by Janice D’Arcy
Gratitude is one of those emotions that needs care and feeding. Not many of us are born with an innate sense of thankfulness and — despite the subtext of our holiday season — the busier we are, the more we can let things like gratitude slip through the floorboards.
Just as we head into the holiday frenzy, we have been delivered a bracing reminder of why gratitude is essential in parenting.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, (Scribner) is by National Book Award winner Andrew Solomon. He explores the relationships between parents and children who are vastly different from one another, or depart from our general sense of normalcy.
The book is receiving much attention, partially due to the author’s pedigree and also because he includes the first interview with the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters.Another reason is because Solomon has gone deep into territory many others would just as soon avoid.
He examines 10 sorts of childhood differences: autism, deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, disability, schizophrenia, delinquency, transgender, conception by rape, and genius. He finds some universals in these difficult stories, including a theme of parental love and parental gratitude.
Excerpts from the first part of our interview are below.
JD: What inspired you to tackle this subject?
AS: I had an assignment for the New York Times Magazine to write about the deaf about 15 years ago, and when I went out to talk to deaf people, I learned that many see themselves not as lacking hearing, but as having something else, a membership in a rich culture. Because most are born to hearing parents, they often find that culture only in adolescence, and learn pride in their identity from a peer group.
Their experience so closely paralleled mine as a gay person, and I was shocked to find their culture, though foreign to me, just as vital and energized as mine. Then a friend of a friend had a daughter who is a dwarf, and I was astonished to see the same questions occurring in that context. So I began to think that there are many of us who have this experience of belonging to a culture that is foreign to our parents, and that there are many parents dealing with children who are different, and that we all have a great deal in common.
I had struggled in some measure with the way my being gay played out in my family of origin, and by looking at all these other people and other lives, I gained insight into my own family, and decided they’d really done a pretty good job. So my topic’s initial appeal came out of autobiography — but then as I worked on it, I felt that I was giving voice to a new civil rights movement that’s been emerging very quietly, and I wanted to give voice to it in any way I could.
Why did you choose these particular families?
I ended up writing about roughly half of the families I interviewed, and I chose the ones whose stories I had found most moving, trying not to tell the stories of multiple families with near-identical experiences. I also tried to select for people who were willing and able to be fully honest about their experience. But almost every story I came across was moving, and almost everyone was trying to reveal truths to me.
I tend to write about people I like or admire, rather than about people I want to criticize, and so I sought out people about whom I could write accurately and also positively. We all know that there are people who neglect and abuse disabled children; that’s not news. I thought the news was how many people end up loving children they’d have thought, in the abstract, that they couldn’t love.
Is this a pro-life book? I mean both as an argument against abortion and/or is it intended to celebrate the worth of all lives?
It is very definitely NOT pro-life in the anti-abortion sense. I believe that abortion is a fundamental right, and that all women should have the right to terminate a pregnancy if they and their partners so wish. I would not insist that anone have a disabled child if she doesn’t wish to do so; indeed, I wouldn’t insist that anyone carry a healthy child to term if she does not wish to do so.
Having said that, I think it would be great for society to be more accepting, for the value of these different lives to be fully acknowledged, for people who are deciding whether to carry a pregnancy to term to understand more of what life might be like with the child they might produce. It’s not easy being disabled and I wouldn’t want to make light of the experience. But I did find, over and over, people who had significant challenges and who nonetheless had lives of great worth, happiness and merit.
Before I wrote the book, I’d have automatically terminated a pregnancy with a fetus who showed any abnormality. Now, I don’t know what I’d do. So I guess I’d like to see the law protect women’s right to choice, and this book protect the right to ambivalence.