Book review Tuesday: Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

[Programming note: my in-laws are in town, so Al and I will be busy having fun with them for the next little while. Blogging may be intermittent. Try to hold on without me.]

Far from the Tree is a book that I had heard a lot about before I read it, and then once I read it, I understood at once why people had been talking so much about it. In fact, I couldn’t stop telling people about it. I kept bringing it up and sprinkling bits of information I had learned from it into conversation. It’s one of those books that sticks with you.

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Far from the Tree is Andrew Solomon’s beautifully written, in-depth exploration of the lives of parents who have children that are in some way exceptional, defined broadly. He is particularly interested in the experiences of parents of children who have different “horizontal identities” from their parents or families. A horizontal identity is one that is not inherited from one’s parents; for example, a gay child of straight parents has a different horizontal identity (gay) from his parents, just as a deaf child of hearing parents would have a different horizontal identity from her parents. Solomon is interested in this particular question because he is gay and for most of his life, he carried a great deal of residual anger about the way he was raised by his parents, who were baffled by his homosexuality and tried, with the best of intentions, to make it go away. He wanted to forgive his parents by seeking to understand what it was like for them to raise a child who was so fundamentally different from themselves, and so he interviewed more than three hundred families who presented all manner of challenging parenting experiences.

The book is divided into the following categories: Son (a look at Solomon’s own upbringing and the alienation he felt at being gay), Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape (that is, children conceived in rape), Crime (children who commit crimes), Transgender, and Father (a reflection on Solomon’s decision to become a father, in light of what he learned in his research for this book). All of these chapters contain fascinating stories. Many of them are heart-wrenching. Some of them are uplifting. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of the book was how many these parents said that the experience of raising their child had in some way enriched their lives or made them better people, even when, from the outside, the situation seemed dire or horrible or unworkable.

Solomon is empathetic and inquisitive. He shows tremendous compassion for the families he interviews, but he does not always agree with them. He delves deeply into the social, political, and ethical issues that come along with raising children with various horizontal identities. He examines the political movements behind Deaf culture, autism, and transgenderism. He considers the latest science behind various genetic conditions. He compares and contrasts the experiences of real people who have raised children despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. It doesn’t do to try to summarize the stories or the conclusions of the book. For that, I recommend playing around on the book’s excellent, engaging website, which contains interviews with some of the families and with Solomon himself.  You can also check this NPR interview.

The most powerful lesson in this book for me was that the experiences of raising children who are radically different from oneself is actually just an extreme version of all parenting. My own parents, over the years, have struggled to accept the ways that I am different from them. Even though I am not disabled or a prodigy or a criminal, my parents have nonetheless found it difficult to relate to me at times, and this, it turns out, is a universal experience of parents. I found the book’s discussion of these tensions illuminating and comforting. I typed out the following snippet from the book and sent it to my parents, because it perfectly encapsulates this idea of how parents’ identities become tied to and entangled with their children, and how this can cause hurt and confusion for both:

Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right to the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis. The psychonanalyst D. W. Winnicott once said, ‘There is no such thing as a baby – meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find yourself describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship.’ Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors.  From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life’s most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values.  Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

These feelings of sadness over differences, though, are often counterbalanced by the feeling that one’s children are the children one is meant to have, writes Solomon toward the end of the book:

Most of us believe that our children are the children we had to have; we could have had no others.  They will never seem to us to be happenstance; we love them because they are our destiny. Even when they are flawed, do wrong, hurt us, die — even then, they are part of the rightness by which we measure our own lives.  Indeed, they are the rightness by which we measure life itself, and they bring us to life as profoundly as we do them.

In short, I recommend this book for both parents and children (so, everyone) because it will make you think deeply both about your own life and the lives of others.

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