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Andrew Solomon: ‘Figuring out how to love someone who seems unlovable is very familiar to me’

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner 2012)

by Hadley Freeman

It was around the eighth year of working on his book about childhood and parental love, still wading through the 40,000 pages of interviews he’d conducted with over 300 parents and children, some of which were so painful he could hardly bear to read them, that Andrew Solomon began to worry that his book was simply unwriteable. And in those moments, he felt something close to despair.

What kept him going were the two things that underpin Far From the Tree: first, his deep connection with the families who shared the most intimate and painful moments of their lives with him. Second, his belief in the message of his book, which is that differences unite people in the way that sameness is assumed to.

“I felt as though one seldom has anything to say and I thought I had something to say about this. If I gave it up what was I going to do?” And so, he continued to work at it for another three years.

The result of this decade-and-then-some of emotionally exhausting work has already won Solomon the National Book award in the US and, this week, the Wellcome Book Prize in London (I was one of the judges). Far From the Tree details in 12 sections what it is like to be a parent of an exceptional child, whether they are deaf, schizophrenic or transgender. If this sounds depressing, Solomon would sympathise with that assumption as he, too, expected when he set out with his research to find “unconditional tragedies”. But one of the most surprising things about the book – and there are so many surprising things; every other sentence seems to contain a subtle revelation – is how joyful it is, and no one was more surprised than Solomon himself, “by the joy I found [in the families], and that’s because the families were surprised by the joy. It’s not that it’s fun having Down’s syndrome, but you can figure out ways of constructing joy out of that, and that takes work and discipline. So I was surprised by the joy and also admiring of it,” he says.

(To read the complete interview, please visit The Guardian.)