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Author Andrew Solomon finds wisdom in parents raising ‘children of difference’

Writing a book is likened to having a baby. After a long period of fretful gestation, the precious receptacle of the creator’s hope, self and soul explodes into view to face its fate. The extraordinarily long gestation of Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (11 years) led to a whopping big ”baby” (960 pages) and a revelation. He could be a real parent, too.

It had seemed implausible. He was single and gay, for starters, with a history of depression. Could he expose a child to that genetic risk? What if it was too much like him – or too different? He worried: ”What if I have children and I can’t connect with them?”

But interviews with more than 300 families raising children of difference – including dwarfs and geniuses, transgender, deaf, criminal, autistic or schizophrenic children or children of rape – gave him ”huge relief”.

”If all of those parents can love all of those children under all of those circumstances, I am going to be able to love whatever child I get,” he realised.

By the time he finished the book, he was married and, with husband John, father in a family of ”five parents of four children in three states”, as he likes to say. He is biological father to daughter Blaine, aged 6½, and son George, 5, and ”they are very enchanting to me”.

Solomon came to believe that ”coming from a different set-up is not automatically a disadvantage, it is something in which they may find meaning which may serve an important function in their lives”.

A book that dives fearlessly into lives of daily hardship, discrimination and cruelty – Solomon admits he would once have turned away rather than face someone deformed or disabled – might have struggled to find readers.

”Many people are afraid of difference, even as it exists within their own family”, he says.

But Far From the Tree is a bestseller that has won an adoring audience and more than a dozen awards in the US, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Non-Fiction.

Solomon thinks the rapturous reception is partly because ”all parenting involves a reckoning with difference”.

”I don’t know anybody who has had a child and not occasionally said ‘what planet did you come from?’,” he says.

The book succeeds in unravelling a mystery: how is it that parents apparently burdened with children of difference or perceived deficiency find such meaning in the experience that they end up being grateful for lives they would have done anything to avoid.

The internet plays its part. Where once deafness, mental illness or disability might condemn the person and their family to lives of isolation, it ”catapults you into a social context”, says Solomon, connecting you instantly to your community and its resources.

There may be a ”public crisis in empathy” but love and compassion is at home in families.

”My journeys towards a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon – that every increase in love strengthens all the love in the world,” Solomon says. ”So the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families.”

The stories in Far From the Tree ”point a way for all of us to expand our definition of the human family”.

The transformation of the idea of family in our contemporary social context is the subject of his next book.

Andrew Solomon gives the opening address at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Tuesday, May 20.