by Ann Chudobiak
What happens when your child is born deaf, autistic, a prodigy, or with any kind of difference that marks them as “not normal”? That’s the heartbreaking question at the center of Solomon’s opus. He journeys across national, ethnic, and religious lines to speak to parents about their children—and along the way he learns about what makes us human.
As the friend who sent me the quote put it, “It sounds very, very relevant,” especially for anyone contemplating or currently engaged in the task of raising children.
Solomon, who is gay, doesn’t reveal until the very end whether he has children. He does drop some hints, though, poking fun, for example, at the British philosopher John Locke for having said, “I imagine the minds of children as easily turn’d this or that way, as water itself.” (Not that Solomon’s parental status is exactly secret. In 2011, he wrote a Newsweek article about his “unconventional clan,” called “Meet My Real Modern Family”.)
The potential audience for Far from the Tree extends to anyone with a personal or professional interest in deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigies, children born of rape, criminality and transgenderism.
Readers with an interest in these topics, but who find the prospect of a 900-page book somewhat daunting, may be reassured to know that the chapters are arranged by subject, and that each chapter can stand on its own.
There is another way in which Far from the Tree is “very, very relevant,” and it has nothing to do with parenting or childhood. It is about how we as a society care for our most vulnerable. When I was reading the book, many of the leading news stories had to do with this exact question. Witness the Ashley Smith case, in which a young woman with a long list of mental health diagnoses was able to kill herself with a piece of cloth while under suicide watch in a federal prison, having entered the system four years before as a 14-year-old for a crime, throwing crabapples, that in retrospect seems heartbreakingly quaint.
“Nearly 300,000 people with mental illness are in jail in the United States,” writes Solomon. “Few are in for violent crimes; most are there for the myriad small transgressions that are inevitable for people impervious to social reality. … They are dealt with not by doctors, but by police officers – and then prison guards.”
Solomon gives a financial spin to his arguments as to why society should do a better job of helping people like Ashley Smith, but he isn’t fooling anyone. Far from the Tree is at heart a moral book, and Solomon is an enormously principled man who has used his privileged position in life to eloquently advocate for various causes, ranging from LGBT rights to the arts to mental health. His second of three non-fiction books, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which won a National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, grew out of a personal essay, titled “Anatomy of Melancholy,” that he wrote for the New Yorker in 1998 about his own struggles with depression after the release of his novel A Stone Boat.
Most of the authors Solomon could be compared with are mentioned in Far from the Tree, notably Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, as well as fellow New Yorker contributors Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman and Rachel Aviv.
There was one spot in the book where I felt a little uneasy. When reflecting on a sex-abuse scandal that had rocked his former New York City prep school, Solomon, sympathetic to a fault, proffers a defence of sorts: “Wondering how my teachers could have done this, I thought that someone whose core being is deemed a sickness and an illegality may struggle to parse the distinction between that and a much greater crime.”
Ultimately, Solomon conveys that it’s normal to try to improve one’s children, but that it is also admirable to accept them for who they are, limitations and all, no matter how multiple or severe. “There is a compelling purity in parental engagement not with what might or should or will be, but with what simply is.” An inspiring read that, like The Noonday Demon before it, is sure to become a classic.