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Far from the Tree: An Extraordinary Work about Unordinary People

by Tina Calabro

To be honest, the prospect of reading Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s 900-page book about parents and nontypical children, was intimidating — even for someone like me who lives and breathes disability issues as a writer, parent and activist. But from the opening pages, I was completely on board, drawn in by the author’s insights into human difference and his masterful writing, which manages to be plain-spoken, exquisite and scholarly (200 pages are reference material) at the same time.

Integral to the book’s appeal is Mr. Solomon’s personal history, for he posits that any type of human difference — including being gay — creates a similar challenge for parents. Most gay children are born to straight parents. Most children with disabilities are born to nondisabled parents. The specifics may vary, but the certainty of a complex and protracted learning curve does not. Parents may feel isolated as they deal with a child’s difference, but in their struggles, says Mr. Solomon, they are connected.

The book’s title refers to the old adage that children, like apples, do not fall far from the tree. In fact, children commonly fall far from the tree. “These are children who have fallen elsewhere — some a couple of orchards away, some on the other side of the world,” writes Mr. Solomon.

To illustrate the dynamic of parenting a child with a significant difference, Mr. Solomon applies a new metaphor. Children who more or less share inherited tendencies with their parents have a vertical relationship to them. Children whose characteristics are alien to the parents have a horizontal relationship.

By virtue of its overarching thesis and journalistic rigor, Far from the Tree stands apart from the countless memoirs and manuals about special needs parenting published in the last couple of decades. But although the book views its topic with the widest possible lens, specific parent narratives form the heart of the book.

Bringing it all together was 10 years in the making. Mr. Solomon interviewed 250 families, generating 40,000 pages of transcripts. He processed the interviews into 10 profiles of parenting. Six chapters focus on conditions that are considered illnesses, such as Down syndrome and autism; the other four explore culturally defined differences (children who are prodigies, who commit crimes, who are transgendered, who are born of rape). Each chapter serves up a blend of parent experience, historical and social context, ethical issues and other considerations.

Mr. Solomon is a distinguished writer and lecturer specializing in politics, culture and psychology. He became interested in disability perspectives when a seemingly straightforward assignment in 1993 to write about deaf culture for The New York Times Magazine brought him face-to-face with the concepts of illness and identity, a dichotomy which is particularly well articulated within the deaf community and is foundational to both the disability rights and gay rights movement. Convinced that special-needs parenting encompasses far more than disabilities, he set out to write a book about “the spectrum of difference … to show that raising a child of extraordinary abilities is in some ways like raising a child of reduced capacities.”

He also wanted to examine how parents’ acceptance of children who have differences relates to the child’s self-acceptance, and how society’s acceptance affects both. Mr. Solomon sought out not only representative examples, but ones that are difficult to take in, such as the parents of Dylan Klebold, who with his best friend killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999.

Mr. Solomon’s introduction, titled “Son,” sets down the thesis of horizontal parenting through his experience as a gay son of straight parents. The book’s coda, called “Father,” describes his ambivalence but eventual decision to become a parent and thus vulnerable to the challenges he describes.

Mr. Solomon’s 2001 book, The Noonday Demon, a study of depression based on his own experience, treatment and research, won the National Book Award for nonfiction. In its depth, originality and thoroughness, Far from the Tree follows that path of quality. It is an important addition to scholarship in disability studies, psychology and related fields. For the general reader or those who may be interested in certain sections more than others, the book delivers the struggle, compassion, adaptation and transcendence found in families and sets the stage for discussion in many arenas.

The publication of Far from the Tree comes at a time of increased acceptance of human diversity, but insufficient understanding of how to reconcile it. A time when personal stories are freely told but not easily put into useful context. By engaging in an exhaustive study of human difference, Mr. Solomon himself provides something different. In an age that often demands brevity, it’s an unusual gift.