by Mark Athitakis
When a child is born markedly different from its parents — with Down syndrome, for instance, or transgender — some complicated social machinery is set in motion. It’s clumsy, and it often breaks down.
Doctors diagnose, sometimes incorrectly. Institutions seek to provide support, but not always the support that’s needed. Advocacy groups may rally the public, but those same groups may feud bitterly in public, too.
Parents are often left to themselves to grope for meaning, and Andrew Solomon’s bracing study of such families has dozens of examples of how much they struggle. “Parents are broken,” he writes, “and full of error.”
The chapter titles of Far from the Tree are daunting: “Autism,” “Schizophrenia” and “Rape,” which covers families with children born from this crime. Solomon selects eight other categories for offspring whose identities are radically distinct from their parents’.
No amount of praise for the book — and it deserves much — can soften how challenging the material is. Interviewing more than 300 families, Solomon gathers up sheaves of tragedy. Ostracism abounds for parent and child alike, and helplessness is common. I doubt a more heartbreaking page has been published in a book in 2012 than one here listing the ways despairing parents have murdered their autistic sons and daughters.
So why read it?
At its core, Far from the Tree is about resilience, shorn of the simplistic condescension of TV news segments about “overcoming adversity.” In a relatively upbeat chapter on musical prodigies, Solomon interviews star pianist Lang Lang, who suffered years of abuse from a father who pushed him to practice so hard that the boy required daily IV hookups. Yet Lang has the resolve to say “it was in the end a wonderful way to grow up.”
In the chapter on crime, Solomon closes by visiting the parents of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold. (Indeed, he bunked in his room.) Klebold’s mother, Sue, has come to a remarkable conclusion, which in Solomon’s telling feels like hard-fought wisdom, not easy rationalization: “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.”
Readers of Solomon’s 2001 book on depression, The Noonday Demon, know that he is a fine storyteller, capable of smoothly explaining complicated medical issues and producing three-dimensional portraits of people who hardly know themselves. And he has the oceans of compassion that reporting this book demands.
Interviewing a lie-prone juvenile offender in Minneapolis along with his parents, he writes, “Each expected me to hate the other, but in spite of myself, I liked them all.” As he explains, parenthood and identity are charged issues for him, a gay man raising four children.
Solomon is an enthusiast for the anecdote, the case study, the revealing tale about a particular family. Reading Far from the Tree can feel like taking in a decade’s worth of New Yorker feature stories. The benefit of all this storytelling is that it reveals the panorama of familial concerns and focuses the difficult ethics at play.
A debate roils over whether deafness should qualify as a disability, because many deaf people navigate the world fine without outside assistance. The United States forbids the use of foreign assistance funds for abortion, and some critics argue that this policy helps perpetuate the genocidal nightmare of forced pregnancy in war zones.
“Genocide” is a word that emerges often here, in tandem with efforts to identify and cancel pregnancies of a certain kind. If you know early on that your child will be autistic, or have dwarfism, what would you call your response?
Solomon can only open up these questions, not settle them. Even so, the anecdotal, difference-by-difference structure of this book has its limits. Until quite recently, the treatment protocols for schizophrenia and transgenderism were essentially guesswork and folklore.
On Solomon’s evidence, first responders to profoundly different children are racked with confusion, but the source of that confusion isn’t addressed head-on. It would make for another difficult but illuminating book.
Still, the arc toward justice can be glimpsed. “Fewer and fewer people are mortified by who they truly are,” Solomon writes, and despite the pain it chronicles, Far from the Tree feels affirming. The father of a schizophrenic child whose brain was donated for study speaks at his son’s memorial service: “He finally got into Harvard, and he’s teaching the neuroscientists.”