet the communities you profile often take offense at comparison—for example, the deaf feel that they in no way resemble people with schizophrenia.
A lot of subjects described a feeling of loneliness or isolation. The more I worked on this, the more I thought these people shouldn’t feel so isolated, because a lot of what they’re going through is similar to what others experience. A mother of a prodigy, when asked what it was like for one son to be the brother of this prodigy who was occupying so much energy, said, “It’s probably similar to having a brother with a wooden leg.” The Marriage Equality Act in New York State was achieved partly through the support of a Republican who said that after he had an autistic grandchild, he began to think differently about difference. Being different gives you something in common with everyone in the world because everyone else is dealing with difference too. And being not different in any way is in fact the isolating condition. But it takes a while for people to see it.
Sue Klebold, mother of spree killer Dylan Klebold, recognizes this. She told you that after Columbine, she saw terrorists on the news and thought, That’s somebody’s kid. She said, “Columbine made me feel more connected to mankind than anything else possibly could have.”
There were a lot of people, and she is the apotheosis, who had an almost Shakespearean level of insight and who understood themselves to be ordinary people. And I thought, No, what you have managed to pull from that experience and the ways you are able to articulate it are humbling. Most people have not been pushed to consider sprawling existential questions. For most of us it’s just: I have a 4-year old, he’s started preschool, we find the preschools in our neighborhood, we enroll him in the one we like best. We’re surrounded by 4-year-olds. We know just what to do. Parents of extraordinary children have to figure out so much for themselves, and there’s a certain wisdom that comes out of that struggle.
You know the adage, “You’re never happier than your least happy child.” By that logic, many of the parents you met would be forever unhappy.
Almost everyone experiences diagnosis, whether prenatal, postnatal, or at age 25, as a huge trauma. I knew going in that these were areas associated with grief, and the surprise was that there was so much joy enmeshed with them. I didn’t feel that the joy neutralized the grief; I thought it sat alongside it and that people could experience both. One family who has campaigned for decades to change the way Down Syndrome (DS) is perceived said, “For our son, we would cure DS in an instant, but for ourselves, we’ve learned so much, and we wouldn’t have believed we’d say this 30 years ago, but we would not exchange it for anything in the world.
A consistent refrain is: “Had I known initially what raising this child would entail, I’d have said no. Now I could never say that.” There is a sense that parents would have rejected this illness, but now that they have their child with this identity, the illness is part of the identity, and there could have been no other way.
Yes, unless the illness sets in later. The parents of a schizophrenic without exception would have said, “I wish my child had not developed schizophrenia.” But if you have a child with DS, to wish that child didn’t have DS is to wish for another child, because they’ve had it since birth. So at that point, it is like a rejection of your own child.
You’ve written that “when we love [extraordinary] children, we achieve above all else the rapture of privileging what exists over what we have merely imagined.”
Caretaking is an attachment process, and over time one becomes attached to the child one has, whoever that child may be. Sue Klebold said that she used to wish that she’d never met her husband and had children, because then this terrible tragedy would not have happened. But over time, she realized that while it would have been better for the world had Dylan not been born, it would not have been better for her, because she loved the children she had so much.
How has this work changed your vision of parenting?
Before I had children, I was worried that I’d have them and then wouldn’t want them or wouldn’t want mine in particular. Everyone said, you always love your children and I thought, I don’t automatically love everyone else because of context! The revelation was that when they were first born I loved them as babies but not nearly as much as I love them now. The attachment comes out over time. And the book was reassuring to me because it revealed that any parent can love any child.
What about being a gay parent?
At first I worried that being the child of a gay parent is a way of being different and can I foist that on someone? After being with the families I met, I thought, there are so many kinds of difference, and this one will have its challenges and I’ll try to rise to them, but the challenges aren’t sufficient to make me think I really shouldn’t be a parent at all. I’m very aware of the fact that the children will get to a place where they’ll want a lot of explaining. The sense of what is the norm and how we diverge from it will become more significant as their awareness becomes higher.
This book charts not only your journey to parenthood but also your journey from self-loathing teen who undertook reparative therapy to gay activist. Many people you profile, including dwarves, the deaf, autists, and the trans community, have a significant number of activists. What puts one on such a path?
I feel there are two modes of activism. There are people who want to be defined 100 percent by their identity, yet may still be uncomfortable with it in many ways, and part of their passage to being comfortable with it is to get involved in noisy activism. The other mode involves people who’ve been working on their identity for a long time and initially wanted privacy but get to the point where they want to help other people going through what they went through. Insofar as I became a gay activist, it took me a long time. Sometimes activism is a mask for discomfort and sometimes it is an expression of real comfort and frequently it combines elements of both.
Is there a community you chronicle that is most in need of support and activism?
Children conceived in rape and women who conceive children in rape. It was so clear to me after Todd Akin’s ludicrous remark [that conception rarely occurs following “legitimate rape”] that shame has kept large numbers of these people invisible, and lots of people know lots of children so conceived without knowing they were so conceived, and invisibility is the most disenfranchising thing there is.
Did you write about these women because of the general lack of awareness?
It was partly because I felt they were neglected and partly because I wanted to look at the idea that your identity could be based not only on what you do or what condition you have but also on where you came from. This question of identity can’t be pinned down.
People often worry about what to say to the parents of children with some of the conditions you profile.
I think the best thing—the cornerstone of etiquette altogether—is to respond to the information the way it is presented to you. If someone comes to you in tears and says, “My child has been diagnosed with autism and I can’t believe it—I’m so unhappy,” the appropriate thing is not to say, “It’s a great identity and it’s all going to be perfect.” The appropriate thing is to be sympathetic. If someone says, “My child has mild autism, and I’ve been looking into it and I think its going to give him all kinds of special skills,” you don’t say, “No, it’s a terrible disease!” You want to reflect back in an edited fashion what the person is saying to you. I have a certain sympathy for people’s awkwardness with a lot of these conditions because it took me a long time to get to the point of understanding these things as I now do.