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People Unlike Us

by Amulya Gopalakrishnan

Why do parents love their children? Apart from the neurobiological imperative, it’s also a bit of a vanity project. You want to see yourselves flatteringly mirrored back, you want to give them chances and choices you would have liked. You are looking to continue the story of you. You are rarely prepared to confront strangeness and dissimilarity.

Andrew Solomon’s new book, Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love, asks what happens when your children try you in unimaginable ways. Solomon is gay, and had a hard time getting his parents used to the idea. Buttressed on either end by a personal essay about being a son and a father, Solomon’s book investigates the families of those who are at an angle to the social norm. His chapters are bluntly titled “Deaf”, “Dwarfs”, “Down’s Syndrome”, “Autism”, “Schizophrenia” and so on.

Solomon calls these states of difference — being gay, having a physical or intellectual disability, being a genius — “horizontal identities”, aspects where the child does not resemble the family. Interestingly, instead of these leading to a common understanding of prejudice and greater solidarity, most of the people interviewed for the book resisted being clubbed together — parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs, people with autism pointed out that Down’s Syndrome people had lower intelligence than theirs.

Out of these materials, Solomon has fashioned a tremendous and humane book that is bound to alter the way one thinks of difference, disability, love and commitment. Across the hundreds of interviews with families, you see the patience and valour of some parents, you also see exhaustion, ambivalence and problematic choices. What if your child was born of rape, for instance? Or if they become criminals, and the world judges you? Or if they are extraordinarily gifted, beyond your comprehension? These are testing, complex relationships that force you to wonder, as Solomon does, “how much of a mother’s love is mammalian DNA, how much a social convention, and how much it is a result of personal determination”.

(To read the full review, please visit the Indian Express website.