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Talking to the Deaf

by Andrew Scull

Most parents harbour contradictory wishes: we want our children to be independent and to make their own way in the world when they grow up; and we want them to be like us, to share our cultural and political preferences, to choose lives of which we approve, to be happy in ways we understand and endorse. The contradiction, as Andrew Solomon nicely puts it in Far From the Tree, is that “Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us”.

One of the things that makes this book so extraordinary is how open so many families were to this stranger, how they somehow were induced to lay bare before him so many of their most intimate fears and hopes, their struggles and often their catastrophic failures to cope with what to the sympathetic reader must seem like an overwhelming daily grind. For his part, Solomon carefully gives voice to his subjects, where they are capable of voice. He scrupulously shows us the rough and the smooth: the way some people not just cope, but remake their lives in remarkable fashion in the face of the most daunting of challenges; and how in other cases, the upshot is family turmoil, financial and emotional disasters, and the ruination of lives. He is properly admiring of those who manage well; suitably sceptical of those who take their defence of “difference” too far; and humane and understanding when speaking of families who break under the strain of coping with burdens that for most of us seem unimaginable. Nor is he sparing of those of us fortunate enough to observe these conditions only at a distance (or more often, able and anxious to shut our eyes to them, or to respond to them with venom and even violence). All too often, the lives of the people he writes about have been made the more miserable by the ignorance, cruelty and the viciousness of the “normal”.

(To read the full review, subscribers may visit the Times Literary Supplement website.)