Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
By Andrew Solomon
Far From the Tree is a book of extraordinary ambition. Andrew Solomon sets out to understand how parents raise children who are radically different from them, children whose “vertical” identity, traits passed from parent to child, is overshadowed by extraordinary “horizontal” traits, 10 of which he explores in great detail: deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, genius, children of rape, crime and transgenderism. What can possibly be said about all of these conditions together?
Readers of Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a National Book Award winner, will recognize the author’s uncanny ability to bring insight to larger questions of illness and society while still being respectful of individual difference. Part journalist, part psychology researcher, part sympathetic listener, Solomon’s true talent is mapping the strange terrain of the human struggle that is parenting. Far From the Tree is the product of a decade of research and interviews with 300 families. For each horizontal identity under discussion, Solomon moves easily from often-harrowing individual stories to broader observations informed by his theoretical research, and arrives at a surprising level of synthesis.
Parental strength and defiance form much of the connective tissue. Mothers of children with psychiatric disorders dispel the maddeningly persistent myth that their own shortcomings have caused their child’s illness.
More than once, one parent marvels at another’s capacity, like the mother of a child with dwarfism in an elevator with someone who had “clearly, a very profound case of Down syndrome. I was looking at her with total pity, like, ‘Oh, I can deal with mine, but I would not know what to do with yours.’ And that was exactly how she was looking at me.”
Other commonalities are less optimistic. Every family must decide where they come down on what Solomon calls “the permanent question of cure versus acceptance.” Often the treatments are highly controversial — cochlear implants for the deaf, limb-lengthening procedures for dwarfs, treatments to prevent puberty for the severely disabled. There is almost always an advocacy movement questioning whether the cure is a godsend or close to eugenics.
Solomon’s most surprising comparisons are often the most instructive. Deep in the deafness-culture war between Sign-based and speech-based language, he travels to a village in Bali where a particular gene subjects a large percentage of the inhabitants to deafness, so virtually everyone has learned a particular dialect of sign language: “In this community, people talked about deafness and hearing much as people in more familiar societies might talk about height or race — as personal characteristics with advantages and disadvantages. … I found that where deafness does not impair communication, it is not much of a handicap.”
To talk about the highly sensitive topic of children of rape, Solomon visits Rwanda, where rape was so widespread during the genocide that there is now a whole generation of children having to reckon with the pain of this conflicted relationship.
By and large Solomon comes down on the side of working with horizontal identities rather than against them. His is a large, inclusive world, including not only those with severe disabilities but those with severe abilities: “Prodigies are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act; there is no federal mandate for gifted education. But if we recognize the importance of special programs for students whose atypical brains encode less accepted differences, we should extrapolate to create programs for those whose atypical brains encode remarkable abilities.”
Far From the Tree does occasionally get mired in sentimentality. He writes in the affecting final chapter, “I am unabashed by this book’s occasional whiff of rapture and reject the idea that beauty is the enemy of truth.” From a writer known primarily as a historian of sadness, this sweeping tribute to the joys of parental love can be startling and ecstatic.