“Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.”
So begins Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a book that profiles families with children who are profoundly different from their parents – deaf, gay, autistic, short-statured, schizophrenic, transgender, intellectually disabled (Down Syndrome), multiply disabled, born out of rape, prodigious, and criminal. With every story, Solomon ends up returning to the same question: What is family? And in asking this, he demands, again and again, What is love?
He conjectures that true love is 30% knowledge of who someone is, 30% percent acceptance of who they are, and 30% projection of who they are. Projection is as indispensable as the other elements, but it is by far the most problematic. Love is threatened when it relies more on projection than anything else. When driven by a fear of being alone, projection can dangerously blind us to others’ faults: “You like the same bands I do?! You must be so deep!” When driven by a fear of being burdened, it can dangerously fuel our least empathic feelings: “I can’t handle taking care of a freak!” It would seem that our best hope for filling our lives with true love is to be better informed. If so, Solomon’s book is an ideal source of information.
He writes poignantly of his own mother’s difficulty accepting his homosexuality. In the West today, we are just as quick to judge parents who seem to hurt their children as we are to judge children who seem to hurt their parents. But in examining his mother, Solomon wisely observes that “she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy.” Who among us does not tend toward such self-righteousness?
I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t pride themselves on something they believe they do better than their parents did, an improvement they would like to pass on. Even my friends who take little interest in children tend to talk about their hypothetical progeny as projects: e.g. “My kids will never/always… ” And with projects come projection. The children in Solomon’s book, himself included, are dynamite to that projection.
While he is determined to understand his mother’s feelings that caused him so much pain, he is unwavering in his assertion that homophobia, ableism and all other irrational fears have no place in the future of a healthy society. He calls the forces that inspire current legislation limiting the rights of minorities a “crisis in empathy.” And he practices what he preaches – his determination to empathize with the United States’ most marginalized families is utterly humbling. He does it not only for the sake of compassion, but for the sake of practicality. We’ve already tried condemning and isolating the kinds of people who make us uneasy. On a grand scale, it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.
When I described the book to friends – many themselves minorities – several winced at the idea of rape victims and schizophrenic people. “Sounds like a fun book!” they sighed. Such reactions are hardly unknown to Solomon, who notes, “One’s own identity, replete with problems though it may be, usually looks more tenable than someone else’s identity.” Indeed, my own gut reaction is to glare at anyone who dares to compare the experience of having a child with dwarfism to the experience of having a child who grows up to murder students at Columbine High School. But gut reactions tend to be more hurtful than helpful. “At the mention of dwarfs,” Solomon writes, “[some of my] friends burst into laughter.” Fear always conquers by dividing us, and for this reason I adore Solomon’s ferocious intersectionality. It is rare but contagious.
He profiles several different families in each chapter, which is admirable because it is comprehensive. However, at times it can feel like overkill. I might have preferred three families per chapter rather than seven or eight. The medium isn’t conducive to such a large cast because it’s difficult to keep the characters from blending together if you can’t physically see their faces or hear their voices. I thus found his videos series a source of clarification, not mere supplement.
But Solomon is an exquisite writer. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the disabilities and social issues he examines, but it’s too often bogged down in language that comes off as dry or downright dreary. It’s not easy to push through 770 pages of the most marginalized lives imaginable, but Solomon’s writing is as poetic as it is sensitive. He is never too meek make assertions and yet, unlike countless journalists, he manages to do so without ever ignoring the agency of those he describes. True empathy never condescends because it transcends fear.
I am, of course, a biased critic. It was 32 years ago this month that my parents got the news that I had dwarfism. And they did everything right – the best any two human beings could when faced with a rare diagnosis that traditionally brought on social isolation. (As Solomon documents, mothers of dwarfs in olden days were often thought to have caused the condition by being lecherous.)
What my parents did perhaps best of all is something all the great parents of the world do – to make me feel so unconditionally loved that I always felt free to discuss with them what might have been done better. Sometimes my critiques are correct and sometimes they’re flat-out wrong. But the freedom to examine what you need to change about yourself in order to be a tolerable person and what you have the right to protect about yourself in order to be a happy person should be a freedom granted to every member of every family. On both sides of the parent/child relationship, or any relationship, “love is made more acute when it requires exertion.”
In a just world, no one should have to be any more grateful to their parents for accepting them than anyone else should have to be. As I’ve written before, caregiving is freakin’ hard, and our gratitude to those who raised us deepens when we consider that, as a whole, they have been more accommodating and respectful of their children than any of their historical predecessors. Solomon points out, “A hundred years ago, children were effectively property, and you could do almost anything to them short of killing them.” But despite how far we have come since then, we have yet to reach an acceptable rate of justice for all.
Solomon points out that 1 in 4 participants in a recent survey said they would choose abortion if their pregnancy tested positive for dwarfism. At least half the children up for adoption in the United States have disabilities of some kind. Crisis in empathy indeed.
Individuals who cannot parent a child profoundly different from themselves should not be forced to. Likewise, society’s hang-ups about difference should not encourage parents to flee from it. Considering the current statistics, Solomon’s book is as necessary as it is beautiful.