Andrew Solomon dives into his childhood to describe moments of great adversity, and how they helped him build identity. This edition of TED Radio Hour features portions of Andrew’s TED 2014 talk, How the Worst Moments in Our Lives Make Us Who We Are.
Guy Raz: It’s the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I’m Guy Raz. On today’s show: growing up. Stories and ideas about the making of who we are. And for writer Andrew Solomon, finding out who he is has been at the heart of everything he does.
Andrew Solomon: I’m the author of a number of books, most recently Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. The topic of all my work is resilience and hope, and I think the world is full of both of them.
Guy Raz: Here’s Andrew on the TED stage.
Andrew Solomon (at TED 2014): When I was in second grade, Bobby Finkel had a birthday party and invited everyone in our class but me. My mother assumed there had been some sort of error, and she called Mrs. Finkel, who said that Bobby didn’t like me and didn’t want me at his party. And that day, my mom took me to the zoo and out for a hot fudge sundae. When I was in seventh grade, one of the kids on my school bus nicknamed me “Percy” as a shorthand for my demeanor, and sometimes, he and his cohort would chant that provocation the entire school bus ride, 45 minutes up, 45 minutes back, “Percy! Percy! Percy! Percy!” And I graduated high school without ever going to the cafeteria, where I would have sat with the girls and been laughed at for doing so, or sat with the boys and been laughed at for being a boy who should be sitting with the girls.
I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. What I didn’t know then, and do know now, is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.
Guy Raz: What do you think it is about experiencing something trarumatic or something that sort of sears itself in your memory early in life, and then shapes who you become?
Andrew Solomon: I think those early experiences are very powerful and can be very determinative, that you end up developing an image of yourself, an image of what your strengths are, an image of your weaknesses, an image of the ways in which the world is going to limit you. And I think for me, I had a sense very early on not that I was gay, because when I was a little child I didn’t even know what gay was, but that I was different from other children. And I think I struggled with that sense of what to do about how different I was, starting at a very early age.
Andrew Solomon (at TED 2014): Some of our struggles are things we’re born to: our gender, our sexuality, our race, our disability. And some are things that happen to us: being a political prisoner, being a rape victim, being a Katrina survivor. Identity involves entering a community to draw strength from that community, and to give strength there too.
Forge meaning, build identity. That became my mantra. Forging meaning is about changing yourself. Building identity is about changing the world. All of us with stigmatized identities face this question daily: how much to accommodate society by constraining ourselves, and how much to break the limits of what constitutes a valid life? Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.
Guy Raz: How did you come to a place where you thought about things this way?
Andrew Solomon: That was a long and slow process, but I think that it was unfolding at some level over an extended period of time. I think I was always interested in this idea that if you were stuck with experiences you didn’t want, there were things you could do with them and things you could make out of them. But the point at which that emerged into my consciousness was sort of when I was in my thirties. I men, when I was a little kid, I hadn’t yet come to that feeling, and even when I was an adolescent and kept thinking, “How can I take these painful experiences I’ve had and make something of them?” I hadn’t yet formulated that that was what I was doing. The language for it came much later on.
Andrew Solomon (at TED 2014): In my own adolescence, I went to extreme lengths to try to be straight. I enrolled myself in something called sexual surrogacy therapy, in which people I was encouraged to call doctors prescribed what I was encouraged to call exercises with women I was encouraged to call surrogates, who were not exactly prostitutes but who were also not exactly anything else. (Laughter) My particular favorite was a blonde woman from the Deep South who eventually admitted to me that she was really a necrophiliac and had taken this job after she got in trouble down at the morgue. (Laughter) These experiences eventually allowed me to have some happy physical relationships with women, for which I’m grateful, but I was at war with myself, and I dug terrible wounds into my own psyche.
We don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe that it’s purposeful. Ease makes less of an impression on us than struggle. We could have been ourselves without our delights, but not without the misfortunes that drive our search for meaning. “Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities,” St. Paul wrote in Second Corinthians, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Guy Raz: Hearing this story, hearing it now in the context of where we are today, it’s hard to imagine that, like, that was what you knew, because you understood that what you were was not right. What did you parents think about that? How did they feel about it?
Andrew Solomon: Well, my parents certainly never knew that I was going into sexual surrogacy therapy. That was something that I had found in the back pages of a magazine and that I did secretly. And if you had told me at the time that thirty years later I would be standing up on a stage and announcing it to the larger TED audience, I would have thought you were insane. So they didn’t know about that. I think they did know at some stage that I was gay, but I didn’t tell them for a long time. But I think when it came to the idea of my actually being gay, that was sort of a bridge too far for my family, and in some way it was a bridge too far for myself.
Guy Raz: Do you think that part of your parents’ difficulty with that whole period of your life had to do with maybe the idea that they couldn’t, that there was no way to protect you from the pain and the arrows, or all the things that were going to come your way?
Andrew Solomon: My parents saw, I think accurately, that the way I was was a way that was not necessarily accepted by the larger society, and that the way I was was going to cause me quite considerable pain. And they wanted to protect me from that experience of pain because they wanted to give me a happy life, and insofar as they could an easy life. And that made a lot of sense. Now, they also wanted to protect themselves, and their self-image didn’t include having a gay child, and my being a gay child, or my being different in any of the ways that I was different, had an effect on their identity. Ultimately, I think the identity of parents and the identity of children are very tightly entwined.
Andrew Solomon (at TED): It took identity to rescue me from sadness. The gay rights movement posits a world in which my aberrances are a victory. Identity politics always works on two fronts: to give pride to people who have a given condition or characteristic, and to cause the outside world to treat such people more gently and more kindly. Those are two totally separate enterprises, but progress in each sphere reverberates in the other. Identity itself should be not a smug label or a gold medal but a revolution.
In 2007, six years after we met, my partner and I decided to get married. Marriage soon led us to children, and that meant new meanings and new identities, ours and theirs. I want my children to be happy, and I love them most achingly when they are sad. As a gay father, I can teach them to own what is wrong in their lives, but I believe that if I succeed in sheltering them from adversity, I will have failed as a parent.
Guy Raz: Do you ever, like, experience anxiety like, I don’t know, just worried that your kids might one day experience the pain that you did?
Andrew Solomon: I experience anxiety all the time. I mean, I was anxious in the car on the way down to this radio interview. I’m sort of given to anxiety. But I do worry particularly all the time about how to protect my children from some of the kinds of difficulty that I went through. It’s the problem of parenting that, I think we all know how we would be good parents to ourselves, and we have to learn how to be good parents to the children we have. so my children probably won’t go through the exact same difficulties that I went through. They’re different people, and it’s a different time. And what I have to be awake to is not how to protect them from the exact pain I had, which is easy, but how to protect them from the exact pain that they’re going to have, which is much harder to figure out. And I feel that’s where the anxiety comes in.
Guy Raz: How has your own upbringing, the decisions that your parents made about the way they raised you, and maybe the mistakes they made, changed or informed the way you do it?
Andrew Solomon: You know, I think the most fundamental thing is to deal with the struggle between what you change in your children and what you accept in your children. I think all parenting involves doing both. Some things, obviously, need to be changed, and some things, obviously, need to be celebrated, and a great deal falls in a foggy middle territory where it’s very difficult to know whether to change it or to celebrate it. And as I find myself struggling with that, I recognize that it was a struggle that my own parents went through as well.
Guy Raz: Yeah. I’m constantly worried about whether I’m doing it wrong. Just the other day, my five year old was really upset about going to camp, day camp; he just really didn’t want to go. And I just thought to myself, “Should I just let him stay home?” But then, my mother’s voice was in my head, who would always say to me, “Get in the car, you’re going to camp.” And I can understand why she made me go.
Andrew Solomon: It rings so unbelievably true to me, both as the experience I have with my child, and as the experience that I had in my childhood. And that balance of pushing them and embracing them is very difficult. I often think of the work of a British psychoanalyst named Rozsika Parker, who talked about having to steer between “the Scylla of intrusiveness and the Charybdis of neglect.” And I think that’s often the issue: How much do you want to sort of hold them back and hug them and say it’s okay, which is the protective part of parenting, and how much do you want to say, You have to go into the world and do things, which is the other part of parenting. And Parker says that we all in fact experience ambivalence toward our children, and that as a society we have somehow glamorized the part that’s holding on, and we have stigmatized the part that’s pushing away, but that good parenting requires that you do both. And what you’re constantly doing is negotiating the relationship between them, and that the ambivalences of parenthood are often the engine of determining how you balance the holding on and pushing away.
Andrew Solomon (at TED): I sometimes wonder whether I could have found such fulfillment in marriage and children if they’d come more readily, if I’d been straight in my youth or were young now, in either of which cases this might be easier. Perhaps I could. Perhaps all the complex imagining I’ve done could have been applied to other topics. But if seeking meaning matters more than finding meaning, the question is not whether I’d be happier for having been bullied, but whether assigning meaning to those experiences has made me a better father. I tend to find the ecstasy hidden in ordinary joys, because I did not expect those joys to be ordinary to me.
In October, it was my 50th birthday, and my family organized a party for me, and in the middle of it, my son said to my husband that he wanted to make a speech, and John said, “George, you can’t make a speech. You’re four.” (Laughter) “Only Grandpa and Uncle David and I are going to make speeches tonight.” But George insisted and insisted, and finally, John took him up to the microphone, and George said very loudly, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please.” And everyone turned around, startled. And George said, “I’m glad it’s Daddy’s birthday. I’m glad we all get cake. And daddy, if you were little, I’d be your friend.”
I thought that I was indebted even to Bobby Finkel, because all those earlier experiences were what had propelled me to this moment, and I was finally unconditionally grateful for a life I’d once have done anything to change.
Guy Raz: I love this moment. I can’t imagine all the emotions that you must have experienced when that happened.
Andrew Solomon: It was an unbelievably lovely moment. And I really do kind of think, whenever I’m feeling negative about experiences that I’m having, I do think over and over again about that moment, and I think, okay, whatever else is happening, whatever else is going wrong, this child whom I love so much also loves me, and sees me in some profound way. I get choked up even talking about it, even talking about it now.
Guy Raz: I get choked up hearing you talk about it.
Andrew Solomon: It was such a joy to me. And in that moment with George, I just sort of thought, “this is what it’s all about.” The only question it leaves you with is, “where do we go from here?”
Writer Andrew Solomon. You can see both of his TED talks at ted.npr.org.
(Song by Mr. Rodgers: “”It’s great for me to remember as I put away my toys, that mothers were all little girls one time and fathers were all little boys. My daddy seems so big right now, he must have grown a lot…”)
Thanks for listening to our show this week about growing up. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit ted.npr.org. You can also find many, many more TED talks at TED.com. And you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app.
Our program was produced by Jeff Rogers, Brett Bachman, Megan Kane, Neva Grant, and Sanaz Meshkinpour, with help from Daniel Shuchman, Portia Robertson Migas, and Eric Newsome. Our intern is Elissa Eads. A special shout-out this week to Josh Rothhaus from the Tinkering School. Thanks also to our partners at TED: Chris Anderson, June Cohen, Deron Triff, and Janet Lee.
I’m Guy Raz; you’ve been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour at NPR.
(Song by Mr. Rodgers: Parents Were Little Once Too)