Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Hardcover, 1467 pages
Hardcover, 1467 pages
SynopsisIn Far From The Tree, Solomon explores how parents raise children who are exceptional and substantially different from themselves. He looks at children who are mentally and physically disabled, deaf, dwarfs, prodigies, transgender, born of rape, and those who grow up to be criminals. He looks at the bonds they must struggle to create, the battles they wage for them to get help, and much more rarely, what happens when they must face up to being unable to provide the care that is needed. Solomon also explores an interesting angle - what is a 'problem' that should be cured if at all possible, and what is simply an identity that happens to be different from the norm?
Reason for ReadingI saw this on a number of 'best of 2012' lists in December, and then was completely won over by the book trailer.
Why you should read this bookThere will obviously be people reading this book because of personal experiences, but please don't mistake Far From the Tree for a simple parenting manual. The book is also a look at how an entire society deals with differences and disabilities. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is how it challenges that idea that normal is the goal. For example, in considering the difficulties of being deaf, I never appreciated the sense of community involved in Deaf culture and how signing creates a special outlook on the world that may not want to be 'cured.' There are many positive experiences that people are willing to share, but Solomon's subjects are hardly here to pretend it's easy. Sometimes it's sharing how difficult it was to find an education or treatments, but it often goes much deeper: how do you love a child that many people tell you will never have the capacity to love you back or appreciate the things you are doing? How do you deal with your frustrations? How do you change all your expectations of what it will be like to have a child, and for many, of your entire life? It is clear upon reading that Solomon dedicated a lot of time to the parents in the book to achieve incredible levels of honesty of what their lives are like. There are many unexpected moments, like hearing what Sue Klebold has to say about the devastation her son wrought at Columbine,or how a breakthrough moment can result in a parent changing everything they believe in order to accept a transgender child. While your heart might ache for their hardships, it is astounding how love overwhelms so much in most of these relationships. For its blend of compassion, passion, knowledge, and heart, Far From the Tree has become one of my all-time favourite non-fiction reads - it is an absolute must-read.
Why you should avoid this bookFrom an emotional standpoint, this is a tough read. It's hard to imagine children living with some of these challenges, and it's rough hearing about how much effort some parents put into things that don't have a real solution. But the hope that permeates almost everything is astonishing, making it easier to keep reading. Ultimately, you'll walk away with a deep sense of empathy.
Opening ParagraphThere is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscioius 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. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children's faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.
This story, of deaf children being abused, is ubiquitous, and Bridget was rare only in being willing to tell me about it. It's an open secret that deaf kids have trouble telling their stories. When a Deaf theatre group did a piece in Seattle about incest and sexual abuse, they sold out an eight-hundred-seat auditorium, and they hired counselors to wait outside the theater. Many women and men broke down in tears and ran out during the performance. 'By the end of the show, half the audience was sobbing in the arms of those therapists,' one person who attended said.
While some people with severe disabilities may experience acute health crises or frightening seizures, much of their care has a rhythm, and human nature adapts to anything with a rhythm. The care can be done competently. An extreme but stable stress is easier to handle than a less extreme but erratic one. This is one reason why parents of people with Down syndrome have an easier time than parents of schizophrenics or of people with autism; with Down syndrome, you know with whom you are dealing from day to day, and the demands on you change relatively little; with schizophrenia, you never know what weirdness is about to strike; with autism, what meltdown moment.