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Practice Makes Perfect

by Siobhan Garrigan

Each time I saw the titles of the 12 chapters on the Contents page – “Son”, “Deaf”, “Dwarfs”, “Down’s Syndrome”, “Autism”, “Schizophre-nia”, “Disability”, “Prodigies”, “Rape”, “Crime”, “Transgender”, and “Father” – I was reminded of Sesame Street’s learning song: “Which one of these things is not like the others?” Aren’t the first and last titles relationships whereas the others mostly indicate conditions or crimes?

On reading the opening chapter, “Son”, my heart sank: is this going to be just a clever but whiny memoir from an affluent white New Yorker who, in middle age, is still angry with his parents? And is Andrew Solomon really going to anchor stories of children with so many difficult conditions in that of a bright schoolboy whose Mom threw her considerable wit into fixing his dyslexia but couldn’t fix his being gay, and who then, despite the pain of queer rejection, got to live into his true identity while cushioned by the world’s elite at Yale and beyond? Well, no. Solomon’s book is about a great deal more than that; but he does insist on seeing a significant connection between the challenging conditions that are his book’s focus and his own upbringing: “Being blind and being gay are different,” he acknowledges, “but having a self-hood that others perceive as undesirable is identical.”

What this opening autobiographical chapter accomplishes, therefore, is to introduce the difficulties that attend to undesirability across boundaries of gender, race and class in the modern West. These difficulties raise questions that grow increasingly complex through the biographies of 300 parents interviewed by Solomon over 10 years: what happens when you cannot “fix” your child? What if they cannot communicate with you? What if they change, irrevocably, through mental illness? What if they are not what you thought they were or wanted them to be? What if they commit a heinous crime? What if they are born of rape, and remind you of it? How do you love them?

(To read the full review, please visit The Tablet website.)