Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon, 2012
“The affection my family have found in one another is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness.” (700)
Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is a masterpiece.
I had opened this book expecting an informative academic exploration of the challenges faced by families that raise children with unexpected disabilities, anomalous behaviors, and qualities that fail to mimic the father-like-son cliché. I had not expected to open a book that would totally challenge my perspective on identity, the relationship of self with society, and universal rights. Far From the Tree does all of the above and much, much more through an engaging presentation of true-to-life stories that are both inspiring and heartbreaking. These stories grip the imagination with an enlightened consideration that extends beyond simple illumination of fact and detail. Solomon has provided us with a book that explores literally hundreds of human stories he has gathered from first-person interviews in an effort explore the universal truths inherent in human relationship and identity developed by parenthood. This book is a phenomenal reference as well as an easily digestible narrative that is well worth any reader’s investment and attention.
It goes beyond saying that I like this book.
So, getting down to it, why did this book impress me so? Well, lets start with the opening line, “there is no such thing as reproduction,” a line that grabs the reader’s attention and challenges the paradigm of parenthood as a procreative “reproduction” of self. Solomon lets us know from the outset that the casual and idealized expectation that children reflect the behaviors, appearances, and qualities of their parents is falsely based on mythical and often unachievable ideals. This paradigm is far from reality as generational differences are apparent across humankind – and this is what is observed and expected in normal healthy offspring. The differences from parent to child are more apparent and surprising when the next generation exhibit anomalous devaitions from the standard expectation of normalcy.
Solomon spent ten years interviewing parents and children that were born with unexpected anomalies and he invests ten quality chapters of this 700 page epic exploring deafness, dwarfism, down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability (both physical and mental), prodigies, children of rape, child-criminals, and transgender children. With admirable quality, Solomon avoids stereotyping or demonizing what many would consider “freaks” of nature by demonstrating that all these children exhibit human qualities despite their uniqueness. He does so by first introducing himself as a homosexual man, framing his own troubled identify as a man who struggled with depression and familial acceptance in his youth, and in so doing he establishes a voice that rightfully speaks for those who are under-appreciated, misunderstood, and disenfranchised by societal and familial expectation.
From the outset, I was challenged, intrigued, and inspired by some of his discussion of homosexual rights framed within perspective of the rights of religious parties, as demonstrated by this passage:
“Members of minority religions are protected not because they are born that way and can’t do anything about it, but because we affirm their right to discover, declare and inhabit the faith with which they identify. Activists got homosexuality removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 1973, yet gay rights remain contingent on claims that the condition is involuntary and fixed. This cripple-like model of sexuality is depressing, but as soon as anyone posits that homosexuality is chosen or mutable, lawmakers and religious leaders try to cure and disenfranchise the gay people in their purview.” (17)
This is the perspective of a man confident in his personal identity who paradoxically expresses discomfort with societal definition, boundaries, and perceptions of the identity class he ascribes to. This is a refreshing and mature perspective that reaches beyond community expectations of pride in identity by aiming toward a universal appreciation for the uniqueness of individual identity as part of the greater fabric of the human community. For these reasons Solomon establishes himself as a worthy witness and a worthy voice for the children and families that live with identities that are commonly misunderstood and under-appreciated.
Far From the Tree is the story of parenthood that defies the common expectation of parenthood. The parents of the children discussed in this book (with exception of the product of rape) chose parenthood as part of the basic human desire for procreation, but in their offspring they received less than what they expected in children that appear, behave, feel, sense, and react very differently than they do.
Despite these differences, the phenomenal story presented within the pages of Far From the Tree is that the parents of these unexpected children overwhelmingly love their children just as much as, and if not more than parents who are “blessed” with healthy normal children that are procreative fruits that fall a little close to the tree than the anomalies discussed in this book. Their stories are totally honest and heartwarming and it is hard to comprehend ourselves in their shoes, reacting and living as they do with total acceptance and commitment to their loved ones:
“Do I love my kids? Yes. Will I do everything for them? Yes. I have them and I love them. I wouldn’t do it again. I think that anybody who tells you they would is lying.” (241) autism
Through the discussion of deaf and dwarf children, Solomon presents intriguing stories of children who struggle to find their identity in a society and families that appear and communicate differently then themselves. There are unsettling stories of painful limb extension and use of cochlear implants forced upon the children before the age of consent that redefine the identity of deafness and dwarfism as medical conditions that should be corrected, mirroring the misinformed societal perception that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured through therapy. Such stories are unsettling and reflect the paradigm that normalcy is the ideal, but not all parents suffer their children through such corrective natures. There are several heroic parents that learn sign and attend little people conferences to provide a peer based identity for their children. Some parents who would have never thought themselves activists find that their children’s differences cause the parent to rediscover their own relationship to society and speak out for the rights not just of their specific child, but the right of their child’s identity:
“If racial minorities and the poor deserved support and respect, then so did people with Down Syndrome and related conditions. If help to these other groups was best given early, then so too, was aid to people with intellectual disabilities.” (183)
However, not all the stories in this book are heartwarming. Several of the stories are chillingly sobering. The stories of poop smeared on the walls by autistic children and the mournful loss as once-promising adolescent minds are transformed by schizophrenia were hard to read. I found myself nearly in tears throughout the chapter dedicated to children of disability. The story of Imogen, a disabled young girl born with hydrocephalus and a brain that was not much more than a brain stem, was haunting. The mother of this child was honest with herself in her inability to care for her daughter of whom would never return the parental affection given her. Despite her own love and concern for the well being of her disabled daughter, this mother opted to surrender Imogen to the state in order to allow herself to reclaim her identity as an adult woman:
“On the day that Imogen was supposed to come home, Julia did not go to the hospital…Julia and Jay [came] in for a meeting the next day. At the hospital, Julia used the line the lawyer had given her. She said, “I’m not the right mother for this child.” The consultant did not question her decision…The doctor asked if they had ever thought of harming her, his tone suggesting the necessary answer. Jay said, “I can’t say I haven’t.” And the doctor said, “Then let us take this burden away from you.” (399)
The challenging situation with cases such as Imogen’s is the simple fact that her existence is supported by medical advancement. Unlike children of Down Syndrome that can live healthy but limited lives, or schizophrenics that can find a vague semblance of balance with medication, physiological disabilities would not live at all without machinery and medications to ensure their survival. Their existence presents a new philosophical dilemma in the identity of parenthood and this dilemma has not existed for more than a generation – this is a dramatically small time-frame compared to the entirety of human history and it is questionable whether our philosophical ideals of ethics have kept in pace with our medical and technological advancement. Is Imogen’s mother a terrible person for giving up her child or is humanity unnecessarily creating new ethical challenges simply for the sake of utilizing technology to support life that would otherwise not continue? It is difficult to say and even harder to imagine myself making such a decision.
These ethical dilemmas are further highlighted in the discussion of children of rape. No chapter gave me more discomfort than Solomon’s exploration of rape. The appalling stories of fathers, uncles, boy-friends, and so-on fathering children from their children, nieces, and friends completely disgusted and saddened me. It is appalling that such violence is part of the human story, but even the more surprising that life can come of violence. Most of the children discussed in this book find acceptance in their family and communities but children of rape often face a stigma of shame, are unaccepted by their extended family, or may live in secret, not knowing the truth of their paternal origin. What is even the more saddening is that many of the children of rape suffer the same fate as their mothers, extending the cycle from one generation to the next. One victim, chose to serve victims such as herself and her words were touching:
“As a social worker, Marina frequently has to grapple with stories of sexual violence. “My personal pain is just a ripple in this huge ocean of pain that women feel every day.” (483)
In addition to the shocking stories of rape, the stories of children that turn to crime and violence was unsettling and sobering. Most parents expect the best for their children, providing them opportunities to make the best of their lives, but often social limitations or psychological aberrances prompt the child towards antisocial and destructive behavior. Solomon spoke with many parents but the most sobering were the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the two boys involved in the Columbine shootings. They had offered their son a good life and his violent actions were a total shock to them. Due to the national attention of the event, the Klebolds live in the constant shadow of their son’s terrible legacy, yet they somehow find positivity and an ability to maintain a place within the Columbine community:
“We are able to be open and honest about those things because our son is dead. His story is complete. We can’t hope for him to do something else, something better.” (597)
Many of the parents interviewed voiced both regret and acceptance of what their children could have become if it were not for their atypical identities and physiologic deficits. The parents of transgender children have the a unique challenge unlike all other children explored in this book in that their child’s identity challenges social norms of gender identity in ways that is often unexplainable. Many transgender children face a lifetime of bullying and live with depression due to their isolation and inability to fully express themselves for who they are. Despite this, there are several remarkable parents that accept and celebrate their child’s identity for who they are, and such parenting is truly admirable and inspiring.
“Undermining anyone’s personal tautology by suggesting that he should not, in fact, be himself sabotages whatever he might become.” (611)
This may be a lengthy review, but Far from the Tree is a lengthy book that deserves attention. Though I am not a parent myself, Far from the Tree provided me with healthy perspective and respect for those who sacrifice so much of themselves to create a better world for their children and in so doing, they create a better world for us all. Solomon presents a balanced exploration of each of the anomalous children, interviewing parents that are full of regret and shame as well as parents full of acceptance and love. Solomon also provides fair evaluations of the dichotomous ethics of social identity and community while maintaining an unbiased appreciation for the difficult choices that many parents must make as they care for their unexpected children. Far from the Tree can be difficult to read at times due to many of the sorrowful stories explored here, but there is also much to celebrate and appreciate. Life is more complex than we would hope it to be, but in its complexity beauty and love are all the more valuable.
“By what logic does making a better world have to do with hewing to the norm?” (681)