Sunday, December 23, 2012
Far From the Tree
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Scribner Book Company, 2012, 962 pages)
Writes DWIGHT GARNER in The New York Times:
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.
Writes NATHAN HELLER in The New Yorkers:
For Megan and Michael, a Los Angeles couple, the crucial turn of parenthood came not in the delivery room but eight months later, when they started to worry that something had gone wrong with their son. The baby, Jacob, didn’t respond to the surrounding world the way his older sister had; when Megan started banging on pots, one night, he did not even flinch. At the hospital, a test confirmed their fears: Jacob was deaf, and most of the assumptions that they had about his future would change. At first, Megan and Michael took the difference in stride, seeking programs that would help Jacob acquire language and find a place in the hearing world. But the offerings were, almost without exception, rather grim, and few promised a life at anything near standard speed. The instructor at one celebrated clinic boasted that Jacob would be saying “apple” by the age of two. Megan protested that her daughter, at that point, could talk in sentences. “Your expectations are too high,” the instructor said. Megan knew they’d need to take another path.
The secret history of sex is not a story of fulfilled desires; it’s a story of expectations dropped off the cliff of the unknown. Coupling reroutes lives, and delimits them, and when the stork turns up bearing a charming bundle the chances for complication grow alarmingly profuse. On the day of the twenty-week sonogram, perhaps, you learn that your child has foreshortened limbs. Amniocentesis might identify abnormal chromosomes; an obstetrician in the delivery room whisks away your newborn to run tests. Maybe, back home, a fire alarm goes off and he does not wake, or maybe, at ten months, you notice that your baby will not look you in the eye. Or perhaps none of this happens and you’re one of the lucky ones, and so you send your kid to oboe lessons and good schools and camp and proms, and then, at twenty, on a campus where he has a girlfriend and a full course load, he begins hearing voices in his head. Ordinary family life is perilous enough: healthy kids fail at school, have drug problems, get bullied, or are shattered by foul divorces. When the quirks of biology intercede, too, the foreverness of parenthood can turn into a long walk in the dark.
In the case of Megan and Michael, being the parents of a deaf child meant travelling into a foreign country. Frustrated with the clinic, they enrolled Jacob in sign-language education, and then learned the language so that they could communicate with him. Megan helped found a deaf-services hotline, called Tripod, and a Montessori school that taught deaf and hearing students together. But these efforts weren’t entirely triumphant. At one point, a Deaf activist (deafness is a condition; Deaf is the community it creates) told Megan, “The best thing would be to give your child to a Deaf family and let them raise him.”
The story of Megan, Michael, and their unexpected family life is one of many in Andrew Solomon’s “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” (Scribner). Solomon, an assiduous journalist with an essayistic bent, is fascinated by the paradoxes of procreation: how do you nurture a child who may be unlike anything you’ve encountered before? Most people who consider themselves black, say, or Jewish, have parents who do, too. Solomon calls this “vertical identity,” because it flows naturally down the generations. It’s a conduit through which the benefits of shared experience—empathy, hindsight, a sense of who you are—can travel. But what if, like Jacob, you are a deaf child with hearing parents? What if you’re a dwarf with parents of normal proportions? These identities are “horizontal”: there’s a rupture between the child’s life and the parents’ experiences. They seem to challenge many premises of family and interrupt the basic continuity that it presumes.
Andrew Solomon (born 30 October 1963) is a writer on politics, culture and psychology who lives in New York and London. He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Travel and Leisure, and other publications on a range of subjects, including depression, Soviet artists, the cultural rebirth of Afghanistan, Libyan politics, and deaf politics. His book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression won the 2001 National Book Award, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, and was included in The Times of London's list of one hundred best books of the decade.