The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. Except when it does.
Andrew Solomon’s latest book explores some extreme instances of children who differ drastically from their parents. This exhaustive, intensely researched and wonderfully poignant work of nonfiction, “Far From the Tree,” looks at deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, genius, criminality and transgenderism through the lens of the parent-child relationship and how it’s affected by these horizontal identities. Horizontal identities are defined in the book as inherent or acquired traits that are foreign to the parent and that therefore require the child to acquire identity from a peer group. This differs from “vertical identities,” which are traits that parents and children share (ethnicity, some beliefs/values and physical traits such as blondness or myopia).
Although many parents may yearn for a little version of themselves, Solomon asserts early on that parenthood is more an act of production than it is reproduction. The genes expressed in our children may hail from many generations earlier or may be completely new. For this reason, parents are sometimes extremely surprised by whom they bring into the world:
“In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. … Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity.”
Each identity listed earlier is assigned a chapter in Solomon’s 702-page book. The sheer amount of information never seems oppressive though. Much shorter books have seemed more tedious. Solomon’s literary approach, weaving his own experience as the gay son of straight parents and his experience as a new father, makes the stories of the other families more personal. Based on 40,000 pages of interview transcripts with more than 300 families, the information that’s there, while essentially anecdotal, is backed up with solid research. Throughout each chapter, Solomon shares information about the unique challenges that parents and children affected by these identities face, how parental support (or the lack thereof) affects the child’s development, solutions or services offered by society, the communities available to this child, and the personal identity or pride this child may or may not eventually find for himself.
The book’s second chapter, “Dwarf,” tells of dwarf children born to non-dwarf parents. Many of the parents interviewed remembered initially experiencing negativity from doctors, family members and friends. For one woman, Mary Boggs, her own initial response was negative: “We would have rather had a child that was deaf or blind. … We were thinking, ‘Why did we have another child at all?’ ” While painful, this reaction is fairly common among the parents interviewed for the book. Many, with clear ideas of what their “perfect” offspring will be like, have their hopes rudely dashed when their actual child is born.
But, like many other parents, Boggs eventually came to deeply love and support her daughter, Sam, taking her to LPA (Little People of America) conventions and supporting her emotionally through the difficulties of adolescence as a dwarf. Many of the dwarfs interviewed for this chapter explained a similar irony: While facing extreme challenges , including health problems, discrimination and social isolation, many (especially older) dwarfs expressed strong pride in their identity and couldn’t imagine having been born differently.
Autism spectrum disorder, which is said to affect approximately one in 88 people today, challenges the individuals it affects and the parents who raise them. Autism, as with many other mental health disorders, causes some to look for the border or division between the person in his or her “normal” state and the disease. Though on the rise, the condition still has not been adequately defined. It’s really more like a collection of symptoms than a clearly delineated illness.
One debate currently raging within the autistic community focuses on the neurodiversity movement. The neurodiversity movement proposes that autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome be respected as different, but acceptable, ways of being. Many autistic individuals and their families have found solace in this viewpoint: “Autistic people are valuable as they are. They don’t have value only if they can be transformed into less obviously autistic people,” says Jim Sinclair, an autism rights activist who formed Autism Network International. Most people in the neurodiversity movement argue against a cure, saying that to “cure” anyone of autism would be to remove the person’s essential being. Detractors of the movement argue that not seeking a cure unfairly deprives autistic children of a better quality of life. Solomon presents both sides in his chapter on autism.
Schizophrenia, though of course very different from autism, also prompts family members to seek out the person within the disease. Because schizophrenia rarely sets in before adolescence, it can seem that an invasive being has taken over an otherwise healthy individual. Experts now know this isn’t true. Genes for the disorder are present at birth, and interestingly enough, many schizophrenics claim that to extricate themselves from their schizophrenia would be impossible. Says Andy Behrman, a writer with bipolar disorder:
“‘Mental illness cannot be treated separately from the person; they are inextricably linked. I’ve answered the question ‘Where does mental illness end, and where do I begin?’ In my case, we are one. I’ve made friends with the enemy. My treatment is successful precisely because it takes both me and my disorder into account and doesn’t delineate between the two of us.’”
Inevitably, a condition as extreme as schizophrenia causes great stress to both the person with the diagnosis and that person’s family. While Solomon presents many ideal situations in which parents go to great lengths to prepare their children for life, many other, less ideal situations are described as well. More than half of trans people are rejected by their families, and, as Solomon puts it, “the world of disability has seen a great deal of filicide [when a parent kills a child].” Though most of the parents interviewed essentially seem to love their kids, news reports and academic journals chronicle a very different reality for some children.
Even so, “Far from The Tree” ends on a positive note. Solomon describes his becoming a father along with his husband, John Habich Solomon, and the help of Andrew’s lifelong friend serving as the surrogate mother.
The life-altering illnesses, disabilities, disorders and identities that affect us can’t be escaped entirely, but Solomon seems to be saying that, ultimately, we don’t want to escape them, because they’re integral parts of our identity.