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Total Stranger, Unconditional Love

by Dwight Garner

There’s an old saying, one I’ve found largely to be true, that goes like this: You are only as happy as your least happy child.

This observation isn’t mentioned by Andrew Solomon in his knotty, gargantuan and lionhearted new book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. But Mr. Solomon interrogates its premise. He shakes it until your ideas about what happiness and normality are have been bent, scattered and radically realigned.

Mr. Solomon’s book is about diversity of a harrowing sort. He introduces us to families who are coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia and, in some cases, multiple extreme disabilities. He writes about rape victims who have kept their children, about the parents of criminals and about transgender children. He speaks to a luminous conundrum: how is it that many families “have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid”?

The sprawling contents of Far From the Tree are difficult to summarize; indeed, Mr. Solomon has required nearly 1,000 pages, back matter included, to deliver his points. He has interviewed more than 300 families. He has shoehorned what might have been 10 or 12 books into one. His winding volume sometimes tried my patience, but my respect for it rarely wavered.

Mr. Solomon is best known as the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which won a National Book Award in 2001. He refers to his identity, in terms of that book, as “a historian of sadness.” He is also a gay man, as well as a wealthy and well-connected one. His father is the chief executive of the pharmaceutical company Forest Laboratories. Uma Thurman attended his wedding.

These biographical details matter for a couple of reasons. Mr. Solomon’s experience as a gay child (and a dyslexic one) informs and propels Far From the Tree. His experience in elite society has influenced the kinds of families he has chosen to profile. While some of this book’s parental subjects are lower-middle-class (one family lives in a trailer park), and he traveled to Rwanda to interview rape victims, many more are successful art agents or fragrance designers or novelists or opera directors or music executives or former ballerinas or physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book is a Who’s Who of tragedy and transformation.

This can make for fascinating reading. The well born are different from you and me, at least in terms of the resources they can muster. So are the bohemian and the brilliant. I was troubled on occasion by a subtextual but darkening implication that these high-arcing lives are more worthy of parsing.

Mr. Solomon’s first chapter, entitled “Son,” is as masterly a piece of writing as I’ve come across all year. It combines his own story with a taut and elegant précis of this book’s arguments. It is required reading.

“Our children are not us,” Mr. Solomon declares on his first page. “They carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control.” Deciding to have a baby, he says, “abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.”And that’s the good news.

Sometimes these strangers are vastly more unusual and difficult than anyone could have anticipated. Adding to the burden of caring for them is social disgust and castigation, which can be devastating and profoundly isolating. Mr. Solomon doesn’t romanticize these situations, yet he argues that intense meaning can derive from them.

“Life is enriched by difficulty,” he says. “Love is made more acute when it requires exertion.”

Far From the Tree is partly an argument for the merit to be found in extreme diversity. Discussing athletes with disabilities, for example, Mr. Solomon says, in lines that echo across this book: “Some kinds of grace would not have entered the world if everyone’s hips and legs worked the same way. Deformity has been brought into beauty’s fold, a catalyst for justice rather than an affront to it.”

Mr. Solomon fears, as do some of his subjects, that some of this wild diversity may be on the verge of vanishing from our planet. Cochlear implants are reducing the number of deaf people, a complicated issue for those among them who prize sign language as an expressive form.

Many fetuses found to have Down syndrome are aborted. If we learn to test for autism or homosexuality, among other things, will those children be aborted as well? Will there be no more Temple Grandins in our world?

Mr. Solomon quotes one expert who asks, “If you removed the capacity for someone to become autistic, would that also remove the things that make us interesting as human beings?” The author quotes Leon Botstein, who makes a similar point this way, “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”

Mr. Solomon is obsessed by that blurry line where illness and identity bleed into each other. “We live in xenophobic times,” he writes. He detects a “crisis in empathy.” His book is a sober yet optimistic portrait of what he calls “love across the divide.”

The bulk of Far From the Tree comprises profiles of families in extremis. Many of these will leave you weeping at the resilience so many display in the face of adversity. “I almost drowned him in the tears I shed over him,” one mother says about a son with Down syndrome. That’s a typical sentence here. This is a book that shoots arrow after arrow into your heart.

Yet there’s nothing maudlin. Mr. Solomon’s prose is dry and epigrammatic. On almost every page there is an observation as thwacking as this one: “To propose that anorexics are merely exploring an identity is as morally lax as accepting the belief of gang members that they are merely pursuing an identity that happens to entail killing people.”

You might think the idea of putting your dwarf child through painful, limb-lengthening surgery is an unnecessary form of torture. And it might be thus. But Mr. Solomon quotes one father about his dwarf daughter’s short arms: “What is the most important thing you can think of other than being able to wipe yourself?”

Mr. Solomon explains that, during his interviews for this book, many subjects were put off to learn about the company they would be made to keep between its covers. He writes, “Deaf people didn’t want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs; criminals couldn’t abide the idea that they had anything in common with transgender people.”

It’s among this book’s signal and largely original insights that it is possible to scan for deep commonalities among these groups. Parents whose children fall into one of these categories will doubtless learn an enormous amount from the parents they meet in other chapters.

Far From the Tree ends with a personal revelation from Mr. Solomon that I won’t give away, but it’s one that brings this important and absorbing book full circle. Referring to so many of the unexpectedly happy stories here, as well as to his own, the author declares, “The road less traveled by, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place.” That place is human contentment.