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Anatomy of Difference

by Miriam Cosic

The relationship between parents and children is idealised and sentimentalised in popular culture, or at least it used to be before Hollywood zeroed in on the teenage market and started to present children and childlike adults behaving badly. Many of us were raised on the treacly offerings of American television series such as Leave it to Beaver and The Partridge Family, in which fathers were strong, mothers were kind, and their offspring might be charming or goofy or even rascally, but were always healthy and, ultimately, good.

As usual, the ancient Greeks had a clearer fix on things. Their myths and plays were full of horrific parent-child relationships, from Zeus violently deposing Chronos, to Agamemnon slaying his only daughter, to Medea baking her boys into a pie to get back at their father, to the shocking fates of Oedipus and his immediate relatives. This was before Christian imagery engraved into our hearts the devoted Madonna and child, and the tough but loving Father of His Son and of the rest of us. In the twentieth century, the Greeks’ cast of characters was resurrected by Freud and his followers as metaphors in a new post-Christian orthodoxy. The Freudians offered an explanation of the dark heart of family life, a life which formed, reformed and deformed each generation in succession, cultivating the unhappiness of neurosis deep within us all.

European fairy tales, too, with their roots in primeval beliefs, recognised the inconvenience of family relationships, and their contemporary avatars, such as the medievalist stories of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, continue the tradition. These educational narratives often involve orphans, so that the complications and restrictions of parenting need not be taken into account, or they involve hostile step-parents, so that bad parenting could very precisely and unsparingly be taken into account. Happy families in these scenarios are not only presumed to be all alike, they are unnecessary to explore – that is, if they exist at all. Unhappy families, by contrast, provide the raw material for our ongoing examination of life.

In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon amplifies this starting point. He forensically examines families in which children turn out to be not what their parents had fondly expected. The title is a twist on the proverb, “The apple never falls far from the tree”. His question is: But what happens when they do?

(To read the full review, please visit the Sydney Review of Books website.)