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Do Not Miss “Far from the Tree’”

by Kristen Kemp

I can only describe Andrew Solomon ‘s new 700-page book as deeply profound–at once enlightening and disturbing. I’m halfway through it, and I cannot put it down (even though it’s quite heavy). Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity tackles the feelings we don’t want to admit we have about kids who are outside society’s norms: the gay , deaf , dwarf, Down Syndrome , autistic , schizophrenic, severely disabled, prodigy, born of rape, criminal and transgender.

Through real parents’ stories, Solomon explores the idea that most people would do anything to avoid abnormalities in our children, but once the issues have appeared, we often wouldn’t wish the situations had been different. Except sometimes we would. Solomon interviews thousands of parents and children to truly shed light on what it’s like to be different.

So far, my three children have not encountered hardships of any importance. But that’s precisely why this book digs deeply into how I feel about myself as a parent. What would I have done if I’d known about a defect in utero? How would I mother a child with special needs? How do I parent the kids I do have? Are my actions based on what’s good for the child—and for society as a whole—or are they based on how I want to be perceived myself?

You have to read Andrew Solomon’s brilliant tome—or as much of it as you can. Pick the chapters that pertain to or interest you. Or just read Solomon’s first and last chapters detailing his own experience of being dyslexic, gay and depressed—and then how he decides to become a father. His beautifully written and compassionate words will make you think differently about yourself and others. This is one of those rare books that makes readers want to be better people.

Andrew Solomon, an award-winning writer and seasoned journalist, was kind enough to answer my questions about Far from the Tree. Forget all of the stuff I just wrote above and read his take on his seminal work that took him 10 years to write:

KK: This book is about extraordinary children and how their mostly ordinary parents dealt with them. What message does the book send to the average parent and child?

AS: All parents look at their children with some measure of bewilderment at some point; I have yet to meet a parent who has not occasionally asked her child, “Where did you come from?” My book is about families dealing with extreme forms of difference, but much as we test flame-retardant fabrics in an inferno to make sure they’ll hold up when a child leans over the stove, so looking at how parents negotiate these more extreme situations may help all parents to deal with the qualities in their children that they find alien and alienating. All parenting involves negotiating all the book’s fundamental questions. How does one decide in what measure to change one’s child, and how much does one strive to accept him or her? How does one steer between intrusiveness and neglect? Difference is what unites us; most families are negotiating difference in one form or another. The individual differences feel isolating, but if one makes common cause with people confronting all kinds of difference, then one progresses from being in a lonely minority to being in an embracing majority. And that is a message that should be reassuring and meaningful to all parents, to everyone who has sometimes wondered where her child came from.

KK: This book is quite long, but I want to implore parents to read it entirely. Why was it important to give each section so much depth? Why should parents stick with it?

AS: The book was actually more than twice this length in its first draft! Each chapter poses a separate question, and I think the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I wanted to identify what all these situations have in common, but I also wanted to explore the very specific experiences to be found in each. I wanted to show how parents can rise to the occasion of difficult love, over and over again, to show how deep the love of parents can be and how elastic their attachments are. That’s the book’s larger message, and in order to convey it, I had to look at how parents had coped with very diffuse kinds of challenges. So, for example, the chapter on the deaf examines what it means to have a child whose syndrome may be surgically corrected, a child who might have membership in a rich culture that is foreign to his parents. The chapter on dwarfs looks at how hard it is for both parent and child to negotiate ridicule. The chapter on autism looks at the often-tragic consequences of dehumanizing people who are affected by such a syndrome. Looking at prodigies, I explore how it is difference itself, and not the question of “positive” difference or “negative” difference that is at issue; a genius can be just as hard to care for as someone with severe disabilities. The chapter on rape posits that the difficulty of loving a child who is outside the norm may inhere not only in his DNA, but also in where he comes from; the chapter on crime examines the way what your child does can damage your feeling of integrity as a parent, and looks at the unproductive culture of blame. The chapter on people who are trans is about the power of irrational hatred, and about how one can transcend even the most acute discomfort. The whole thing is framed by my experience as the gay child of straight parents, at the start, and my decision to become a parent at the end. I suppose if I were asked to offer the most convincing argument for reading the whole book, it would be that researching the whole book is what gave me the courage to become a parent myself. These stories of difficulty might have frightened someone off, but for me, they are stories of how various experience conforms to a single transcendent reality—which is to say that I thought that if all these parents could love all these children, I could love whatever child I was given. And I don’t think you can learn that from reading a single chapter; I think it’s a larger message. That said, I understand that some people will read only the chapter that applies to themselves, and I think there’s plenty there for each of them.

KK: If there is one section every parent should definitely read, which would you recommend?

AS: I think the first chapter, Son, is the most dense, and has the least anecdote in it, but it lays out the book’s larger arguments, so my rather boring advice would be to start with the beginning. If you’re going to skip around, choose any one of the ten chapters that follow, and then read the last chapter, Father, because the journey from the first chapter to the last is not only my personal maturation, but also a narrative of how to transcend prejudice in general, and how to construct meaning out of pain (without denying the existence of the pain itself)—and that’s what I’d like people to take from the book.

KK: Can you sum up what you personally learned from researching and writing this book in just a few sentences? (Is that possible?)

AS: Many people wondered to me why the parents I met said that they loved having the children they had—that they would have loved to make their children’s lives easier, but that they didn’t regret having produced these children, and at first that puzzled me. Then I realized that all of us have flawed children whom we love, and while we might want to fix the flaws, we wouldn’t want to exchange them for other, better, unflawed children. And that the ability to love one’s children with their flaws is the center of what it means to be a good parent—and to be a joyful parent, too.