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Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

by Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is a book of extraordinary ambition. Author Andrew Solomon sets out to understand how parents raise children who are radically different from them, children whose “vertical” identity, traits passed from parent to child, is overshadowed by extraordinary “horizontal” traits, 10 of which he explores in great detail: deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, genius, children of rape, crime and transgenderism. What can possibly be said about all of these conditions together? 

Readers of Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a National Book Award winner, will recognize the author’s uncanny ability to bring insight to larger questions of illness and society while still being respectful of individual difference. Part journalist, part psychology researcher, part sympathetic listener, Solomon’s true talent is a geographic one: He maps the strange terrain of the human struggle that is parenting. Far From the Tree is the product of a decade of research and interviews with 300 families. For each horizontal identity under discussion, Solomon moves easily from often-harrowing individual stories, told largely in the subjects’ own words, to broader observations informed by his theoretical research, and arrives at a surprising level of synthesis.

Parental strength and defiance forms much of the connective tissue. One doctor told a parent of a Down syndrome child who needed ear tubes: “‘Well, she’s not going to be perfect.’ I felt, how dare he say that? He’s never going to be perfect, either.”

Mothers of children with psychiatric disorders dispel the maddeningly persistent myth that their own shortcomings have caused their child’s illness. At the first meeting of the parent-led National Society for Autistic Children in 1965, mothers “are said to have worn name tags in the shape of little refrigerators.”

More than once, one parent marvels at another’s capacity, like the mother of a child with dwarfism in an elevator with someone who had “clearly, a very profound case of Down syndrome. I was looking at her with total pity, like, ‘Oh, I can deal with mine, but I would not know what to do with yours.’ And that was exactly how she was looking at me.”

Other commonalities are less optimistic. Every family must decide where they come down on what Solomon calls “the permanent question of cure versus acceptance.” Often the treatments for these conditions are highly controversial – cochlear implants for the deaf, limb-lengthening procedures for dwarfs, treatments to prevent puberty for the severely disabled. There is almost always an advocacy movement calling into question whether said cure is a godsend or the next-breath to eugenics: from the established Deaf movement and Little People of America to the more radical neurodiversity movement for autism, and “Mad Pride” for schizophrenics. There is always the tension between defining the horizontal identity as a disability, in order to receive necessary insurance coverage and basic accommodations; and defining it as an identity, in order to function in the world with dignity.

Solomon’s most surprising comparisons are often the most instructive. Deep in the deafness-culture war between Sign-based and speech-based language, he travels to a village in Bali where a particular gene subjects a large percentage of the inhabitants to deafness, so virtually everyone has learned a particular dialect of sign language: “In this community, people talked about deafness and hearing much as people in more familiar societies might talk about height or race – as personal characteristics with advantages and disadvantages. … I found that where deafness does not impair communication, it is not much of a handicap.”

To talk about the highly sensitive, highly isolated topic of children of rape, Solomon visits Rwanda, where rape was so widespread during the genocide that there is now a whole generation of children brought into the world having to reckon with the pain of this conflicted relationship. “Some women who had conceived children in rape gained enough strength from this group identity to compensate for their loss of traditional social position.”

Solomon is not shy about singling out some conditions as worse than others. “The remarkable parents I met during this research would be better off, as would their children, if schizophrenia didn’t exist. To me, their suffering seemed unending, and singularly fruitless.” But by and large he comes down on the side of working with horizontal identities rather than against them. His is a large, inclusive world, including not only those with severe disabilities but those with severe abilities: “Prodigies are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act; there is no federal mandate for gifted education. But if we recognize the importance of special programs for students whose atypical brains encode less accepted differences, we should extrapolate to create programs for those whose atypical brains encode remarkable abilities.”

Far From the Tree does occasionally get mired in sentimentality. But that doesn’t bother Solomon. As he writes in the affecting final chapter, “I am unabashed by this book’s occasional whiff of rapture and reject the idea that beauty is the enemy of truth.” Indeed, from a writer known primarily as a historian of sadness, this sweeping tribute to the joys of parental love can be startling and ecstatic.

“Incorporating exceptional people into the social fabric is expensive and time-consuming,” Solomon writes. “The emotional and logistical calisthenics can be draining. Yet if parents often end up grateful for their problematical children, then so, in the end, can we all be grateful for the courage such people may embody, the generosity they may teach us, even the ways they complicate the world.”