by Carmela Ciuraru
The first thing you should know about Andrew Solomon’s new book, Far From the Tree, is that it’s a monumental work. This is a masterpiece of non-fiction, the culmination of a decade’s worth of research and writing, and it should be required reading for psychologists, teachers, and above all, parents.
The author interviewed hundreds of families for his book. In 12 chapters, filled with stories that are as inspiring as they are harrowing, Solomon studies families with children who have autism, deafness, schizophrenia, dwarfism and more. The book’s title comes from the adage about the apple not falling far from the tree.
These children, however, are “apples that have fallen elsewhere — some a couple of orchards away, some on the other side of the world. Yet myriad families learn to tolerate, accept, and finally celebrate children who are not what they originally had in mind.”
Solomon interviews the parents of one of the Columbine killers, parents of children born of rape, and those who have children with Down syndrome. He also explores the lives of prodigies, who are “freaks” of another sort. “Being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying,” Solomon writes. Both are aberrant, and “prodigiousness compels parents to redesign their lives around the special needs of their child.”
The author, whose extraordinary chronicle of depression, The Noonday Demon, won the National Book Award in 2001 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, approaches his subject in a profoundly personal way. He writes of growing up gay (as well as dyslexic) — with a sense that he needed to be “fixed,” and that his identity was undesirable and even hateful. He was raised in an extraordinarily wealthy family, yet despite his elite existence, he believed that “if anyone found out I was gay, I would have to die.” (Indeed, he suffered from suicidal depression.)
Far From the Tree is a bold and unambiguous call to redefine how we view difference. All too often we are frightened or uncomfortable by those who exist outside “the norm,” whether physically, mentally, sexually, or otherwise. We often regard such people with ignorance and even cruelty and disgust. Our society has a compulsion to “cure” those who are different.
Solomon argues in favor of vulnerability and empathy — of turning our collective gaze toward “anomalous bodies” instead of averting our eyes. In his chapter on transgenderism, he expresses hope for “a society in which everyone is able to choose his or her own gender at any time.” When it comes to identity, he’s a big proponent of spectrums rather than binary labels. He values self-acceptance over fitting in.
Although the families in this book carry “what much of the world considers an intolerable burden,” they paradoxically describe feeling grateful for “experiences they would have done anything to avoid.” It’s a startling and inspiring revelation. This is not to say that these families have not suffered a great deal, but simply that in their views, life has been greatly enriched by suffering. And (in most instances) they wouldn’t trade their experiences for anything.
Far From the Tree is a stunning work of scholarship and compassion. It’s also one that brings the author tremendous joy in his own life. Initially, Solomon wrote the book, in part, to learn how to forgive his parents for the traumas of his childhood. He ends this project triumphantly: marrying his longtime partner and (via surrogate) becoming a parent himself. The couple have a 3-year-old son, George.
At times, Solomon writes, “I had thought the heroic parents in this book were fools, enslaving themselves to a life’s journey with their alien children, trying to breed identity out of misery. I was startled to learn that my research had built me a plank, and that I was ready to join them on their ship.”