Andrew Solomon joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross to discuss his book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
Terry Gross, host: This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. There’s an old adage about children that says: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But what if it does? What if your child is profoundly different from you because they have Down syndrome, autism, dwarfism or schizophrenia? What if the child is transgendered? What if the child’s behavior is totally unjustifiable, and they become a criminal or a killer? What if the child was conceived in rape and is a reminder of that act of brutal violation?
In the new book Far From the Tree, my guest Andrew Solomon writes about parents who have accepted their children in spite of what others might consider tragic or even horrifying. He found that many of the children he writes about can experience the thing that makes them different as illness or identity, and that the line can shift.
For example, Solomon is gay, and when he was growing up, that was considered an illness. Solomon won a 2001 National Book Award for his book about depression, The Noonday Demon.
Andrew Solomon, welcome back to Fresh Air. So let’s start with your research into children conceived in rape. Since rape and abortion became such a major issue in this election – and just to refresh everybody’s memories about this, Todd Akin, who ran for the U.S. Senate and was defeated, said if it’s “legitimate rape,” a woman has a mechanism to shut it down. Richard Mourdock, who was defeated in the Indiana Senate race, said, I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen, and therefore he didn’t want to make an exception for rape in his stance against abortion.
Paul Ryan, who ran for vice president and remains a congressman, said that he thinks abortion should be illegal with no exception for rape because, quote, “the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.”
Did you hear all these comments through the lens of all the research that you had done on children conceived in rape?
Andrew Solomon: When I set out to write about children conceived in rape, I wanted to strike a very tricky balance, which is that I wanted to describe how some women who have chosen to keep these children have built relationships with them and to explore both the difficulty and the reward that there may be in that.
My fear – and I worked very hard to try to ensure this wouldn’t happen – was that anything I wrote could be construed to suggest that everyone should keep their child conceived in rape. I don’t think everyone should keep their child at all. I think everyone should have free and unfettered access to choice, and that rape is a – it entails, more than anything, disenfranchising the victim, and the first way to enfranchise someone is to give them a choice.
So I wanted to look at what the lives of these women who had kept children were like without ever seeming to suggest they should. But having looked at what those lives were like, I mean, many of the women ultimately able were able to build great joy in their relations with their children. Many others weren’t. All of them went through agonies.
And to hear these people running for office in the United States in the 21st century effectively dismissing these women’s experience and saying that the trauma of carrying such a child was something that was not – they didn’t deserve legal rights that surrounded it, it was really sickening to me.
And Todd Akin’s comment was particularly irksome because he said I believe that a woman’s body has a way of shutting that whole thing down. It reflected such ignorance about human biology. I found those positions brutal and cruel. I know that the people who are very much opposed to abortion feel that abortion contains brutality and cruelty, and my view would be that they therefore have every right to avoid it. But the idea of dictating to women that they can’t make that choice, especially under those circumstances, seems to me hideous.
Gross: Did the women that you interviewed who carried the children of rape, as opposed to having an abortion, did they think about abortion? Or, you know, was there – did they make the choice, or did they feel there was no choice for them but to have the baby?
Solomon: There was some of each. There were definitely some women who felt that there was religious pressure or family pressure that prevented them from having an abortion, or who just had a personal belief that abortion was wrong. But there were a lot of them who wobbled around while they were pregnant. Some of them wobbled around until it was too late to have an abortion, and it’s almost as though they didn’t quite get around to it.
And some of them actually just thought I’m going to have this child, and something beautiful will come out of the awful thing that happened to me. And that could be very powerful. But, I mean, the two anecdotes I think that for me sum up that chapter, one was a woman who I interviewed who described being really brutally raped, pulled into the back seat of a taxi, raped when she was 16 years old, who had then become pregnant and had had to give up the career that she was looking forward to and wasn’t able to college and so on and so forth.
She’d had a very, very traumatic experience, but it was a long time ago. And I said to her: Do you ever think back on the man who raped you? And she said, you know, I used to think of him with great anger, she said, but now just with pity. And I thought she meant pity because he was so unevolved. And I said: Really? And she said: Yes, she said, because he has a beautiful daughter and two beautiful grandchildren, and he doesn’t know that, and I do. So, as it turns out, I’m the lucky one.
But having said that and having posed that as something which, ultimately, one way or another, this woman has built a life for herself which has been a very powerful one, I also talked to a lot of women, and there was one woman who said to me: I have to fight against my instincts all the time. Other mothers rely on their instincts, but my instincts are terrifying. And every time she comes over for a hug, it feels like a thousand razorblades scraping against my skin. And I just think nobody should dictate policy to either of those women. They should each have the option of doing the thing that works for them.
Gross: What are some of the issues that the women raised to you about the difficulties or the conflicts that they had carrying a child who was conceived in rape and then mothering the child?
Solomon: Well, there are several parts to it. One is that we live in an age in which there is a kind of hegemony of genetic determinism. And so all of the women were concerned about the ways in which their child might resemble the rapist psychologically. If the biological father of this child was capable of something so awful, is this child going to turn out to be capable of awful things? So that was one fear.
And then next to it – and not entirely separable from it, but also not entirely the same thing – the child was a constant reminder of the rape. As one of the women said to me: I have a friend who was raped, and a few years later, she was really able to get into a kind of useful denial and say it never happened. I will never be able to say it never happened. I will always have that pair of eyes looking at me that are evidence that yes, it did happen.
Gross: So let me just interrupt here with a quote from one of the women who you interviewed, and she’s talking about how she was constantly reminded of how her child was conceived. And she says: “There were many times that I had terrible feelings of hatred toward my son. The laughter of my little boy often reminded me of the hideous laughter of this guy as he had raped me. I took it out on my son.”
Solomon: Right. I think it’s sometimes very difficult not to take it out on your child. I mean, abused children are much more likely to grow up to be abusive parents than other children. And a woman whose child has been conceived in trauma is likely to have a lot more to struggle with than a woman whose child has been conceived in love – or at least, you know, proximate affection of some kind.
A lot of the women struggled with it. What impressed me was how hard they were trying. I went to Rwanda, actually, because I wanted to see a place where this experience of having a child of rape was commonplace rather than extraordinary. And on my last day there, I had an interview with a woman who, even at the high standards of all of the Tutsi women, was breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly elegant.
And we sat in her little hut, and she had actually managed to remarry following the genocide, and she was – her life was in many ways sort of OK. At the end of interviews, I often say to people: Do you have any questions for me? Because it helps to rebalance the conversation, so it’s not just my taking their story, but I try to give them something, as well.
And in Rwanda, people would say: Will this be published in French? Or are you going to use my real name? Or how long are you here for? Or questions like that. And this woman looked at me, and there was this sort of pause, and she said: You’re in this field of psychology, right? And I said: Well, yes, more or less. And she said: Can you tell me how to love my daughter more? She said because every time I look at her, I think about what happened to me, and it gets in the way. Can you tell me how to love my daughter more? And, unfortunately, it was only afterwards that I thought how much love there was in that question itself.
Gross: I want to get back to the American women who you interviewed about giving birth to children who were conceived in rape. You also talked to some of their children. And what kind of stigmas did the children of rape face in their own lives?
Solomon: Well, there’s a central problem always for a woman who decides to keep a child conceived in rape, which is: At what point do I actually tell my child where the child came from? So people who adopt children are usually now advised to tell the children from the very beginning of childhood: You were adopted, but you were adopted because we so much wanted a child, and we were so lucky to have you. And it’s a part of their narrative.
But rape is too disturbing and too violent, and the sexuality involved in it is too complicated to explain to a two-year-old. So you don’t tell the child from the very beginning. And then what happens when you eventually do tell the child? What is the child to make of discovering that horror in the background?
I met children who had been conceived in rape and who said that actually finding out had been a great relief, that it explained to them why their mother had had a child under odd or unusual circumstances. It explained why they had sensed some ambivalence in a mother whom they had tried to please. There were a lot of levels at which they found it a liberation.
But there were others who were so horrified by that news and felt so polluted by it that they acted out in various, very destructive ways. And there were many of them who felt that they didn’t want other people to know that was where they came from because they thought other people would think: this person is a child of rape. This person is like a rapist. This person is untrustworthy. This person comes from dirt and darkness.
I mean, there was a real fear of that, and I found that while we have reduced the stigma around many disease categories – you know, there isn’t as much stigma as there used to be around someone having Down’s syndrome. People may not be longing to have it, but they don’t have as many negative associations as they once did.
This is an area in which the negativity remains incredibly pronounced. And if you look on the Internet – which is, of course, prone to people raving on – but there are people talking about how the children of rape should all be, one post said, put them to sleep like unwanted pets. There’s a lot of darkness in that.
Gross: Some of the children who were conceived in rape became strongly anti-abortion. Can you explain why?
Solomon: You know, there’s a tendency for people who are in categories that are frequently faced with abortion to describe not being aborted as though it were some wonderful victory that they had achieved by riding at the head of an army on a white horse. And so there’s a resistance to abortion. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the disability community. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the rape community.
When I thought about it a lot, I realized that I would find it disturbing if someone were now to develop a test that would allow mothers to find out whether their children would be gay, and if I discovered that most mothers were aborting those children, it would be painful to me to know that.
So I understand why it’s painful for people who are in other stigmatized categories to know that there are medical advances that are being used to construct a world in which people like them no longer exist. Some of them feel that being anti-abortion activists is a way of justifying their own existence.
My own experience, again, is simply that women who have been raped have lost volition. Some of them will actually choose to keep their children, and they should receive every possible support. They should get psychological counseling. They should get whatever they need to be able to bring those children up well.
And other women will choose to terminate those pregnancies, and they shouldn’t be questioned about it. They should be allowed to make that decision.
Gross: What did the research you did for this chapter in your book lead you to think about that you hadn’t thought about before? What – how, if at all, did it change your ideas about the children of rape or about abortion?
Solomon: I was completely shocked by how relatively little literature there is about children conceived in rape, and most of what exists deals either with conflicts in faraway countries where there have been rape campaigns as part of brutal military activities, or is written by anti-choice activists, and they’re sort of angry screeds.
And I thought the actual stories of these women haven’t been told very much. And, of course, at the beginning I thought: Who am I, as a man, to come in and try to tell their stories for them? But I just thought that the stories had been neglected. And in the course of reporting the chapter, I think I had: A, the feeling that someone who has been subject to sexual violence will always have a somewhat distorted relationship at one level or another to the experience of sexuality and motherhood, because the motherhood that has begun this way has begun in so much pain. They may resolve it well enough so that everything is livable, but it doesn’t go away, I guess is what I found.
But the other thing, which was also very striking, is that the children are people themselves. There were a few families in which the children seemed to be growing up to be highly problematical. But most of the people I met actually really loved their children. And I feel like the idea – that idea of how resilient maternal love is for a woman to be able to achieve love for a child who is a constant emblem of something she went through that was so awful, I was humbled, humbled really, by the passionate way in which these women spoke, many of them, about their own children, and humbled also by the courage it had taken to keep the children and to look at them every day, given all of the things that they reminded them of.
Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon, and we’re talking about his new book, which is called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. And it’s about families in which there is a child who is profoundly different, through deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, children conceived in rape, children who have become criminals.
And his previous book, The Noonday Demon, was about depression, including his own depression. So let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.
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Gross: Let’s talk about the research that you did about families in which a child is born with Down syndrome. First, I’m going to ask you to describe the condition.
Solomon: The scientific name for Down syndrome is Trisomy 21, and the condition is characterized by having an extra copy of the 21st chromosome, and it’s the most common genetic anomaly that there is. It affects a large number of people. It’s also one of the first things for which it was possible to scan prenatally, using amniocentesis, and many women who discover that they are carrying a pregnancy with a child who will develop or will be affected by Down syndrome choose to terminate those pregnancies.
There’s a very broad range of function in people with Down syndrome, as there is, in fact, in people without Down syndrome. But it’s striking that some people seem to have it more than others. But most of them are intellectually disadvantaged, some of them severely disadvantaged. They have faces that look a little bit different. They have very round faces, and their eyes tend to be on something of a slant.
They don’t have a lot of abilities in areas of thought and argument such as logic. Some of them have additional physical disabilities. It’s a – it can be a very severe syndrome. It’s also the one in which medical science, or rather social science has made the most radical advances in recent years with changes in how people are treated.
Gross: So this story relates to abortion, too, since it can be diagnosed in vitro, through amniocentesis. And many women decide to abort the pregnancy if they know that baby they’re carrying will have Down syndrome. Did most of the women who you interviewed for this chapter know in advance and decide to keep the baby?
Solomon: No, most of them did not know in advance. A few of them knew in advance. But most of them were not aware.
Gross: And so for those who were not aware, what were some of their reactions when the child was born about how this was going to affect their own lives?
Solomon: When the child was born, many of them had a difficult time with it. Some of them didn’t. Some of them had very buoyant personalities. But many of them really, really struggled with that news and felt that they had this defective child and felt that they had been thrown into a strange country in which they didn’t know how to do anything.
They didn’t know, most of them, because most of the families I was talking to had children who were growing up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and some even more recently. But a lot of them didn’t know how much those children would be able to do. They didn’t know how severely affected they would be. There was a lot of pain around it.
And there were some of them who didn’t express a lot of pain or didn’t experience a lot of pain, who then, when the children were older, admitted to themselves: I was in a lot of pain and I just pushed it out of my mind. And that was the story I heard from a number of people.
Gross: If you’re a parent of a child with Down syndrome, you have to alter your life for the rest of your life, in a very profound way. And if you could talk a little bit about how parents felt that their lives had been changed for better or for worse by the things they had to get up and the things they received in return.
Solomon: You know, there’s a famous passage – I don’t know what else to call it but a passage, a sort of little, almost a prose poem by Emily Perl Kingsley, who was a writer for “Sesame Street” who has a son with Down syndrome and whose son has done remarkably for someone affected by DS.
And she wrote something called “Welcome to Holland.” I always feel a little bit bad for the Dutch in relation to this particular thing. But it basically describes the process of having a child with disabilities as being like getting on a plane to Italy and then discovering that you’re landing in Holland. And you’ll always miss Italy and you’ll always wished you’d seen the things of Italy, but if you spent your whole time worrying about that, you won’t notice the beauty of Holland and the tulips and the Rembrandts and so on. And it’s a kind of lovely metaphoric passage, and it’s helped vast numbers of people. And many, many people I met described having been deeply moved by it.
What I found is that, again, the sort of time of diagnosis and the time of birth was often very difficult and upsetting for people. Kids with Down syndrome are, by and large, quite affectionate and relatively guileless, and frequently the attachments to them grow and deepen, and the meaning that parents find in it grows and deepens.
So the story that epitomizes it, perhaps, was of Tom and Karen Robards, who are a couple I met in New York, who had gotten involved in changing the way education services are delivered to people with Down syndrome. They set up something called the Cooke Center, and they did really noble and heroic work in that arena. And their son is now 30.
And I said, look, this is – you’ve given your lives to this. I said, do you wish you hadn’t? Do you wish you’d never heard of Down syndrome? Do you wish you could make it go away? And his mother said, you know, for our son David, I wish I could make it go away, because for David, it’s a difficult way to be in the world and I would do anything to make David’s life easier.
She said, but speaking for myself, while I would never have believed 30 years ago that I would get to such a point, speaking for myself, it’s made me think so much more deeply and appreciate humanity so much more broadly and live so much more richly that, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.
And while she articulated that idea with particular eloquence, I found that it was a not-infrequent refrain that most of the parents who’d become very attached to their children. And at some level, I kept thinking: But surely you’d rather have children without Down syndrome.
And then I thought: People become attached to their children with whatever their flaws are. I’m attached to my children with whatever flaws they have. And if some glorious angel broke through the living room ceiling and offered to exchange them for other, better children, I’d cling to my kids and pray away this specter. We all love flawed children, and the general assumption that these more extreme flaws make the children somehow unlovable, it wasn’t true to most of my experience.
Gross: Now, there are probably some children who you write about in your book who would have died at birth or close to it, if not for modern medical interventions that save the lives of babies now. And so, you know, parents are raising children who probably wouldn’t – nowadays, who probably wouldn’t have been alive years ago. Is that a fair statement?
Solomon: Yes. That’s absolutely true.
Gross: I want you to talk a little bit about the 1984 Baby Doe Amendment, which is an amendment to the Child Abuse Act that President Reagan signed, and what it said and the ways in which it was or wasn’t a turning point in that story.
Solomon: Essentially, up until the Baby Doe Amendment, if you had a child who had what appeared to be a severe defect, you could basically allow that child to die by not using medical intervention to help the child if they had undeveloped lungs or other challenges at birth. But you really effectively could allow the child to starve to death. You could say I don’t want to deal with a child like this, and it was not a crime, because that child was really not treated as a human being.
And at some point, people began militating for recognition of the full humanity of every child born, no matter what that child’s condition. And the Baby Doe Amendment basically said that allowing a child to die constituted a crime, whether the child was healthy or unhealthy. And it was an important moment in the crystallization of this idea of the profound humanity even of the profoundly disabled.
I mean, it’s shocking, but there was a passage in Harper’s, which I’ve described in the book, and I’m trying to remember what year it was. But it was about how it’s terribly sad if you have a child with Down syndrome whom you have to allow to die – terribly sad, but not tragic, because a Down’s is not a person.
That was running in Harpers, which is a relatively liberal voice, and it was running there, I think, in the 1970s. So it took a long time to get to the point at which we really recognize the humanity of people with Down syndrome.
And it was only really after that movement began – the movement that led to the Baby Doe Amendment and the movement that followed it – that all of the educational interventions for people with Down syndrome set in, which have now allowed such people to rise to levels of accomplishment which were utterly unimaginable given the medical expectations of 50 years ago.
Gross: In your thinking, now that you’ve done all this research for your book, Far From the Tree, what is the quality of life? Like, what level of quality of life is worth living? You know, because there are some children who are born with like such profound deformities, where you can take heroic measures to keep the child alive, but the child will probably live in an extremely compromised state for the rest of their lives. So, you know, has your thinking on that shifted?
Solomon: My thinking on that has shifted a lot. It shifted in part because there are stories of people who, because the brain is quite plastic, have been able to do things that neurologists predicted they would never be able to do. There are people who were expected never to be able to walk or to talk or to do anything who actually, in the end, were able to do much more than people thought.
So partly my thinking has shifted because I think medical science has an aura of precision which it has not earned in these particular instances. And I think it’s very difficult to know what a very compromised life is like unless you are in a very compromised life. And for a life that’s as compromised as some of the ones we’re talking about, the people who are in them can’t communicate about them.
I myself have seen children who seem to me to be suffering terribly, and I’ve thought: I feel like children like that should be allowed to be let go, but I don’t do it with any certainty. And I’ve met other children and thought, oh, but wait a minute. Look. He does seem to be smiling. He seems to be kind of – it’s like trying to understand something that’s at the bottom of the ocean from where you sit on board a ship. You can’t really tell what shape or what color it is.
So my feeling, ultimately, is I think the same as my feeling about abortion, that I feel families should be allowed to choose what to do. Families who want to keep these children should be able to keep them. Families who want to give them up should have a system that allows them to do so. But I think it’s very dangerous if you start describing some people as not being really people. I think that’s a very dangerous direction to go in.
Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon. A few years ago, over 10 years ago, he wrote the book The Noonday Demon, about depression, which won a National Book Award. We’re talking about his new book Far From the Tree, which is about children who are born with profound differences like deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, children conceived in rape, children who become criminals, children who are transgendered.
Yes, I know these are not, by any means, similar. (Laughs) Are these conditions – but in terms of the challenges they present within families, there are certain connections that Andrew Solomon sees.
So one of your chapters is on children who become criminals. And two of the people who you interviewed for that chapter were the parents of Dylan Klebold. And Klebold, along with Eric Harris, killed 13 people – 12 students and one teacher – at Columbine High School in Colorado in April of 1999. Why did you want to talk with them?
Solomon: You know, I really wanted to understand what it was like to have a child who had done something so awful and what effect it had on the emotional life and the experience of the parents. I had found, as I did research on crime in general – and I had taken a job for a few months working on a theater project in a juvenile facility in Minnesota – I had found that mostly, contrary to popular perception, the parents of criminals are not themselves criminals.
Mostly, the parents of criminals don’t think it’s such a great idea to commit crimes. Mostly, especially with juvenile felons, the parents are very distressed and want to fix the situation. And I was interested in trying to understand what the dynamics of that were.
And then when I had the opportunity to talk to the Klebolds, I thought, how could you ever recover from having a child who had done something as horrific as what Dylan Klebold did? And I also, I think, was still trying to figure out, OK, but do the parents cause these things to happen? And I thought, maybe, maybe if I understand these parents, then I’ll understand why the Columbine massacre occurred. And I was curious.
And I would say what I feel, now that I’ve spent all that time with them, is that knowing the parents has made it far more mysterious to me than it was before I met them.
Gross: Did the Klebolds have any idea how troubled their son was and what he was capable of?
Solomon: You know, it took a long time for me to persuade them that we could talk about all of this. And then, when they finally agreed to it, they were so full of their story, it overflowed in them. And at the end of the first long weekend that I spent recording – I think more than 20 hours of interviews over a weekend – we were sitting, all of us very exhausted around the kitchen table, and I said: If Dylan were here now, is there anything you’d want to ask him or tell him, or do you have a question for him?
And his father said I sure would. I’d ask him what the hell he thought he was doing. And his mother, Sue, sort of looked down at the floor, and she thought. And then she said: I would ask him to forgive me for being his mother and never knowing what was going on inside his head.
I think she had no idea. I think now that I’ve got to know both parents well, if they had had any idea, they would have done something. They would’ve fixed it. They would’ve intervened. I think people can keep their character very secret, and having had the experience with Tom and Sue, I look even at my own children and think: I think I know them well, but I have to always remember that you never necessarily do. But I’m sure, 100 percent sure that his parents had no idea he was planning such a thing. They just, if they had any idea, that they would’ve tried to stop it. That’s who they are.
Gross: So I’m going to ask an outsider’s question, which is: How could you not know that your son was so troubled?
Solomon: So, I think that we have a long history of thinking that things are caused by parents. We thought that autism was caused by parents, “refrigerator mothers” were the ones who caused it. Schizophrenia was apparently something that you developed because your parents had an unconscious wish that you not exist.
If you go back 100 years further, there was the idea of imaginationism, which said that the reason your child was a dwarf or had deformities was because the mother had lascivious longings which were expressed in the deformities of her child. These theories of implying – implicating parents go back all the way through history, and a lot of them have been dismissed. But crime is the one area in which people seem not to be able to let go of that idea.
I saw endless family photos. I saw a video that Tom had made of Dylan three days before the massacre when he was going off to the prom, and he looks like a feckless adolescent who’s a little bit irritable. He looks like all the other feckless adolescents who are a little bit irritable whom one comes across.
And I think that he was someone who had that ability, which is a profound ability, to hide his true nature from other people, in the same way that I think – I don’t know – it would appear that Jerry Sandusky, for a long time, could hide his nature from a lot of people who were quite close around him.
People have that skill and that ability, and it comes in unpredictable ways and places. And I think he presented a very, very convincing facade. And I think that convincing facade was actually a large part of who he was, but I think he expressed it as all of who he was and kept this other part held away in secret.
Gross: I want to quote something. There’s a couple of things that Dylan Klebold’s mother said to you, and I guess this was upon hearing the news of what was going on at Columbine. She said, while every mother in town was praying that her child was safe, I had to pray that mine would die before he hurt anyone else. And then she said to you that she had hoped that he would die by suicide rather than going into the criminal justice system where he might be executed.
And she said: I gave the hardest prayer I ever made, that he would kill himself, because then at least I would know that he wanted to die and wouldn’t be left with all the questions I’d have if he got caught by a police bullet. I’ve spent so many hours regretting that prayer. I wished for my son to kill himself and he did.
Solomon: Right. I mean, it’s a very powerful statement. If you read, as I now have, the thousands and thousands of pages of material relevant to the various lawsuits that were brought in connection in Columbine, you can read a lot of Dylan’s writings and a lot of Eric Harris’ writings. And what you find if you do so is that Dylan was mostly depressed, and it feels as though he went along with the brutality of killing other people in part because that was Eric’s big idea.
And Eric was mostly out to rule and then destroy the world. And he went along with killing himself because it was Dylan’s idea. But Dylan definitely was suicidal. Now, it should be said that Dylan had had a minor criminal offense a year before Columbine, had been in trouble with the police, had then been assessed by a psychiatrist who saw no evidence that he was troubled in any way.
No evidence that he was depressed, certainly no evidence that he was psychopathic. Nobody saw it. But the thing that Sue said about that was that she just – when she heard the reports and understood what was happening, she said it just – it was so awful, but she was in a state of such agony about what was happening to her child, but also what was happening to all of these other children.
She said – she’s a very empathetic person and I think the idea that she was somehow implicated in this wanton horror that was taking place, was awful. And I think even aside from the question of whether she was implicated, simply the fact that it was happening was so immensely distressing to her. And like everyone in Colorado then, maybe everyone in the country who had the news on, I mean everyone thought, oh my god. When is this going to stop?
And she had that tragic knowledge that it was only going to stop when her son was dead.
Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon and we’re talking about his new book which is called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. And it’s about families in which there is a child who is profoundly different – through deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, children conceived in rape, children who have become criminals. So let’s take a short break here and then we’ll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.
Gross: Writing this book seems to have had a profound effect on you, including becoming part of the reason why your personal story has changed. While writing this book you got married, and you and your husband have a son.
You both are also sperm donors. And I think part of the reason why you became enthusiastic about being a father had to do with all these families that you wrote about.
Solomon: I had always hoped that I would someday have children, but I’d never known quite when or whether and I certainly didn’t know how. And I met John, who’s now my husband, at almost exactly the same time that I sold the proposal for this book back in 2001. And he then told me that he had been the donor for some lesbian friends and that they had a son of whom he was the biological father, Oliver – who was supposed to call him “donor dad” but because he couldn’t quite understand the word, kept calling him “donut dad” instead. And then a couple of years later Tammy and Laura asked him to be a donor again and they had a daughter, Lucy. And then one of my best, best, best friends from college had gone through a difficult divorce and she and I were talking about it.
And I said are you sad about it? And she no. She said the only thing I’m sad about is not being a mother. And I said rather lightly, because I didn’t think it was something she would be particularly inclined toward, but I said, well, if you ever decide you want a baby, I would love to be the father.
And she said a few years later, I’ve really thought about it. She said, what do you think? And we realized that it was something we both really wanted to do. So I have a daughter who lives with her mother in the Southwest but comes up to visit. And we go to visit there all the time. We were there a few days ago.
And I have – John and I talked about it and I really wanted us to have the experience of being fulltime parents. So we decided to have another child. We had George. We found an egg donor. Laura, who was the one within the Tammy and Laura couple who had been the biological mother of Oliver and Lucy, said to John I’ll never be able to thank you enough for allowing us to have a family and helping us with that, but I could show you how much you mean to us by carrying this child for you.
And so we’ve ended up in this sort of funny amalgam of five parents of four children in three states. And we all sort of fit together in our way. And people said to me, but you are doing this book about all of these terrible things that have gone wrong for all of these families. And surely, doing that would have made you draw back from the project of having your own family.
And I said that on the contrary, I felt that what the book was about was the fact that parents can love almost anyone who is presented to them as their child and that that love has a compelling urgency to it that rises above any difficulty. And I thought, whoever my children turn out to be, I think I’ll be able to love them.
And I felt that partly because of what I’d seen in these other families and partly also because I had been somewhat unforgiving of my family for being a little slow – not very slow, but a little slow – to accept the fact that I was gay. And when I started looking at all of these families, I thought, loving someone and accepting someone are two different things.
And I thought, my parents always loved me. It just took them a while to accept me. And then they got there. And actually, all of these parents had to struggle to accept their children, and then they got there. And I began to think all parents at some level have to struggle to accept their children. Their children are always full of surprises.
And I thought, OK, I don’t know. The acceptance thing may be tricky but I bet I’ll get through it and I’ll bet that I’ll be able to love them whoever they are.
Gross: Well, your thoughts about becoming a parent were pretty much tested right at birth when your son George was born and there was a period you thought he might have a profound disability. Describe what happened.
Solomon: So George was born. We were all in the delivery room, Laura, who was carrying the pregnancy and John and I. And when he was born they noticed that there had been a knot in his umbilical cord and they said they thought everything was fine but if the knot had tightened that it could’ve cut off oxygen to his brain.
And then we went off and we went to sleep and everything seemed fine. And the next day, John said, oh, the pediatrician wants to talk to you. And I assumed it was the routine conversation of the first day in his life. And the pediatrician said he’s not extending his legs in the way that he should. And I said oh. And she said yes. She said, and insofar as he is extending them, he’s doing so somewhat asymmetrically. And I said is that a cause for concern? And she said, well, she said the fact that he’s not extending them may indicate significant brain damage. She said the fact that he’s not them symmetrically may mean there’s asymmetric brain damage, possibly a tumor.
And John, who hadn’t been writing this book, said, oh, I’m sure he’s going to be fine and essentially has a more optimistic temperament than I do anyway. But I had witnessed what all these families had been through and I knew that you often find out in the first few days of a child’s life that you’re on a completely different course than you thought you were.
And I was terrified by it. And I suddenly realized when I looked at George I had been thinking, hmm. I have this baby. Do I love this baby? And then I suddenly found myself trying not to love this baby. I thought what if this baby is going to be incredibly sick and die and I wanted to stop being emotionally engaged. And I realized I couldn’t do that.
And we then had an endless thing of scans and all kinds of things and after about five hours they said, well, the scans are all clear. And look, now he’s extending his legs just the way he should. He probably had a cramp earlier. And I thought you might’ve mentioned that that was a possibility…
Solomon: …when you were telling me about brain tumors. But I kept thinking how ironic it would be if in the middle of writing this book I had a child who had some kind of severe disability. But nature is no stranger to ironies and it could’ve happened. I definitely experienced it differently than I would have before I’d written this book.
Because I think before I’d written the book it would’ve seemed to me like, not only like a tragedy for the child, but I would have thought, I don’t want to have this life at all. And now I looked at it and I thought, oh, god, I hope this child isn’t going to suffer. And I thought, I really hope I’m not going to suffer. I don’t especially want to do this, but I thought, if it’s what I have to do, I know I can.
I’d learned that from these other parents.
Gross: Andrew Solomon, thank you so much for talking with us.
Solomon: It’s been such a pleasure, Terry. Thank you so very much.
Gross: Andrew Solomon is the author of Far From the Tree. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.