by Bethany Saltman
Andrew Solomon is a writer and lecturer, researcher, activist, and winner of the National Book Award for his memoir of depression The Noonday Demon. In other words, he is a public intellectual—that rare person who truly lives with ideas. His most recent book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is a stunner. In it, Solomon shows us the lives of extraordinary families where children are born with any variety of radical differences from their parents. As grim as some of the stories are, this is a truly hopeful book.
Solomon’s opening chapter of this encyclopedic text is called “Son.” In it, he describes his own coming of age as a gay youth in a family that was loving, even doting, but had trouble accepting his sexuality. After receiving a writing assignment to study and report on deaf culture, and discovering that many of these folks had come to actually appreciate and identify with their deafness, he made a connection: “The reasonable corollary to the queer experience is that everyone has a [real or perceived] defect, and everyone has an identity, and they are often one and the same.”
From this realization, Solomon develops his overarching premise. First he describes how we understand our offspring through “vertical” identity—the traits and traditions that are passed down the generational ladder: eye color, race, certain propensities, culture, etc. And then there are those aspects—physical, emotional, and circumstantial—that create what he calls a “horizontal identity,” in relation to parents, a set of attributes that may stem from diseases, gifts, misfortunes, or a mysterious source, such as with transgenderism. These parents are left asking that perennial question—Where did this kid come from?—in the extreme.
(To read the complete interview, please visit Chronogram.)