Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Far From The Tree

"Parenting," writes Andrew Solomon in Far from the Tree, "is no sport for perfectionists." It's an irony of the book, 10 years in the making and his first since The Noonday Demon, that by militating against perfectionism, he only leaves the reader in greater awe of the art of the achievable. The book starts out as a study of parents raising "difficult" children, and ends up as an affirmation of what it is to be human.

The project grew out of Solomon's desire to forgive his own parents, who, while they effortlessly accepted his dyslexia as he was growing up – his mother campaigned for his rights in the face of educational prejudice – flunked the same test when it came to his sexuality. (An early sign that he was gay, writes Solomon, with the dryness of tone that makes the book so enjoyable, is that "when I was 10, I became fascinated by the tiny principality of Liechtenstein".) They didn't throw him out of the house, but neither did they disguise their disappointment. Years later, he got to thinking about how parents deal generally with children whose identities fall outside of their own – what he calls the child's "horizontal" as opposed to "vertical" identity – and the result is a fascinating examination of the accommodation of difference.

Religion, race, language and nationality are the customary verticals passed down from parent to child; horizontal refers to traits in a child that are foreign to the parents, either inherent, like a physical disability, or acquired, like criminality. "Vertical identities are usually respected as identities," writes Solomon. "Horizontal ones are often treated as flaws." Chapters follow on families coping with autism, dwarfism, schizophrenia, Down's syndrome, disability, deafness, child prodigy, transgender issues, criminality and children born of rape, and the first lesson of Solomon's research was the non-transferable sympathies of each group. Participants in the book who had shown extraordinary humanity in their own difficult circumstances bridled at the prospect of being lumped in with what they saw as less deserving special interests.

"Deaf people didn't want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs. The prodigies and their families objected to being in a book with the severely disabled. Some children of rape felt that their emotional struggle was trivialised when they were compared to gay activists."

Solomon spoke to some 300 families in the course of researching the book, a rebuke to everything shoddy and dashed off in the culture, and the density of his empirical evidence decimates casual assumption. What unites most of his interviewees is a political sense of injustice in the way they are perceived by the mainstream. "Fixing is the illness model," writes Solomon. "Acceptance is the identity model."

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How does it feel to be the mother of a teenage dwarf who’s desperate to start dating? What if you love the daughter you conceived when you were raped but can’t bear to be touched by her? And, as the father of a happy, yet profoundly deaf son who’s forgotten how it feels to hear, how do you deal with your memories of the times you played music together?

“Parenting is no sport for perfectionists,” Andrew Solomon rather gloriously understates toward the end of “Far From the Tree,” a generous, humane and — in complex and unexpected ways — compassionate book about what it means to be a parent. A lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell and the author of “The Noonday Demon,” a National Book Award-winning memoir about his journey through depression, Solomon spent 10 years interviewing more than 300 families with “exceptional” children. That is, children with “horizontal identities,” a term he uses to encompass all the “recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.”

He developed what seem to be genuine relationships (entailing multiple visits, unsparing communication and significant follow-up over a number of years) with families of individuals affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences: “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” His interviews yielded nearly 40,000 transcript pages and his “anti-Tolstoyan” conclusion that “the unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways.”

Bookending this immense core of material are intimate accounts of Solomon’s own experiences: first, as the son of parents who lovingly helped him overcome his dyslexia, but struggled (as he did) with the idea that he was gay, his own “horizontal identity”; and then finally, and very movingly, as an awkward and awed new father himself.

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All children are different, but some are more different than others. The majority of expectant parents spend the nine months of gestation buoyed by the conviction that their child, when it is born, will be the most remarkable infant in human history.
Most will find their belief vindicated – more or less. To dispassionate onlookers, the newborn infant may resemble a howling orange in a black fright wig, but to parents euphoric after the dangerous adventure of childbirth, the fact that their offspring displays all the vital signs of normality is enough to make it seem miraculous.

For a significant minority, however, the experience of bringing a child into the world is not one of triumphant relief but the beginning of a recalibration of expectations that may last for the lifetime of the parents, or the child. “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” writes Andrew Solomon, “and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity… Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.”
Solomon is an academic and journalist whose previous books include the prize-winning study of depression, The Noonday Demon. The title of his new book is taken from the adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but his interest is in the apples that have fallen elsewhere – “some a couple of orchards away, some on the other side of the world”. His book explores the experiences of families who have had to deal with difference, and have learnt over time to accept, accommodate and sometimes even to celebrate it.

The range of difference he explores is – like his book, which runs to 900-odd pages – immense. He writes about children who are dwarfs or deaf; who have Down’s syndrome or multiple disabilities. He also considers differences that are not apparent at birth – autism, schizophrenia, children who are transgender and those who have committed crimes – and he includes two categories in which the child is physically and mentally “normal”, but possesses a trait that disrupts the family dynamic: children born of rape, and musical prodigies.

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Warning: Andrew Solomon’s new book, about the parents of children with serious medical problems, would make the world’s worst baby shower gift. From dwarfism and Down syndrome to schizophrenia and autism, Solomon delivers a compendium of news you don’t want to expect when you’re expecting. Although some of the conditions startle, the book is no lurid freak show. On the contrary, Solomon forcefully showcases parents who not only aren’t horrified by the differences they encounter in their offspring, but who rise to the occasion by embracing them. In so doing, they reveal a “shimmering humanity” that speaks to our noblest impulses to nurture.

“Far From the Tree” is massively ambitious and, also, just simply massive. It’s exhaustive and occasionally exhausting, but more often inspirational about the “infinitely deep” and mysterious love of parents for their children. Motivated in part by his difficult experience negotiating his homosexuality, Solomon, the author of the National Book Award-winning book on depression “The Noonday Demon,” spent a decade interviewing more than 300 families, compiling 40,000 pages of transcripts about 10 widely varied conditions. “It would have been easier to write a book about five conditions,” he acknowledges in his introduction. “I wanted, however, to explore the spectrum of difference.” So he visited juvenile criminals in Minneapolis and a congenitally deaf village in Bali. He interviewed victims of horrific incest and family abuse. He spent time with women who bore children conceived in rape and even with child prodigies — whose gifts, paradoxically, force them to face issues similar to those of children with severe disabilities.

Solomon stresses a common dilemma: All the parents must navigate the “tension between identity and illness,” or “between cure and acceptance.” So, for instance, should a deaf child be encouraged to learn sign language and join the deaf community, or, contrarily, to learn to read lips and speak so as to better assimilate? Should the parents of a dwarf help their child feel comfortable with his size, or submit him to limb-lengthening operations? Are the parents of a profoundly disabled child within their moral rights to administer growth-inhibiting medication, so they can still lift their “pillow angel” by hand to change her diapers rather than having to hoist her up at adult size with an elaborate medical crane? At what point should parents allow their male child to wear a dress to school or allow him to take puberty-delaying drugs, so as to make his eventual sex-change surgery easier?

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