In Australia for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Andrew Solomon discusses his work with Lateline correspondent Emma Alberici.
Emma Alberici, presenter: Tonight’s guest is author Andrew Solomon. His book, Far From the Tree, is about how parents and siblings accommodate children who are different to themselves.
It’s based on interviews with more than 300 families raising dwarfs, geniuses, transgender, deaf, criminal, autistic, schizophrenic or children born of rape.
A New York Times bestseller and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and eleven other prizes, Far From the Tree is remarkably enlightening but often confronting.
Andrew Solomon is a writer and lecturer in psychology, politics and the arts. He’s an activist for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) communities and is a research fellow in LGBT studies at Yale University.
In the ten years it took him to write this book, Andrew Solomon married journalist John Habich and became a father.
Welcome, Andrew Solomon.
Andrew Solomon, author, Far from the Tree: What a pleasure to be here.
Emma Alberici: Now, the first chapter of your book is quite personal. As a child, what made you different to your family: you liked Armenian food, pink balloons. You had a fascination with the tiny principality of Liechtenstein and, instead of trading baseball cards on the school bus, you liked to recount the plots of operas. How did your parents react when they finally discovered you were gay?
Andrew Solomon: Well, I was quite a peculiar child and I definitely had my own ways and my own tastes. My parents professed to be very surprised when they ultimately found out that I was gay but I think if you’re thinking of gay as being a question of who I was going to be romantically involved with, it took a while for that to arrive. If you think of it as being a matter of having a different view of the world and different tastes and different tendencies than other children, that was manifest really early on.
Emma Alberici: But they didn’t take it well, your parents?
Andrew Solomon: They didn’t initially. They really struggled with it. I think they had two concerns, one of which was that they were worried that – my mother in particular didn’t like the image of herself as having produced a gay child. She was a perfectionist and she liked the idea of everything being orderly and perfect and correct and right.
But I think they also were worried that a gay life was going to be a lonely life and a sad one; that I wouldn’t be able to have a family, that I was unlikely to find a partner, that I was going to be socially marginalised – all of which were the realities for gay people at the time that I was growing up. And they’re not the realities of gay people now. It was impossible then to imagine the life I now live.
Emma Alberici: In fact, your parents were a product of their time and back in the 60s, when you were growing up, homosexuality was still a crime. And, in fact, you reference in the book an article in Time magazine from 1965 which seemed to sum up, kind of, the attitudes of people like your parents. What did it say?
Andrew Solomon: It said, “Even in purely non-religious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty. It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life that deserves no glamorisation, no rationalisation and, above all, no pretence that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.”
And in the last 18 months, the president of the United States and the Supreme Court have come out in favour of gay marriage. And I set out to write my book trying to understand how that change had happened: how did something universally understood to be an illness emerged instead as an identity? And if homosexuality could make that transition, what other things that we thought of as illnesses might actually be identities?
Emma Alberici: So how is any parent to know whether to erase or celebrate a given characteristic? This is kind of a central question in your book. Did your mother and father actively try to erase your sexual identity?
Andrew Solomon: Well, they encouraged me to do all I could to change. I myself, kind of on my own steam, went and enrolled in something called ‘sexual surrogacy therapy’ in which I tried to make myself over into a straight person. I had what were called ‘exercises’ with women I was encouraged to call ‘surrogates’, who were not exactly prostitutes but who were also not exactly anything else.
And that was productive in some ways: I ended up having some very nice relationships with women. But I was in some way at war with myself and really trying to emerge out of that.
I think to your larger question, all parenting involves really doing two things: you change your children – you educate them, you teach them moral values, you give them a sense of how they should be in the world; and you celebrate your children for who they are.
And it’s not always possible to know which are the traits to change and which are the traits to celebrate. Some are obviously one or the other. A lot falls in a confused middle.
And I think my parents genuinely thought that if we all just threw ourselves behind it, I could stop being gay. And they were wrong. But on the other hand, they had also thought if they really threw themselves behind it, we could make sure that the dyslexia I was diagnosed with as a child didn’t get in the way of my life.
And when I was applying to schools as a little kid, my parents were told I would never learn to read or write. And I’ve had a lot of problems in life but that’s not one of them.
Emma Alberici: And I guess for you personally, one of the reasons I gather from reading your book that you partook in the kind of, the drive to change yourself was that you thought being a corollary to being gay was being childless.
Andrew Solomon: Yes.
Emma Alberici: So tell us, if you can, how you finally became a parent – and we have some pictures which we’ll show to go over the story – but tell us the story which you describe as “the real modern family”?
Andrew Solomon: Yes. So my husband John, who you mentioned earlier, is the biological father of two children with some lesbian friends in Minneapolis.
One of my closest friends from university got in touch with me and said that she would very much like to have a child. She had been through a difficult divorce and so she and I have a daughter. Mother and daughter live in Texas.
And then John and I wanted to have a child who would be with us full-time, so we have a child of whom I’m the biological father. We had an egg donor and our surrogate was Laura, the lesbian mother of his two biological children.
So it’s five parents of four kids in three states. And we all manage to spend quite a lot of time together. And people say, “Oh, it’s such a radical thing, it’s so political.” It was actually just, I think, a lot of people who loved one another and who all wanted to have children and this is how it came down.
Emma Alberici: And, in fact, you just told me that John and George are with you on this trip?
Andrew Solomon: They are indeed and seeing Sydney and having a grand old time.
Emma Alberici: Where is the common ground you found between being gay and being deaf and being a dwarf or schizophrenic or transgender?
Andrew Solomon: One of the central ideas of the book is that there are many kinds of identity which are hereditary, which I called “vertical identities.” So your ethnicity, your nationality, your language, frequently your religion. And even if those identities are difficult, nobody is trying to cure them. We’re only trying to cure a society that enacts prejudice toward those people.
But there are other kinds of identities that emerge in which a child has a central defining characteristic completely different from anything his parents have dealt with before. And I call those “horizontal identities” because they’re learned from a peer group rather than from parents.
And those horizontal identities, it seemed to me, had a great deal in common. So I went out to work among the deaf, to write an article almost 20 years ago for the ‘Times’ magazine. And I discovered that deafness is a culture. It’s also a disability in many ways but it is a culture. It is a culture united around people’s shared use of sign language and that most deaf children are born to hearing parents, that those hearing parents try to incorporate them into what they see as the mainstream and that those deaf individuals then discover a sense of identity when they discover deaf culture in adolescence or thereafter.
And I thought it was so similar to my experience as a gay person who felt as though I was strange and aberrant and broken and then found a world of people who were like me and thought, “Oh, this could be okay.” And in the same sense I saw it over and over again with these other characteristics.
A friend of a friend of mine had a daughter who was a dwarf. She was onto the question early and she said, “Do I tell her she is like everyone else but a little bit short? Or do I try somehow to give her a sense of dwarf identity? Do I get involved with the Little People of America? Do I make sure she knows other dwarfs? And as she narrated that bewilderment, I thought: “It happens over and over again.”
Now, it happens to all families. I have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t sometimes look at his child and think, “What planet did you come from?” But I was looking at those more extreme situations as a way of illuminating the general situation of how parents negotiate their children’s difference and how in fact that negotiation of difference, even if they’re very diverse differences, that negotiation of differences is a central part of how parents and children develop a relationship to each other.
Emma Alberici: As a parent, my instinct would be to try everything possible to help my child function in the world as I know it. And so if they were deaf, I’d want them to hear and to speak. Is being deaf unlike being gay, something a parent should try to fix?
Andrew Solomon: Well, the question for deafness and for all of the other topics I looked at is: what is the trauma attached to the way of fixing it and what is the degree of success that’s achieved?
So I think that if I had a child who were deaf, I would want to give that child a cochlear implant and help that child function in the hearing world. I think fluent communication between a parent and a child is incredibly important. And I don’t think I could ever achieve the fluency in sign that I have in spoken language.
But I would also want to raise that child with a sense of what the deaf culture is and what it looks like. I would give that child access to sign language and if, when my child were 10 or 15 or 20, he or she were to say, “I really want to live more in that deaf culture,” I would want to be able to accept that and to respect it.
And I think a lot of what comes out of this whole conversation is: if the thing can readily be changed and you really feel like you need to change it, you can do that but not to the point at which your child feels erased.
And for some of the things I was looking at, like certain kinds of autism for example, the attempts to change it can be very sadistic and very painful for the child and not very effective. And in those cases, you’d be better off actually saying to your child, “I understand you for you who you are and I’m going to try to love you as you are.”
Emma Alberici: In fact, I found autism one of the most moving chapters of the book and I was going to ask what you learned in the entirely different responses between two couples and their sons and that was the Slatkins and the Lehr couple. They had completely different responses to discovering that their children had autism?
Andrew Solomon: Right. So the Slatkins had discovered their child had autism. They threw themselves into trying to help their child to improve and recover. This founded a school for children with autism. They were people who were fairly privileged and they threw every resource they had behind it.
They weren’t actually ultimately able to change their son’s condition. He has very severe autism, he’s never spoken. He doesn’t have very strong motor control. He’s someone who now has to live in assisted housing because he is too big and violent to accommodate.
But they tried and tried and tried to fix the problem and were never able to and encountered some considerable frustration there, though they did a lot of good in the world.
Bob and Sue Lehr discovered that their child had autism and they really didn’t think much about trying to change it. They thought, “Well, how can we give him the best life that he can have, given who he is?” They didn’t have the same resources that the Slatkins had. They had a more accepting personality and a more accepting view of the world.
I think each family found its way forward. I think in some ways, in this instance, the Lehrs did better.
But the complexity of autism, the sort of challenge of autism is that there are some conditions I looked at which really are quite treatable and you know what to do. If you have a child with Down Syndrome, the right educational strategies are pretty straightforward. There are some conditions in which there’s nothing to do. If your child has dwarfism, your child has dwarfism. You just have to accept it.
Autism is a confused area: some people seem to have gotten better with some interventions some of the time. You are left always as a parent thinking, “Maybe if I had done that other technique, maybe if I’d tried that other strategy.”
As one mother said, “Maybe if I had chopped my arms off and gone to Lourdes, then my child would be okay.” And so you’re always struggling with that ignorance of, sort of, “Maybe I’m doing the right thing and maybe I’m not.” And that makes autism one of the hardest of all the things I wrote about.
Emma Alberici: And yet, I think of all the people you interviewed for the book, you’ve said you felt the greatest connection with Tom and Sue Klebold. These are the parents of Dylan, one of the teenagers who carried out the Columbine massacre and then they both killed themselves after the shooting.
What was it about the Klebolds that struck a chord with you?
Andrew Solomon: I went out to talk to the Klebolds, thinking when I get to know these people I’ll understand how their son came to do this terrible thing. I believed that even though we’ve now accepted that parents don’t cause autism, they don’t cause homosexuality, they don’t cause all these other things, I still thought parents cause criminality. And if you bring your child up right this won’t happen.
And what I concluded after talking not only to them but to many other people who commit crimes, is that while some people who commit crimes do so as a response to incredible abuse and neglect, some people just have that brokenness in them and they have that brokenness no matter how well they’re taken care of.
And I ended up thinking that while I happen to be fond of my own parents, I would’ve been happy to have Tom and Sue Klebold as my parents. I thought they were a lovely family. And I spend hundreds of hours with them.
And I always remember the sense of the intense vulnerability that they lived in. When I had spent some time with them – the first weekend we all spent doing interviews and they’d resisted talking and then were so full of their story.
And on Sunday night Sue was making dinner. We were sitting in the kitchen, exhausted. And I said, “If Dylan were here now, is there anything you’d want to ask him?” And his father said, “There sure is. I’d want to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing.”
And his mother looked at the floor and she thought for a minute and she said, “I would ask him to forgive me for being his mother and never knowing what was going on inside his head.”
Emma Alberici: Powerful stuff.
Andrew Solomon: Yeah.
Emma Alberici: Has the research you did for this book, the stories you studied, changed the parent you might otherwise have been?
Andrew Solomon: I think it’s changed it enormously. I mean, I’d always wanted to have children and various people said because I had children while I was working on this book, “How can you be having children in the middle of a book about everything that can go wrong?” And I kept saying, “It’s not a book about everything that can go wrong. It’s a book about how much love and even joy there can be, even when everything is going wrong.”
And doing it has given me the confidence that, if all of these parents could love all of these children under all of these circumstances, I’m going to be able to love whatever children I have. And when they were born I thought to myself, “I have to understand that they are separate beings, that they’re going to be different in some ways, and that a lot of our intimacy is going to come through that negotiation of difference.”
You know, I think a lot about the statement by an American sociologist: “We not only care for our children because we love them, but also love them because we care for them.” And I have realised with my own children that it’s their vulnerability that is the centre of our intimacy and it’s figuring out how to be a good parent to them rather than figuring out what I would’ve wanted from a good parent to myself that has to be the centre of our relationship.
Emma Alberici: And just finally and quickly, because we’re out of time: under current laws your marriage isn’t recognised in Australia.
Our Prime Minister says the definition of marriage is a union between a woman and a man. Our Treasurer recently said that same-sex marriage was not the best outcome for a child.
As a married gay father, who is also a professor, fellow in LBGT studies at Yale, one of the top 20 universities in the world, what do you say to that attitude?
Andrew Solomon: There seem to be people who think that the existence of families such as mine undermines the strength of families such as theirs. And I don’t accept those subtractive models of love, only additive ones.
And I really believe that in the same way that we need species diversity to sustain the planet, we need a diversity of kinds of affection and family to sustain the ecosphere of kindness.
And I truly believe that there are people who are extraordinary, loving parents who may be rich, they may be poor, they may be Chinese, they may be Australian, there are a whole variety of things, those families are all different from one another in various ways. Families today are different from families 50 years ago.
But I think trying to eliminate a whole category of love and trying to eliminate a category of affection seems to me, actually, like an evil and fascistic point of view.
Emma Alberici: Andrew Solomon, we’ll leave it there. Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak to us tonight.
And for people who want to catch up with you, you are of course giving the opening address tomorrow at the Sydney Writers Festival.
Andrew Solomon: Thank you very much indeed.
Emma Alberici: Cheers.