A Mind-Expanding Book That Will Make You a Better Human Being

March 9 2015
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My mother has a saying about being a parent: whatever you are, your kid will be the opposite. And it’s true. Every one of us feels profoundly different from our parents at some point, and every parent has wondered how their child could be so different from them. Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is about just that, but taken to a whole new level. Far from the Tree examines some of the most drastic cases of children who, for various reasons, turned out to be completely unlike their parents’ expectations. Solomon interviewed hundreds of families for this book, all with children who have a condition or identity that their parents do not share. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and the result is this enormous, astonishing work.

Far from the Tree will refute assumptions you never realized you made. You will learn about the parallels between the experience of being deaf and the experience of being gay, between the experience of being a prodigy and of being disabled, and how these experiences impact a parent. You will meet families of all sorts. You will weep for rape victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and their children, and rejoice as a transgender six-year-old and her mother find happiness in embracing her identity. You will be haunted by the account of Tom and Sue Klebold, parents of one of the teenagers responsible for the Columbine High School shooting. You will hear Solomon’s story as well. He begins the book with a retelling of his childhood, and talks about the difficulty both he and his parents faced coming to terms with his sexual orientation. He ends with his own touching experience of fatherhood.

One of the major themes that runs throughout this book is the question, how should we approach the conditions that make a child—or any person, for that matter—different? Are these deficiencies that should be treated and (if possible) cured, or identities that should be nurtured and accepted? The answer, Solomon shows us, is rarely straightforward.

Solomon focuses on ten categories: parents with children who are deaf, born with dwarfism, have Down Syndrome, are autistic, are schizophrenic, have multiple severe disabilities, are prodigies, were conceived in rape, are criminals, and are transgender. Each of these situations presents its own set of challenges to both parent and child, and yet through all of these chapters, Solomon records the experiences of parents who went farther than they thought possible to love and accommodate their children. Some quit their jobs or changed their living situations, some became activists in order to help not only their own children but also others like them, and many completely altered their outlook on life.

Far from the Tree emphasizes the hope and resilience of these parents, but it does not glorify the experience of parenting a child who is different, and it does not condemn parents who have a harder time dealing with their child’s differences. Solomon applauds those who have reorganized their lives to meet their child’s needs, but he also shows sympathy for a mother who chose to give up her severely disabled daughter. The emotional toll of caring for her had become overwhelming. “There is no contradiction between loving someone and feeling burdened by that person; indeed, love tends to magnify the burden,” Solomon writes. “These parents need space for their ambivalence, whether they can allow it for themselves or not.” Above all, this book seeks to question dichotomies and complicate our assumptions. A child can be both a blessing and a burden, a special condition can be both an asset and a detriment, and a parent can be both a source of nurturing and a hindrance to growth.

Far from the Tree is 700 pages long (not counting the lengthy notes section), but don’t be daunted by its size. The fifty-page introduction is powerful and thought-provoking enough to stand on its own. Solomon approaches his subjects with extraordinary empathy, and he makes every effort to help his readers understand not only specific families but also broad social issues. Just the sheer scope of Solomon’s research is staggering. I found myself unexpectedly floored by this book. It is one of those rare works of literature in which everyone will be able to see something of themselves, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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