Writing a book of nonfiction demands that you find people who have had an interesting or harrowing or profound experience and persuade them to talk about it. Making a documentary film requires that you find people who are having an interesting or harrowing or profound experience and follow them as it unfolds. Of course, the divide isn’t as absolute as that; books can chronicle real-time experiences and films often include talking heads holding forth about the past. Still, the difference is striking. Books require that people recount their emotions; documentaries require that people bare the same emotions in front of a film crew. As I helped convert my book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity into a documentary, I learned how distinct the two modes of storytelling are.
The book explores how families who consider themselves “normal” respond to children with a variety of differences or disabilities: families of people with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome and autism; families of prodigies; those bringing up children conceived in rape; those whose children have committed crimes; and others with transgender children. It’s a study of what I have termed “horizontal identity” — the sense children have that they must learn their identity from a peer group because their parents are inexperienced in dealing with their key differences. It dwells on the intimidating dichotomy of parenting: deciding what to try to fix in your children and what to accept and even celebrate. It argues that many families initially experience despair at diagnoses that end up filling their lives with meaning, that people often become grateful for lives they would have done anything to avoid. It’s all framed with autobiographical musings about growing up as a gay child of straight parents, and ultimately becoming a parent myself.
Attempts to adapt books into movies as literally as possible tend to founder, and as I sat through the editing process for the film version of Far From the Tree, I began to understand why. A book is definitive, but a film is referential; a book must come to conclusions, while a film can open up other possibilities. My book is narrated primarily from the perspectives of parents whose children are profoundly different from them; the film is also about such families, but it encompasses to a greater degree the viewpoints of the ostensibly different people themselves. I was stunned when Rachel Dretzin, the film’s director, proposed that the documentary not include the people who were in the book, but I came to realize she was right; their stories were by now too resolved for film, and we needed to depict the ambiguities and ambivalences of people still struggling to make sense of their lives. In the end, only one mother and son from the book are featured in the documentary, though at a very different stage of the now-grown child’s life and with a different story line.
I was stunned when Rachel Dretzin, the film’s director, proposed that the documentary not include the people who were in the book, but I came to realize she was right; their stories were by now too resolved for film, and we needed to depict the ambiguities and ambivalences of people still struggling to make sense of their lives.
My book profiles more than 300 families; the film presents only six. Because there were to be far fewer characters, each had to represent many others. Films don’t have footnotes; they don’t rely on torrents of supporting evidence. They trade in synecdoche, a more focused intimacy. It’s different to hear Leah Smith, who is an LP (Little Person), saying in the film, “I don’t think I need to be fixed,” than it is to hear me quote others on the same topic in the book. A film offers a less armored version of the truth.
Of course, filmmaking is more collaborative than book-writing, and the process of working with others caused me to rethink and refine some of my own ideas. While the text of my book runs to some 700 pages, the movie is 93 minutes long. But what it loses in detail, it gains in verisimilitude. The people whose circumstances I chronicled were at times almost unbelievably well-spoken; I sometimes felt that in describing how remarkable they were, I invited negative scrutiny, the supposition that I had exaggerated. I had to make it clear that I wasn’t rewriting my subjects into eloquence. I had to make their emotional dynamism, determination, wisdom and clarity convincing. The joy I discovered in the families of children who were different ran against widespread social expectations, so I felt I needed an abundance of interview subjects to reflect multiple views of various conditions and to support an irrefutable thesis: that profound meaning comes in the struggle to find it.
A film doesn’t carry as heavy a burden of proof as a book. On a movie screen, people are raw. Of course, footage is edited and a story is assembled, but the basic reality is incontrovertible, and the viewer becomes close to the characters, like it or not. I was astonished by how much of the larger meaning of my Far From the Tree could be packed into just six stories, and by how much less proof was needed to underscore a point when the audience can witness the stories unfolding. In a documentary, there’s no need to demonstrate an unexpected reality repeatedly because the strength of the argument is inherent in the recorded scenes. Film’s explicit tenderness derives from its being less mediated.
Making the book and making the film were both exercises in intrusion. They both involved asking private people to tell their stories publicly in service of a presumed greater good. The catharsis that ensued for these subjects can be hard to glean in the book, but in the film it’s quite evident; you see a person’s life story as well as the way that recounting it offers something of a liberation. Rachel and her team were determined to find people still struggling who were willing to trust her enough to appear in the film. So the film became a collaboration not only between the filmmakers and me but also between the subjects and us.
It felt weird to have my own story told in the film. Things I had been comfortable writing about in the privacy of my study made me anxious when shared on the screen; talking about the sexual surrogacy therapy I once pursued in an effort to make myself straight felt both vain and sad. Although the words remained mine, the images that accompanied them, the rhythms of the editing, even the occasional insertion of music, made certain episodes startlingly, sometimes painfully fresh. I had entrusted someone else with my reality, which was eminently different from writing about it myself. The book’s final chapter details how I become a father, and my children appear in some of the closing scenes of the film, as do my husband and our extended family. Intimate moments in my children’s experience were set in amber, unfiltered by my paternal protectiveness. I had often asked others for such trust; for once, I had to vest it in others.
The film of Far From the Tree is all about conjuring empathy.
In writing Far From the Tree, I was trying to expand the national conversation about identity, to champion a more tolerant and accepting society. The book was published during the Obama years; the movie is being released during the Trump years. And so there’s a new urgency to this conversation. Some find it easier to sympathize with people they can see than with people about whom they read, and I’m eager for the film to reach this population. The film is politically charged, and that probably has more to do with the changing times than with the switch of medium. Heroic kindness — a value that seemed inseparable from the American ideal just five years ago — has grown circumstantially disposable. People are more and more likely to see those who are different as their opponents, to hoard for themselves the sparse entitlements that have historically gone to our nation’s most vulnerable people.
The idea of helping those who have less seems anathema in the current discourse of power. The film of Far From the Tree is all about conjuring empathy. In its stories of people with dwarfism, Down syndrome and autism, and of a family suddenly and shockingly riven by a child’s commission of murder, it proposes that unsettling acceptance can enhance lives that might seem unbearable from the outside. It shows how people learn to love even the most alien aspects of others and thereby to embrace the alien aspects of themselves. It doesn’t preach with any particular righteousness, but it inevitably speaks to the politics of this moment, and perhaps that’s a purpose better suited to a movie than to a book. The principles of persistent love and compassionate generosity must be communicated urgently and with full nuance to people who don’t have time for 700 pages of exegesis.