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An Atlas of Tolerance

by Orli Van Mourik

In 1968, in a tone of unassailable authority, an ethicist by the name of Joseph Fletcher wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly stating that parents should feel no guilt “about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s ‘put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanatorium or in a more responsible lethal sense.” He goes on, “It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But … [t]rue guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s syndrome is not a person.” Today the idea of a leading moral authority sanctioning the murder of babies with Down syndrome seems monstrous, evidence of a malignant strain of prejudice that has more in common with Hitler’s Germany than modern-day America. So instinctive is the modern reader’s rejection of Fletcher’s words that it’s tempting to dismiss him as evil. But the vexing truth is that our moral compasses have a tendency to spin with the times. What now seems unassailably true — that a child with Down syndrome deserves the same basic protections as any other human child — is a concept that took decades to take root in this country. Forty years ago, chances are some of us would have been swayed by Fletcher’s argument, not because we were morally corrupt, but because children with Down syndrome still inhabited a gray area of personhood that made it alarmingly easy to rob them of their humanity.

Andrew Solomon’s opus, Far From the Tree, is an exploration of the lives of children with Down syndrome and a range of other conditions that have, at one time or another, placed them somewhere in this murky moral gray area—those deemed so “other” by the larger society that their very personhood is fungible and subject to change. Covering a dizzying range of subjects, from Down syndrome and dwarfism to autism and schizophrenia to criminals and the transgendered, Far From the Tree offers us a tour of the margins of human existence. Throughout the book, Solomon asks us to examine our own ideas about what constitutes personhood and to look at the moral ambivalence that often surrounds those who fall outside the norm.

(To read the rest of the review, please visit the Brooklyn Rail website.)