Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Article excerpt

FAR FROM THE TREE: PARENTS, CHILDREN, AND THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY

By Andrew Solomon

Scribner

962 pp. $37.50

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"DEPRESSION IS THE FLAW IN LOVE," wrote Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon, his exploration of the disease that won the National Book Award in 2001. "To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose." Depression was a scourge he had experienced personally, and the book he produced was intimate yet clinical: Solomon claims that he can veer into self-pity, but it's not a thing he indulges in on the page. Far From the Tree, the book he has spent the last decade working on, addresses another vast subject, one that isn't discussed as often as the dark caul of depression. This is a book about families in which a child is flawed--at least in the eyes of much of the world. In it, Solomon expounds on what has turned out to be his great and enduring theme: love and its costs.

In a gargantuan volume that weaves together personal histories (he interviewed more than 300 families), cultural and historical background, and scientific research, Solomon, a journalist and lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University, describes the steep challenges parents face when they raise children who are not like themselves. He includes chapters on families with children who are deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, severely disabled, transgendered, categorized as dwarfs, diagnosed with Down syndrome, classed as criminals, and conceived as the result of rape. He even has a chapter on prodigies--focusing on musicians--that demonstrates the gulf that being extraordinarily gifted can create between child and parent. While the focus remains on the families he interviewed, Solomon frames his book with two autobiographical chapters. In the first, he describes the alienation he felt growing up with the "horizontal identity" (that is, an identity his mother and father did not share) of a gay man. The final chapter recounts the decision he and his husband made, during the writing of Far From the Tree, to raise from birth a child that was biologically Solomon's own. (The biological mother was a surrogate.)

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The gift Solomon gives readers is insight into situations that many with "normal" families (a term he ceaselessly interrogates) don't think they could imagine, much less manage. The gift Solomon gives his subjects is sympathy without pity. Solomon encounters not just acceptance but often celebration among the parents of these kids--and an attachment so fierce that it defines for him the universal parent-child bond. In support of that bond, parents of children with extraordinary needs, health issues, or abilities outside the realm of their own experience go to extraordinary lengths. They become researchers, teachers, activists, nurses, coaches, parole officers, and linguists. They move across the country so their children can go to a better school. They spend every cent they have on treatments they can't afford. They learn sign language. They commit to having their children with them for life, or, equally difficult, to placing them in a home where they can receive the care they need.

Along the way, many parents are surprised at the strength and resourcefulness they discover in themselves. Timid personalities are transformed into "won't take no for an answer" advocates. Nancy Corgi, the mother of two children with autism, told Solomon, "My entire personality has changed. I'm quick to pick a fight; I'm argumentative. You don't cross me. I have to do what I have to do, and I'm going to get what I want. I never was like this at all." Several parents who cared for a child with disabilities and were later diagnosed with cancer or another serious disease told Solomon that their child had instilled in them the fortitude to face their own treatment or even death.

But Solomon does not sugarcoat the cost of raising a child with a horizontal identity. …

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