JANUARY 20, 2013
CONTEMPORARY READERS of Erving Goffman’s influential 1963 study Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity are often surprised at the indiscriminate way it lumps together such unlikely categories as disability, crime, pedophilia, homosexuality, mental illness, incontinence, drug addiction, prostitution, and divorce. Goffman overlooks the particularities of any one group in an effort to define a shared experience of stigma that shapes a person’s understanding of their own identity, and how they are perceived by others. Goffman’s willful disregard for difference can be explained as the product of another era, a time before identities came to be parsed along increasingly precise lines. All the more surprising, then, to find an equally audacious bundling of differences in Andrew Solomon’s sprawling new book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Resisting our current tendency to divide and balkanize identity, Solomon is driven by a Goffman-like impulse to find common ground. His book is massive in every way, from its hefty 962 pages, to the weighty sadness of its stories, and, ultimately, to its ambition and generosity.
“There is no such thing as reproduction” is the arresting statement that begins Solomon’s book — one that flies in the face of any parental desire to see oneself neatly replicated in one’s own progeny. Yet with or without Solomon’s assertion, most parents come to realize that their children have personalities and motivations all their own that confound a parent’s most careful planning. “Parenthood,” Solomon writes, “abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity.” His concern is with the outliers, those children who, by virtue of genetics, nurture, or some unpredictable combination of the two, are radically different from the parents who produced them. Who are these children? The answer to that question leads Solomon to a menu at least as eclectic as Goffman’s.
At first browse, the table of contents is off-putting: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender. Solomon’s list looks disturbingly like the kind of old-school carnival that promised bearded ladies, conjoined twins, pinheads, contortionists, and tattooed men lumped together on the same ticket. It’s worth reading past these deceptive labels, however, to get at stories of terrific suffering and resilience. Solomon is driven to understand what these seemingly disparate groups hold in common: “We are overextended in the travails of our own situation, and making common cause with other groups is an exhausting prospect.” We should resist that exhaustion, he proposes, as there is value in recognizing oneself in the experiences of others. At its best, Far From the Tree seems an urgent and necessary call for solidarity; at other moments, these identities seem connected by little more than the general assertion that we are more alike than different.
Solomon focuses on “horizontal identity,” those inherited or acquired traits that can often alienate us from our families. Where “vertical identity” consists of attributes passed from one generation to the next, horizontal identity appears suddenly and unexpectedly: an extra chromosome or a hearing impairment, a propensity toward violent crime or prodigious musical talent. Where vertical identities are respected and reinforced, horizontal identities are often greeted with resistance and denial. The stories collected in Far From the Tree attest to the fact that in the netherworlds of parenting lie tremendous hardships, as well as the potential for remarkable insight and meaning. Solomon captures the nexus of intense grief and elation that can come from embracing a child the world has judged to be defective. He writes,
Children with horizontal identities alter your self painfully; they also illuminate it. They are receptacles for rage and joy — even for salvation. When we love them, we achieve above all else the rapture of privileging what exists over what we have merely imagined.
As all parents know, loving a child can be hard and feelings are sometimes ambivalent, but that love is no less genuine for its difficulty.
Although Solomon at times gestures to the past, he is primarily writing a history of the present, attempting to capture a moment of heady transition in which technological innovation and changing cultural attitudes have transformed our understanding of identity. Some of the conditions included in Far From the Tree simply couldn’t have existed at any other time. Conflicts over transgender identity, for instance, are made possible by hormones and surgical techniques that allow transition from one set of sexual characteristics to the other, and the chapter on disability discusses children with profound impairments who would not in the past have survived. Other identities are endangered by new technologies: cochlear implants threaten and divide Deaf culture, prenatal testing is meant to eliminate the birth of babies with Down syndrome, and limb-lengthening surgeries attempt to remedy dwarfism. Solomon recognizes the tremendous pressure experienced by families confronting decisions about treatment, and the poignancy of living with an identity targeted for extinction. At the same time, he resists nostalgia by recognizing that the death of the old accompanies the birth of the new: “Globalization has blurred national identity, and intermarriage has compromised racial identity. We like categories and clubs as much as we ever have; it’s only that the ones we thought were inviolable turn out not to be, and others we never imagined are taking their place.”
Far From the Tree is the product of 10 years of research. Drawing on thousands of copiously documented sources, Solomon’s notes alone come in at a whopping 100 pages, with a bibliography just shy of that. But the book’s lifeblood consists of the more than 300 stories Solomon collected from individual families. The sheer agglomeration of stories, with their accumulated weight of sorrow and disappointment, can make for ponderous reading. What’s more, the book is a social scientist’s nightmare. Solomon anticipates this critique, explaining, “I have relied primarily on anecdotes, because numbers imply trends, while stories acknowledge chaos.” For those who have made a career out of statistics and norms, such methods will seem shockingly cavalier. But Solomon welcomes chaos, with the recognition that there is no predictable way to approach the unexpected. It is the task of another kind of book to mine the data for statistical significance. To speak of trends is to endanger the particularity of individual experience. Those of us who have witnessed our children diminished by standardized measures of development and ability must appreciate the effort to honor each life in its flawed complexity. Solomon has given some people the opportunity to tell their stories for the first time, revealing lives that are seldom on view.
While each story conveys its own wisdom, some are particularly memorable. There is Ann, the lesbian mother of an adopted transgender child, who gave up marriage, family, and career. Fearing for her daughter’s life, Ann moved away with her children, leaving behind her husband and their dog, which was found disemboweled and nailed to the front door a few days later. “I miss the things that were in my old life,” Ann tells Solomon. “But if I knew this was going to happen, I would still adopt Kelly. I’m the lucky one. Because, honestly, if it weren’t for Kelly coming into my life, I would never have entered this bigger, more beautiful world, where I’ve met you and so many other wonderful people.” There is the compassionate portrait of Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan went on a shooting rampage that killed 15 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, afterwards turning the gun on himself. Solomon writes,
Sue Klebold’s kindess (before Dylan’s death she worked with people with disabilities) would be the answered prayer of many a neglected or abused child, and [her husband] Tom’s bullish enthusiasm would lift anyone’s tired spirits. Among the many families I’ve met in writing this book, the Klebolds are among those I would be most game to join.
This utterly typical, utterly benevolent family is the perfect illustration of what Solomon describes as “the terrifying, profound unknowability of intimate human relationship.” And then there is Julia, who simply couldn’t handle her multiply disabled daughter and gave her up for adoption. Each story conveys the distinctiveness of personal experience, while together they constitute a cry for a more just and inclusive society.
The predominant thread that ties all of these unlikely bedfellows together is Andrew Solomon. Far From the Tree is bookended by autobiographical chapters, beginning with the author’s early struggle with dyslexia and the challenges inherent in growing up gay, and ending with his journey into parenthood. Solomon traces the genesis of his project to his conflicted relationship with his own parents, who patiently and competently helped him through his learning difficulties only to be stymied by how to assimilate a gay son into the family. “My mother didn’t want me to be gay because she thought it wouldn’t be the happiest course for me,” he writes, “but equally, she didn’t like the image of herself as the mother of a gay son.” Solomon seeks to heal childhood wounds through understanding, probing his own feelings of disappointment and confusion but also looking to uncover the motivations behind his parents’ hurtful behavior.
Solomon’s formative experiences of alienation inspired his interest in how other families contend with extreme difference in their midst. Over the course of his research, he worked through anxieties about his own desire to be a parent, which he eventually did. The final chapter, “Father,” is the story of how Solomon and his partner become members of an unusually configured and thus contemporary extended family. Where other chapters dwell on suffering and adversity, “Father” is about happiness and is, predictably, the least interesting part of the book. Solomon knows exactly what his problem is. “For many years, my primary identity was as a historian of sadness,” he writes. “When I’ve tried to write about happiness, I’ve had an inverse revelation, which is that you cannot write about it without seeming shallow.” The problem is less shallowness than a baroque grandiosity that compares unfavorably with the direct and honest voice that speaks throughout much of the book. (Happiness is responsible for such florid prose as, “This book’s stories were to my love for my children much as parables are to faith, the concrete narratives that make the greatest abstractions to me. I am the parent I am in the wake of this book’s epic narratives of resilience.” We must recognize Solomon’s talent, then, as a documentarian of adversity.)
Although Solomon’s own story is confined to the opening and closing chapters, his presence is what binds the book’s disparate threads together. Sometimes he appears as a participant observer, as in the wrenching moment when a rape victim implores him to “fix me,” asking, “Why can’t I hug my daughter? I love her, but when she touches me, it feels like hundreds of razor blades scraping across my skin.” Or Solomon’s account of going to the dance at a Little People of America convention, where, dancing, he towered above everyone else on the floor. When he hasn’t written himself into the scene, Solomon is nonetheless an empathic presence. Discussing limb-lengthening surgery for dwarves, he is reminded of how, at a certain age, he would have longed for surgery to escape being gay. Writing about the waning of Deaf culture recalls the vanished world of his father’s immigrant New York. Transgendered children make Solomon remember that at age 12 he wanted to be a woman. And while describing controversial surgery elected by the parents of Ashley X to prevent their severely disabled daughter’s body from maturing, Solomon reflects, “Because I am gay, my parents hurt me in ways they wouldn’t have if I had been like them — not because they wanted to hurt me, but because they lacked sufficient insight into what it was like to be gay.” There is a certain naïveté to Solomon’s continually insinuating himself into his subjects’ most painful life dramas. At the same time, we must appreciate the generosity of mind that prevents him from becoming inured to such an accumulation of unenviable challenges.
While copiously researched, the sheer breadth of Solomon’s project requires him to boil each subject down to a chapter of 60–70 pages, inevitably failing to satisfy those who know it best. In my unofficial poll, readers of Far From the Tree tend to object to the chapter they would ostensibly identify with most. I know parents of an autistic child who hated the chapter on autism, while parents of a child with dwarfism had similar reservations about the chapter on dwarves. Like many others, I came to this book with my own experience of parenting far from the tree. Just minutes after my second child was born, I was told he had Down syndrome. As a university professor, I had chosen a life that holds intellect to be the highest virtue. Lying in that hospital bed, I wondered how I would love a child whose life would not reflect my own intellectual pursuits and accomplishments. Where, among our overeducated, ambitious, successful friends would we find a community to welcome this strange, unexpected child? Like so many other parents in Far From the Tree, I’ve found joy and purpose in raising my son. I love him no less than his precocious older brother. I have been surprised to discover my own reserves of resourcefulness, strength, and creativity — being Henry’s mother is hard and frustrating and expensive; it is also the happiest, most meaningful experience of my life.
The first time I read Solomon’s chapter on Down syndrome, my experience felt diminished. I resented his urge to uncover difficulty and suffering beneath the forcible cheer that is the public face of Down syndrome. Like deafness and dwarfism, Down syndrome is an endangered identity. Better healthcare, educational resources, and changing social attitudes have dramatically increased the quality of life for people with Down syndrome. At the same time, genetic science races ahead in a quest to develop safer tests to detect and eliminate a fetus diagnosed with the syndrome. Parents and advocates object to the search-and-destroy logic of such tests, which they believe devalue living people with Down syndrome by casting the birth of new babies as an avoidable tragedy. They often respond by touting the many accomplishments of people with Down syndrome, who, when given the opportunity, have become celebrated actors, athletes, artists, and writers.
Solomon acknowledges those accomplishments, but he dwells on the stories that reveal more complex dilemmas having to do with loneliness, sexual frustration, and dependency. The chapter begins with Emily Perl Kingsley, a writer for Sesame Street who revolutionized public perceptions of disability by including her son Jason, who has Down syndrome, on the show. Kingsley became a well-known advocate who used Jason’s considerable intellectual abilities as a way to combat prejudice and misunderstanding among doctors, teachers, and the general public. By the time Solomon spoke to Kingsley decades later, she had come to question her strategy. As a teenager, Jason was capable of keeping up with the academic challenges of his high school classes, but he was excluded from the social life of his nondisabled peers, and he had trouble holding a job or living independently. He was frustrated at his inability to have the same things as his nondisabled peers, but was also isolated from more significantly impaired people with Down syndrome. Kingsley is someone I greatly admire, and I resisted her sadness, as well as her focus on the worrisome aspects of a future I need to repress in order to survive in the present. Rereading with a clearer head, I find I appreciate the messy realities disclosed by Solomon’s stories. Ending prejudice against people with Down syndrome should not rest on the accomplishments of a few exceptional individuals.
Although Far From the Tree is about parents, the book is overwhelmingly dominated by mothers. Mothers are the caregivers and the activists. More often than not, they are the ones who sacrifice their own ambitions to make caring for a disadvantaged child their life’s work. Where Solomon documents many welcome signs of progress, this is one place where the social fabric seems distressingly unruffled. At a moment when the percentage of mothers in the American workforce is at an all-time high, women continue to do the lion’s share of childcare, housework, and family maintenance. While this is true of most families, the situation is amplified when the family includes a disabled child. One powerful if not fully examined lesson in Far From the Tree is about the gendered labor of caring for the unexpectedly imperfect child, and the costs, as well as the benefits, to their mothers’ ambitions and happiness, to their physical and mental health. Still, Solomon includes examples of fathers who battled these odds to become true co-parents in a culture where male caregivers tend to go unacknowledged. At several points, Solomon quotes Michael Bérubé, the father of a young adult with Down syndrome and the author of the memoir, Life As We Know It, on such topics as inclusive education, prenatal testing, and different forms of intelligence. A number of other fathers have recently written powerful accounts of coparenting children with disabilities, including Ralph James Savarese in Reasonable People, Ian Brown in The Boy in the Moon, and Chris Gabbard in his essay, “A Life Beyond Reason.” It seems worth noting these outliers in a context where gender roles remain so stubbornly fixed. In the chapter on transgender, Solomon writes wistfully of a utopian future where tolerance for experimenting with gender identity would make surgery obsolete. That we are far from that bright hope is evident not just in our culture’s mistreatment of transgendered people, but also in the all-too-familiar gendering of parental roles over the course of Far From the Tree as well.
The heft and density of Solomon’s book speaks volumes about a lifestyle that can support a decade of researching and writing, extended visits with interview subjects, and travel to Europe, Rwanda, and Bali. There are a few telling moments when the divide between Solomon and his subjects yawns excessively wide, such as the idyllic description of an impoverished village of deaf Balinese or his fawning affirmation of Icilda, an African-American housekeeper and mother of an autistic son. Still, a person of Solomon’s talent and means could do any number of things, and it is to his credit that he chose to write this book. All too often, illness and disability are deemed “special interest” topics of concern only to limited audiences of insiders. This is a book anyone would want to read and discuss; it brings subjects usually tucked away within their own isolated factions to a wide and diverse audience. Some may be disconcerted to find that a book so filled with stories of disappointment and loss ends with the story of the author’s own happiness. To witness Andrew Solomon high on the bliss of parenting his own healthy, well-adjusted child might feel like a stinging rejoinder to the suffering of others. But where else could he end? Far From the Tree closes in a way that is true to one of its own fundamental lessons, which is about families finding satisfaction, and even joy, in the most unexpected circumstances.