by Carlo Rotella
In the opening pages of Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon recounts how, by the time he was two years old, his mother had realized that he was dyslexic and set out to teach him to read. Ignoring dire predictions that he was a hopeless case, she sat him in her lap for whole afternoons at a stretch to pursue a heroic regimen of phonetic drills and flash cards that helped him become a proficient reader—and eventually, of course, a celebrated writer. (His previous book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, received the 2001 National Book Award for nonfiction, among other honors.) The anecdote’s just a paragraph long. Here’s the next-to-last sentence: “The standards of perpetual triumph were high in our house, and that early victory over dyslexia was formative; with patience, love, intelligence, and will, we had trounced a neurological abnormality.” Then comes the kicker: “Unfortunately, it set the stage for our later struggles by making it hard to believe that we couldn’t reverse the creeping evidence of another perceived abnormality—my being gay.”
It’s the first of the book’s many capsule stories, each a highly crafted mini-novel a few sentences or pages long, in which families reckon with life-shaping differences between children and their parents. Solomon’s subject is horizontal identity, the kind of selfhood that develops when a child “has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group.” That’s as opposed to vertical identity: ethnicity, nationality, language, and other such attributes that are typically “passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms.” Bracketed by Solomon’s opening and closing accounts of being a son and a father, the book’s chapter titles span a range of horizontal possibilities: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender. Horizontal identity is what unites the community you discover, often online after Googling your condition, when you realize that whatever vertical identity you got from your parents isn’t going to be enough.
Solomon refers more than once to “Welcome to Holland,” Emily Perl Kingsley’s much-reproduced therapeutic parable about learning to accept the unexpected in your children. Kingsley describes boarding a plane for a long-anticipated trip to Italy, but when the plane lands you discover that for some reason it has gone to Holland, and you suddenly face an entirely different experience: windmills, not the Colosseum; Rembrandts, not Michelangelos. The change in destinations comes as a shock, but it’s just different, not worse; you can adjust. In Solomon’s study of comparative horizontalities, the parents of deaf children, dwarfs, or children with Down syndrome or autism often find their way to a “Welcome to Holland” account of their lives, but that’s not so true of parents of children who are diagnosed with schizophrenia or become criminals. In his most fascinating chapter, the parents of musical and intellectual prodigies are undone to a surprising degree by their child’s extraordinary gift, often having a harder time than parents whose children have what society regards as a significant disability. Struggling mightily to come to terms with a child touched by a genius beyond their powers of understanding and instruction, some parents of prodigies respond by entirely effacing themselves, others by becoming supercontrolling and forlornly larger than life.
Setting out to render the sweep of horizontal identity, Solomon has undertaken a big book in every sense of the term. Like Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Far from the Tree braids together science and medical writing, family narrative, a first-person account of the author’s own journey, mastery of research in multiple fields, exemplary legwork, and literary storytelling chops. But where Fadiman and Skloot go deep on one specimen family, Solomon extends his reach to embrace dozens, culled from among the more than three hundred families he interviewed.
Solomon demonstrates command of a great deal of knowledge, and he has a winning way of clarifying hotly contested issues—cochlear implants for the deaf, for instance—that inspire others to sling around words like “genocide.” But the essence of his craft can be found in the family stories. These tales share familiar contours, from the moment that parents first realize something’s different about their child (he stops pointing at things, or she sits down at the piano and plays Rachmaninoff by ear) to the denouement in which a family either stretches to accommodate an enormous new fact or tears itself to pieces. It’s striking how many arrive at a workable accommodation. Far from the Tree, for the most part a study of acceptance, takes the “anti-Tolstoyan view that the unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways.” Solomon shows us families responding to difference by taking their best shot at being a family over the long haul, an effort that constitutes much of what it means to be a family at all. Subtract the unlikeness that distinguishes children from their parents and you’ve got something less than a family.
“Difference is what unites us,” Solomon argues. “The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.” The remarkable families in the book serve as extreme cases of a universal struggle to bond across and along the lines of difference: “All offspring are startling to their parents; these most dramatic situations are merely variations on a common theme.” Solomon holds himself to a high standard of restraint, kindness, and reason, but he doesn’t try to hide the passion that animates him. He intends to move those who have felt themselves isolated by the experience of difference to recognize that they form “a vast company”—a majority, in fact. If his book is a call to arms, then deep in a paragraph on page 18 can be found his battle cry: “Everyone is flawed and strange; most people are valiant, too.”