I picked up Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (2012) at the end of last summer. I read about 100 pages into this 702 page tome (that’s not including almost 300 pages of notes at the end), before my semester started and I had to read Foucault instead. So, I sent it back to the library with a wistful farewell. I knew it was a book that I wanted to finish, and I knew it was a book that I would love. Over the holiday break, I got it back from the library and I finished it. It was worth the hours I spent with it, and I am changed and moved by the ideas and experiences in this book.
It is a work of nonfiction in which Solomon explores what he calls “horizontal identities,” or identities that children have that differ from their parents. He devotes a chapter to each one of these identities (although his foci are not exhaustive), which include homosexuality (his personal story), deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability (in its many forms), prodigies, rape, crime, and transgender. Lastly, he returns to his story as a new father, examining how what he learned from writing this book now plays out in his parenting and his identity as a gay father. Each chapter reads like a master’s thesis on the issue, and although Solomon is thorough in his research and his claims, the mesmerizing part of these mini-theses are the people.
You see, Solomon spent years interviewing both children and parents for this book. He wanted to see what made their families work (or not work) and how parents handled a child with a horizontal identity. He did this by spending time with families, visiting gatherings and conventions, reading about people and then meeting them, and so forth. It is these personal stories that make the book so compelling. Not all of the stories are happy or inspiring or successful, but the majority of these parents have learned how to embrace their children and even see life as more rewarding and rich because of the difficulties they have experienced together. In the last chapter, Solomon concludes, “My journey toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon—that every increase in love strengthens all the other love in the world, that much as loving one’s family can be a means of loving God, so the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families . . . just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness. The road less traveled by, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place” (p. 700).
This kindness and love is apparent in many of the stories in the book. One that stood out to me was Dierdre, the mother of a Down syndrome child named Catherine. She says of Catherine’s possible future desire to get face normalizing surgery: “Would I endorse her doing so if that’s what she chose? If it comes up, I will, but I hope that I’ll have raised her with enough personal strength and self-esteem to be happy in who she is” (p. 192). She also says, of her daughter’s sense of style, that “Sometimes, she looks like she has furnished herself from a homeless shelter. She’s good with that. So what am I going to say? I’m supposed to be building self-esteem, not knocking it down” (p. 193). I really appreciated this mother’s style, and I hope to emulate it with my daughters.
Other mothers have become activists, talking about their wish to share their talents to make a difference in their child’s life and the life of others like him or her. They talk about doing this to make the world a better place, not to try to make money or a name for themselves. They also acknowledge that “Sometimes life isn’t about choices” (p. 324). Many of these parents expected “normal” children but have learned to accept the horizontal identities and make life the best that they can. This was especially apparent in the section on transgender children, which I highly recommend that everybody read, especially if you still find this phenomenon disturbing or gross or whatever the prejudice may be. The book’s treatment of these children’s lives is dignified and will give you a more compassionate perspective on what some of us face in a world that is obsessed with “normality.” This book certainly makes the case, in the lives of all of these children, that the only normality is abnormality.
The ability of parents to deal with this is most striking in the section on disability. Solomon wrote, “Shaped more or less like people, they may not learn their name or express attachment or demonstrate basic emotions such as fear or happiness. They may not feed themselves. Yet, inexorably, they are human, and often, they are loved. The passion for such children contains no ego motive of anticipated reciprocity; one is choosing against, in the poet Richard Wilbur’s phrase, ‘loving things for reasons.’ You find beauty or hope in the existence, rather than the achievements, of such a child. Most parenthood entails some struggle to change, educate, and improve one’s children; people with multiple severe disabilities may not become anything else, and there is compelling purity in parental engagement not with what might or should or will be, but with, simply, what is” (p. 357). This certainly puts parenthood into a new perspective. Some of the parents Solomon interviewed really struggled, to the point of thinking about murdering their children, some to save themselves the struggle, and others to save their children the pain (this was especially the case for schizophrenic or severely autistic children), but other parents managed (under loads that I know I could not handle) with grace and virtue and seemingly perfect patience.
The most fascinating chapter to me, as a classically trained pianist, was the section on prodigies because Solomon focused on musicians, rather than chess masters or other types of prodigies. It was interesting to read about how many child prodigies would burn out or overuse their hands or just buckle under the pressure of their parents and public performances and contracts. Sometimes I see people with extraordinary gifts, like this, and wish I could be them and think that it means their lives are easy. If anything, their lives become somewhat more difficult in this regard because of their talent and the enormous pressure that comes with it. How can tiny children be expected to handle such mature abilities well? Suicide definitely played into this horizontal identity, as well as others. And many of the prodigies parents were extremely pushy, demanding, and withheld love. Of this Solomon surmised, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and no power is more absolute than parenthood” (p. 441).
The most disbursing chapter to read, although still fascinating and important, was the chapter on rape. I was struck by the way so many lives could be ruined because of one rape, and how its effects seemed to last for several generations, creating poverty, teenage pregnancy, low self-esteem, immaturity as a parent, and trouble with loving the child conceived in rape. Rape’s effects did not simply last during the moment or for a few months afterwards. The rape of a women affected her entire life, her parents’ lives, and her future children’s lives. And then, in many cases, the children of the rape victim would also be raped or molested and find themselves in the middle of the cycle all over again. It is a terrible evil, historically associated with women as property and perpetuating the victor’s race. A culture of rape does nothing for anybody.
Similarly, the chapter on crime was heartbreaking, with many of the children interviewed explaining that their parents did not care about them at all. It stands to reason that they ended up in juvenile lockup because of problems at home. In many cases, this was true. In others, it wasn’t. Solomon found several kids whose parents were supportive and whose communities involved church-going and strong connections among the generations, yet gangs would often recruit these children. In a narrative twist, when Solomon attending one of the churches with a family he grew to love and feel a deep connection with, he noticed that “The congregation’s generosity braided with militancy and hatred of otherness was oddly reminiscent of the gang ethos. The community saw this mix of harshness and kindness as an extension of a Christ who embodied both infinite love and the terrible verdicts of Judgment Day” (p. 558). Interestingly, this congregation also condemned homosexuals, but when the family later learned of Solomon’s identity as a gay man, they were accepting, loving, and non-judgmental. Missing fathers also played a crucial role in the lives of incarcerated boys, who often obsessed over these men they had never really known.
With the rejection of certain identities, Solomon explained the conflict in war-torn Rwanda with the recent genocide of the Tutsis perpetrated by the Hutus. He concluded from this conflict that “The practice of obliterating identities does not work at this macro level; it does not work well at the micro level, either” (p. 611). His book overall makes a compelling argument for diversity and acceptance of identities rather than trying to make all a of us look, act, and think the same way. One way of accomplishing this, and abolishing hate, is from a transgender woman named Jenny, whom I remember seeing on Oprah several years ago. She said, “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know” (p. 624-625). This echoes the age-old idea of walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes. Sharing our stories humanizes us and connects us.
A perfect example of this, and what I consider to be an appropriate reaction to difference, is the story of Kim, a transgender woman who was once the captain of the football team. Her documentary Prodigal Sons is on Netflix, but I haven’t watched it yet. She returned home and her family called some people to alert them to her change. They wanted the transition to be smooth. One man, from whom they expected condemnation, responded, that she “is always welcome in this home. He will always be safe with us” (p. 643).
Imagine if the world were a safe place for everybody. Solomon already has. And so have so many of the families he interviewed for this must-read book.