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Solomon’s Ladder: On Parenthood, Difference, and Identity

by Rachel Adams

Contemporary readers of Erving Goffman’s influential 1963 study Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity are often surprised at the indiscriminate way it lumps together such unlikely categories as disability, crime, pedophilia, homosexuality, mental illness, incontinence, drug addiction, prostitution, and divorce. Goffman overlooks the particularities of any one group in an effort to define a shared experience of stigma that shapes a person’s understanding of their own identity, and how they are perceived by others. Goffman’s willful disregard for difference can be explained as the product of another era, a time before identities came to be parsed along increasingly precise lines. All the more surprising, then, to find an equally audacious bundling of differences in Andrew Solomon’s sprawling new book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Resisting our current tendency to divide and balkanize identity, Solomon is driven by a Goffman-like impulse to find common ground. His book is massive in every way, from its hefty 962 pages, to the weighty sadness of its stories, and, ultimately, to its ambition and generosity.

“There is no such thing as reproduction” is the arresting statement that begins Solomon’s book — one that flies in the face of any parental desire to see oneself neatly replicated in one’s own progeny. Yet with or without Solomon’s assertion, most parents come to realize that their children have personalities and motivations all their own that confound a parent’s most careful planning. “Parenthood,” Solomon writes, “abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity.” His concern is with the outliers, those children who, by virtue of genetics, nurture, or some unpredictable combination of the two, are radically different from the parents who produced them. Who are these children? The answer to that question leads Solomon to a menu at least as eclectic as Goffman’s.

(To read the rest of the review, please visit the Los Angeles Review of Books website.)