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Anatomy of difference: Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Far from the tree by Andrew Solomon cover
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity
by Andrew Solomon
Chatto & Windus
976pp
$69.95 AU
Published February, 2013
ISBN 9780701176112

The relationship between parents and children is idealised and sentimentalised in popular culture, or at least it used to be before Hollywood zeroed in on the teenage market and started to present children and childlike adults behaving badly. Many of us were raised on the treacly offerings of American television series such as Leave it to Beaver and The Partridge Family, in which fathers were strong, mothers were kind, and their offspring might be charming or goofy or even rascally, but were always healthy and, ultimately, good.

As usual, the ancient Greeks had a clearer fix on things. Their myths and plays were full of horrific parent-child relationships, from Zeus violently deposing Chronos, to Agamemnon slaying his only daughter, to Medea baking her boys into a pie to get back at their father, to the shocking fates of Oedipus and his immediate relatives. This was before Christian imagery engraved into our hearts the devoted Madonna and child, and the tough but loving Father of His Son and of the rest of us. In the twentieth century, the Greeks’ cast of characters was resurrected by Freud and his followers as metaphors in a new post-Christian orthodoxy. The Freudians offered an explanation of the dark heart of family life, a life which formed, reformed and deformed each generation in succession, cultivating the unhappiness of neurosis deep within us all.

European fairy tales, too, with their roots in primeval beliefs, recognised the inconvenience of family relationships, and their contemporary avatars, such as the medievalist stories of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, continue the tradition. These educational narratives often involve orphans, so that the complications and restrictions of parenting need not be taken into account, or they involve hostile step-parents, so that bad parenting could very precisely and unsparingly be taken into account. Happy families in these scenarios are not only presumed to be all alike, they are unnecessary to explore – that is, if they exist at all. Unhappy families, by contrast, provide the raw material for our ongoing examination of life.

In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon amplifies this starting point. He forensically examines families in which children turn out to be not what their parents had fondly expected. The title is a twist on the proverb, ‘The apple never falls far from the tree’. His question is: But what happens when they do?

‘Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary,’ he writes. ‘I take the anti-Tolstoyan view 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.’

Solomon is not just talking about run-of-the-mill family tensions here. He is talking about children whose parents could not in their wildest dreams have predicted what they would bring into the world: children with serious physical, mental and emotional disabilities, children who commit terrible crimes, children who are the outcome of rape. Children, in other words, whose very appearance creates shock, or will create it when their future is glimpsed, whose parents, one way or another and in varying time scales, experience mourning, post-traumatic stress, shame, profound inadequacy as an integral part of parenthood.

Parents might reject their children as a result, and both sides must live with that for the rest of their lives. Parents might accept their children, but grudgingly and aversively, wreaking psychological devastation on everyone around. Others, the ones who come to embrace their children, are the ones who experience happiness in a multitude of ways. It is the latter that Solomon concentrates on, minimising, though not entirely ignoring, the other scenarios: ‘myriad families learn to tolerate, accept, and finally celebrate children who are not what they originally had in mind,’ he writes. It is the heroism of these parents and children, the ways in which they come to really know each other, that makes the book so powerfully moving. It may also make it unbearable reading for those children, whether challenged in the ways described or not, who have not been so lucky.

‘When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production,’ Solomon writes on the very first page, ‘and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads.’ This sets the scene for a humane and openhearted magnum opus, unfolding over a marathon 950 pages. It is forensic in its examination of medical and psychological phenomena. Most important, however, is its very precise reportage from the outer limits of intimacy. ‘Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,’ Solomon continues. ‘Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.’

The author, now in his late 40s, experienced difference early, first as a child with severe dyslexia, then as a gay teenager. His mother embraced his first difference, helping him by constant coaching to grow into the wonderful writer that he is today. She spent endless hours with him, showing him flash cards, sounding out letters, building words and sentences. When eleven schools refused him admission on the ground that he would never learn to read and write, she persisted. She did not, however, ease his growth into homosexuality and Solomon describes a succession of small things – not being allowed to choose a pink balloon, for example, and being firmly told that his favourite colour is blue – that amounted to unrelenting, if undefined, pressure away from his natural path.

He was a quirky, unpopular child, but that didn’t seem to dint his self-possession or his pursuit of idiosyncratic interests. He never swapped baseball cards, he tells us, but he did unsquashably recount the arcane plots of operas on the school bus, from which he was eventually so badly ostracised that his parents arranged to have him accompanied to and from school. His parents not only allowed, they encouraged his individuality. They also gave him lessons in kindness and justice. He recalls his mother insisting he go to a Hispanic classmate’s birthday party, one of only two white kids out of a class of 40 who did. He was frightened by the foreign language and the foreign food and went home in tears. But later, he writes, he was glad he had gone, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it fostered an attitude of tolerance which eventually ‘allowed me to stomach myself’ and to find happiness in adulthood.

His parents were sophisticated people and must have known where his interests and demeanour were pointing. Indeed, they had gay friends. But they had difficulty accepting his sexual orientation. Conventionality was only part of the story: Solomon believes that his mother could not bear the thought of how vulnerable it would make him. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want a gay son, he writes; it is that she didn’t want to be the mother of a gay man. His parents had dealt with their own outsider status as Jews. His maternal grandfather had hidden it in order to keep his job. His mother had not remained hidden, and had married a Jewish man, but was never as comfortable in her skin as her husband was. It was easier for his father to accept that young Andrew was gay.

In his teenage years, when he already knew he was same-sex attracted, Solomon poured over men’s magazines, hoping for a sexual epiphany. He experimented, unsuccessfully, with female prostitutes. One has to remember that homosexuality was until very recently considered an illness, a sin and a crime, self-contradictory though the juxtaposition may seem. It was, Solomon reminds us, only removed from the official list of mental illnesses in the U.S. in 1973. It is still considered a perversion and a sin by many on the religious right, and the current debate on same-sex marriage has brought those attitudes out roaring. His journey to self-acceptance, and acceptance by those close to him, has not been easy and Solomon ascribes to that the depression that has plagued him, on and off, for most of his life. He movingly chronicled that experience in his previous, much-laurelled book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001). The fight for equanimity and justice in his own life is the red thread running through this enormous new study too.

Far from the Tree came out of an intensively researched piece that Solomon wrote about deaf people for the New York Times. He encountered people who were the only member of their family unable to hear. He encountered people who were part of a deaf tribe. He met people who saw it as a disability to be surmounted with as many medical interventions and gadgets as required. He met people who saw themselves as part of a defining and flourishing community, Deaf with a capital D.

The job became more than just another story when he realised that Deaf culture had clear parallels to gay culture. Both groups were searching for a positive identity to ameliorate the accident of biology. Both were stigmatised outside, as well as within, the family circle, making the search for a peer group both essential and problematic. While deaf people are less likely than gays to be warned by religious fanatics that they will burn in hell, they too must pick their way through conflicting responses to their difference – from pity to embarrassment to distaste – as they form their sense of self.

Soon after Solomon’s epiphany, a friend had a daughter who was a dwarf, which only consolidated his interest in difference. He watched his friend agonise over how she should handle her child’s difference. Should she raise her to consider herself just like everyone else, only shorter?  Should she do the opposite and seek out dwarfs who could mentor her? Should she consider limb-lengthening surgery? Some political activists in the dwarf community see that surgery as being like the cochlear implant to political advocates among the deaf: an offence against difference, akin to genocide. Solomon is candid about his lack of certainty about this. On one hand, he understands why someone would hate to be diagnosed as ‘wrong’, needing to be fixed. As a gay man, he continues to encounter those who will not accept the naturalness of homosexuality, but rather seek to cure or exorcise it. On the other hand, as a father, he also understands why parents would do anything to spare their child physical and psychological pain.

As his researches into difference progressed, he encountered more and more people who consider their difference a matter of identity rather than disability. They are the people who are against genetic screening for pregnant women, for example, the people who protested violently when the Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, a proponent of utilitarianism who has advocated euthanasia for the severely disabled, was appointed to Princeton University. Solomon quotes Marsha Saxton, a New York academic who has spina bifida: ‘those of us with screenable conditions represent living adult fetuses that didn’t get aborted. Our resistance to the systematic abortion of “our young” is a challenge to the “nonhumanness” the nonstatus of the fetus.’ He also quotes Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, specialists in disability studies, who say that people who seek cures for the disabled are ‘[subjugating] the very population they intend to rescue’. They have called the elimination of disability ‘the completion of modernity as a cultural project’. This sentence reminded me of being startled, as young philosophy undergraduate, when a Salvation Army minister calmly told me that medical staff routinely smothered grossly deformed babies, as a mercy to everyone involved, and passed them off as stillborn.

Solomon is sympathetic but ambivalent about the activists’ worldview, and recognises that the same ambivalence pervades society. At one point he compares a physical disability, blindness, with being gay:

having a selfhood that others perceive as undesirable is identical. But our decisions to maximise health …  and avoid illness … do not necessarily devalue those who are sick or otherwise different. My own battles with depression have contributed to a meaningful identity for me, but if I were choosing between a depression-prone child and one who would never such ravages, I’d go with option B in a heartbeat. Even though the illness would probably become a locus of intimacy for me, I still wouldn’t want it to happen.

His locutions are interesting. He refers to two different children – one who is depression-prone and one who is not – rather than the same one facing different paths in life. It is a curious figure of speech given the tenor of the rest of his book.

Elsewhere, someone with autism tells him:

When parents says ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they are really saying is ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (nonautistic) child instead.’ … This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and stranger you can love will move in behind our faces.

For ten years after the article on deafness was published, Solomon surveyed this quest for acceptance, reading everything germane and interviewing more than 300 people along the way. Each of his chapters is devoted to a specific type of difference. He studies dwarfs, schizophrenics, prodigies, and transgendered people; people with autism, with Down syndrome, and with physical disabilities. He considers the children of rape and children who have committed crimes, some dreadful. He examines each group forensically, through the filter of the parent-child relationship. This is not a book about the conditions as such, though he carefully examines the existential and experiential context of each. Rather, it is about parents coping with their children’s problem and the children’s coping with the parent’s coping. His examples are sometimes frightful, often poignant. He is a bravely unflinching observer.

Far from the Tree is also an extended piece of advocacy. Solomon explains the difference between vertical and horizontal identity. Vertical identity comes from our parents, genetically or culturally, and includes race, which cannot be changed, and religion, which frequently is. He points out that vertical identity is a pre-cognitive thing: fathers are less likely to be abusive towards children who resemble them than towards children who don’t. Horizontal identity comes from our peers, from our sense of difference to our families and the compensating sense of belonging to other, unrelated people who are more like us. People with deviations from the norm, and people who flee their parents’ value system, seek others they can relate to. These others can cement an identity that had previously seemed provisional or wrong.

In a section that gives away Solomon’s agenda, he writes: ‘Whereas families tend to reinforce vertical identities from earliest childhood, many will oppose horizontal ones. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.’ Anyone who saw comedian Josh Thomas’s face on a recent episode of Q&A, while Brisbane’s Catholic archbishop was describing gay people as ‘flaws’ in God’s omnipotent design, will understand the sense of injustice invoked.  Inevitably, parents are shocked and disappointed, but also frightened, when they realise the child for whom they had so carefully readied their lives will not play out part, or even any, of the scripted role. ‘A child’s marked difference from the rest of the family demands knowledge, competence, and actions that a typical mother and father are unqualified to supply, at least initially,’ Solomon writes, generously.

He compares the knowledge they will have to acquire in order to become competent as something like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics: both matter and energy can sometimes operate like a wave and sometimes like discrete particles. Viewing them in only one way obscures reality. And yet, such are our human limitations, it is very difficult to keep both concepts in our head at once. Defining human difference as a medical pathology and as an identity operates in a similar way. The concepts are cognitively dissonant but, even with the best intentions, we have to be careful that leaning towards one does not rule out the benefits that accrue from seeing the other.

A book this size inevitably has its longueurs, but it is worth persevering with. I left the chapter on transgendered people until last, for example, because it interested me least; in the end it was the most emotionally devastating and thought provoking. ‘Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is that we give our children what we wanted, whether they want it or not,’ Solomon writes in that chapter. Raising children, however, involves a precarious balancing act of allowing them to be themselves, yet providing rules and boundaries within which they will feel safe and flourish. ‘The longing of a child is to be seen, and once the child is seen, he or she wants to be loved.’

A barrier to the wider understanding of transgender people is that their condition involves two inimical concepts: sex and childhood. Because being transgender is congenital, it expresses itself from the start, too early for the person in question to make ‘lifestyle choices’ or decide on a course of action. ‘It is a poverty of our language that we use the word sex to refer both to gender and to carnal acts,’ Solomon observes, ‘and from that unfortunate conflation springs much of the disgust around the notion of transgender children.’ Sexual anomaly in children is considered doubly weird: for itself, and because it upsets the assumption of children’s virginal innocence. Of course, that contradiction also provides the clue to their identity: ‘transgender children are not manifesting sexuality; they are manifesting gender.’

Homosexual and transgender orientations are often confused and conflated, Solomon observes. And for an obvious reason: ignorance. Three million of 300 million-plus Americans are transgendered: it is a genetic blip manifested in a range of physical and psychological conditions. As television host Barbara Walters described it, ‘what’s between their legs doesn’t match what’s between their ears.’ The trap for most transgender children – and I mean children in age, here, not the relational fact of being children of parents – is that it is easier to pretend to be the sex written on their birth certificates, even if that involves a constantly self-eroding negation of who they are, than it is to insist on the reality. Solomon calls it ‘living stealth’.

The fact that transgendered identity manifests in childhood leads to another problem: that, like cochlear implants and limb-lengthening procedures, medical intervention is best started early, often before the child concerned has the maturity to make the choice for him- or herself, having weighed up the political argument against ‘cure’. If it is going to work, it must begin before the testosterone flush of adolescence thickens boys’ bones, lowers their voices and gives them an Adam’s apple. Girls trapped in the wrong body can have an easier time of it, mostly because breasts, the main externally defining characteristic of womanhood, can be bound or removed relatively easily.

Even supportive parents of transgender children must work to negotiate their acceptance, something that shows up linguistically. ‘He’s my daughter,’ is one phrase Solomon quotes. ‘I use the word child because I cannot wrap my mind around daughter, even though I’m fine calling my child Elaine,’ another parent told him.

One of the most moving case studies in the book involves the lesbian parents of a transgender child, a rare example of underclass experience. Wealthier, more educated people can throw money at a problem and activate know-how, hiring experts and carers, challenging laws, writing books and forming activist groups to enhance understanding and provide better care for children like theirs, and to displace their anxiety into action. Hailey Krueger and Jane Ritter did not have the luxury. They had both hidden their lesbian tendencies, married men and had children. They eventually met in a homeless shelter. When they got together, both found low-paying service jobs and tried to make a home for each other and their children. Krueger’s boy, Jayden, had always maintained he was really a girl and, at five, renamed himself Hannah after Hannah Montana, the Disney character who lived a double life.

Solomon tells their story with sympathy. When Jayden’s school wanted to send him to a therapist because of his non-conforming behaviour, including wearing nail polish, his mothers refused. They did not want him ‘deprogrammed’, Ritter told Solomon. They had never heard the term transgender and didn’t know there were other children like Jayden; their acceptance was instinctive. Despite the love and the acceptance, however, their poverty and unfamiliarity with the system worked against them. Jayden/Hannah was taken into care and the women are only allowed to see her for carefully monitored sessions once a week. Ritter’s son, too, was taken away.

There are many other memorable interviews in the book. Solomon’s conversation with the parents of one of the two boys who killed several fellow-students at Columbine High School before turning their guns on themselves is startling. Initially, Solomon thought getting to know Tom and Sue Klebold might give some insight into their son’s behaviour. Instead, it only deepened the mystery. He describes them as the kind of parents many a neglected or abused child might have prayed for. And yet their son snapped. ‘Trapped in their own private Oresteia, they learned astonishing forgiveness and empathy. They are victims of the terrifying, profound unknowability of even the most intimate human relationship,’ Solomon writes. And yet, they preserved their intrinsic kindness and optimism through all the abuse neighbours and strangers could throw at them.

Underlying Solomon’s work is the idea that, once we start looking, we find so many people who differ from the norm that describing a norm becomes almost meaningless. A fat kid in a thin family, the only girl on the block with Asian features, someone interested in high culture in a derisively pop world, someone not interested in football in Melbourne: all exist on a continuum of exclusion, from the mild to the extreme, which includes the cases Solomon discusses. In fact, many of the children in Solomon’s study would see few parallels with children in other chapters, except perhaps for the exhaustion of putting up with prejudice and misunderstanding.

Because it is a work of advocacy, Far from the Tree is also overly optimistic. When fighting for a better world of acceptance, one tends to accentuate the positives. It is a similar feat of re-emphasis when one chooses to redefine a stigmatised condition as a cultural identity. But justice demands that the negatives be appraised unflinchingly. Solomon’s references to dreadful outcomes are the minimum required for credibility. He does say that more than half of transgender people are rejected by their families. He does recognise the high suicide rate among prodigies and schizophrenics and transgendered people. He does comment on the number of marriage breakdowns among the parents of complicated children. Though he does not dwell on these statistics, this reviewer took twice as long as expected to read the book because tears kept intervening. Sometimes descriptions of kindness and bravery are more devastating than descriptions of cruelty. They also set ethical benchmarks for all of us. The very existence of Solomon’s book banishes any attempt to claim allowance for ignorance or cowardice.