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Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

By Andrew Solomon

How does it feel to be the mother of a teenage dwarf who’s desperate to start dating? What if you love the daughter you conceived when you were raped but can’t bear to be touched by her? And, as the father of a happy, yet profoundly deaf son who’s forgotten how it feels to hear, how do you deal with your memories of the times you played music together?

“Parenting is no sport for perfectionists,” Andrew Solomon rather gloriously understates toward the end of “Far From the Tree,” a generous, humane and — in complex and unexpected ways — compassionate book about what it means to be a parent. A lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell and the author of “The Noonday Demon,” a National Book Award-winning memoir about his journey through depression, Solomon spent 10 years interviewing more than 300 families with “exceptional” children. That is, children with “horizontal identities,” a term he uses to encompass all the “recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.”

He developed what seem to be genuine relationships (entailing multiple visits, unsparing communication and significant follow-up over a number of years) with families of individuals affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences: “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” His interviews yielded nearly 40,000 transcript pages and his “anti-Tolstoyan” conclusion that “the unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways.”

Bookending this immense core of material are intimate accounts of Solomon’s own experiences: first, as the son of parents who lovingly helped him overcome his dyslexia, but struggled (as he did) with the idea that he was gay, his own “horizontal identity”; and then finally, and very movingly, as an awkward and awed new father himself.

This is a passionate and affecting work that will shake up your preconceptions and leave you in a better place. It’s a book everyone should read and, although everyone won’t (at a hefty 700 pages of text, with more than 100 pages of notes, it’s no pocket guide), there’s no one who wouldn’t be a more imaginative and understanding parent — or human being — for having done so.

As a psycho-sociological study, it’s important and unrivaled; no one has ever collated this amount of evidence before. And even though the book might have benefited from occasional tightening, it still makes for breathtaking reading — a vivid and gripping account of who we are right now, and what exactly happens when we try to make more of ourselves.

“There is no such thing as reproduction,” Solomon points out on the first page, only acts of “production.” And despite the fact that we never know quite what — or whom — we’ll produce, it’s one of the least bitter truths of human existence that, regardless of what pain and anguish they put us through, we never ever regret our children. “It is not suffering that is precious,” he notes when recalling the depths of his depression, “but the concentric pearlescence with which we contain it.”

More than anything, “Far From the Tree” is a book about precisely that containment. Throughout, Solomon proves a calm and likable guide — open, curious, nonjudgmental, not too politically correct and also possessed of a sense of humor and honesty, which, you imagine, endeared him to his subjects. If he has expectations and prejudices — “My assumption about deafness was that it was a deficit and nothing more” — he is only too willing to have them demolished. After all, as he explains here with bracing frankness, he too knows about the humiliations involved in the search for (in his case, sexual) identity. He knows what it is to feel like a freak.

But it’s the other voices — the frequently shocking missives from the front line of human existence — that elevate this book from clinical documentary into something more eerie and emotionally resonant. The mother who realizes that her teenage son has sexually abused his young cousin; the dwarf who says forlornly, “We never leaned over in a movie and gently let a hand fall onto a breast . . . our arms aren’t long enough”; another dwarf who explains that, because he looks at people below the waist all day, “my idea of intimacy is the special occasion of looking someone in the face”; the despairing father who lets slip, when taking a birthday cake to his severely autistic 10-year-old in a residential home, “I don’t know who we’re doing this for”; the Rwandan mother of a child conceived in rape, who begs Solomon, “Can you tell me how to love my daughter more?”

There is mystery here, as well as desperation. The autistic child who has spoken only four times in her life (each instance with words “appropriate to the situation”) makes her mother worry that “her soul is trapped.” Solomon is quick to point out: “To have a child totally incapable of language is distressing but straightforward, but to have a child who has spoken four times is to labor in terrifying murkiness.”

But there can be wry laughter and tenderness in the murkiness. The young schizophrenic adored by his nephews and nieces who regard him as “his own particular strong essence.” The baffled mother of a child prodigy confesses her confusion to Solomon. “He just understands all things,” she says of her son, who became curious about the theory of relativity at the age of 3 and entered college at 9. “Someday, I want to work with parents of disabled children, because I know their bewilderment is like mine.”

Infinitely touching too are the stories of the marriages that survive — or crumble — under the weight of so much care­taking. “What we have left, as us,” a mother of two severely autistic children reveals, “is much less than when we got married.” Or, “I was a lot more frivolous before I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of mental illness,” a mother of a schizophrenic says with a sigh.

Solomon is able to appreciate the singular gifts of many “horizontal identities” — the “extreme sweetness of many Down syndrome children,” say, or the richness and pride of deaf culture. It’s only schizophrenia that he describes as pure “unrewarding trauma.” The suffering of schizophrenics and their families, he writes, “seemed unending, and singularly fruitless.”

This is the book’s central conundrum: most of the families he describes are deeply grateful for the very experiences they would have sacrificed everything to avoid. We can’t help loving our children for who they are, not who they might have been. So, a mother whose second son was born as profoundly disabled as her first admits that if she had known the condition might have been repeated she “would not have risked it.” But she immediately contradicts herself by saying if she had the chance to “wipe out that experience,” she certainly wouldn’t have. Solomon declares, “Difference unites us.” But how much difference is too much? It’s a question that neither he nor this work ever manages to answer. But you sense that somewhere in that very uncertainty lies a startlingly accurate definition of parental love. Of the Rwandan rape victim who begged him to help her love her daughter more, Solomon observes, “She did not know how much love was in that question itself.”

The book’s final chapter tells of Solomon’s own journey through marriage to his partner, John, and on into parenthood. It contains a spark of real surprise, and it’s probably testament to the warmth and kindness with which he’s explored the stories of so many others that you find yourself catching your breath, suddenly apprehensive for him, as his life appears poised to come undone. To reveal more would spoil something, but suffice it to say that you end this journey through difference and diversity with an even stronger conviction that life is endlessly, heart-stoppingly, fragile and unknowable.

And yet. Spending time with the parents of a child so disabled he has to be lifted from his bed with a pulley, Solomon notes that to be in the room with them and their son “is to witness a shimmering humanity.” It’s a phrase that should be smoke-trailed across the sky, or at the very least stuck on the family fridge. It’s also a very accurate description of what he’s achieved in this wise and beautiful book.

More books on Children

(LT review) Writers of fiction know that, however many words they write, the opening ones are the most important if the reader is to be seized. Andrew Solomon has applied the method to his latest work of nonfiction. He begins with the statement: “There is no such thing as reproduction.”

In biological terms, this is nonsense: when couples bring forth offspring, their genes are most definitely reproduced, albeit in distributions that are not predictable. But Solomon is trying to get across the point that children are always their own person, a stranger — and in some cases, utterly different from anything their mother and father could ever have anticipated. In no cases is this truer than when the child has a disability; this is Solomon’s theme. He has interviewed 300 such families; the resulting 962-page tome is the reduction of more than 40,000 pages of transcripts.

Solomon has two personal motives for spending 10 years on such an exhaustive project. He is dyslexic and he is gay. The first, his mother dealt with magnificently, teaching him to find a way of reading and writing at a time when teachers were less than understanding. She found the idea that her son was homosexual much harder. This leads Solomon to his second big point: that when someone is radically different from his parents, there is a rupture with the “vertical” identity — the way of life that family members normally have in common, and generally with others of the same social class. Instead, says Solomon, what happens is that their child develops a “horizontal identity”, quite divorced from family background.

Thus, he describes, in the chapter entitled Dwarfs, the way that “since most dwarfs are born to average-sized parents, they do not have vertical community”. I can assure the reader that this is not meant to be a joke. His point is that these little people, endlessly stared at and even ridiculed, will form associations, including marriage, with others of the same purely physical mould. It is only when Solomon visits a convention of the Little People of America that he begins to see them as individuals with as many subtle differences between each other as those of normal size, rather than just “dwarves”. Yet there are some “little people” who desperately want to escape that “horizontal” identity. One mother tells Solomon, “My daughter hated being a dwarf. She would point to the dwarfs we introduced into the house, lovely people, and say, ‘I’d rather be dead than be like those people. Those people are freaks. I hate them.’  ” The girl went through a series of excruciating limb-lengthening operations, and was pleased to have done so.

This touches the most vexed aspect of disability politics, one that Solomon addresses across the spectrum: is it a betrayal of your “horizontal” identity to seek to change it, an admission that the disabled must conform to what ­society deems acceptable, cosmeticallyor otherwise?

Nowhere is this more ferociously fought over than among the deaf. It had always been thought essential for the deaf to be taught how to communicate via speech, even if it seemed unnatural to them and although the sounds that emerged exposed them to another form of ridicule. A sort of deaf liberation movement emerged that regarded all this as a denial of their true identity. It advocates communication entirely through signing. In this, deaf people have their own highly expressive language, and one that is entirely international. But it is a separate world; and as Solomon says, “The question is whether people prefer to be marginal in a mainstream world or mainstream in a marginal world and many people quite understandably prefer the latter.”

This dilemma is also one that troubles those of us who are parents of the mentally disabled. I have a daughter with Down’s syndrome and therefore read with particular interest Solomon’s chapter on what is the commonest form of congenital disability. He talks to Emily ­Kingsley, who when her son Jason was born in 1974 in New York, was discouraged by the doctor from even seeing what he described as “this mongoloid” who would “never learn to speak, think, walk or talk”. The ­Kingsleys thought otherwise, and determined to prove that anything was possible for their son. They taught him to read at four; by the time he was seven, as a result of their efforts, he could count to 10 in 12 languages and could “tell Bach from Mozart from Stravinsky”.

The same year, Jason was taken by his parents on a tour of America, on which they gave more than 100 lectures about their triumphant refutation of ­conventional medical opinion. Emily “felt she had licked DS; she lived in ­triumph”. But now, things are not so obvious. Jason “lives in a lonely demographic. He is too bright for most others with Down’s ­syndrome, but he is not bright enough for people without mental ­disabilities”. His mother tells ­Solomon, with what he describes as “a mix of ­enormous pride and ­terrible regret”, that “He has no peers.”

This is a moving account — in a book brimming with poignancy — with which I can identify. My daughter, who also learnt to read when young, is bright enough to know that she is “not normal” but identifies only with those who are. As Solomon perceptively notes, it is probably those who are sufficiently disabled not to understand who are the least likely to experience mental pain.

Parents — and especially mothers — such as Emily are the heroes of this book. Many describe with extraordinary absence of self-pity how they coped with almost unimaginable adversity: children with profound and multiple disabilities, who indeed would never be able to “speak, think, walk or talk”. These tales demonstrate how in the most important respect the “vertical” familial identity is so much more powerful than Solomon’s “horizontal”. What could be more “vertical” than the mother’s unfathomable and unconditional love for her child, the umbilical cord that can never be broken?

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