Some thoughts on Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity”

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

 by Andrew Solomon

                 How do parents understand, accept, nurture, value, support and cope  with children who are different from them? Are conditions we may normally think of as handicaps really unique and different types of identities that need to be respected and appreciated? Would we lose something as a society if these conditions vanished? These questions are at the heart of Andrew Solomon’s new book. Solomon delineates the challenges that children who are fundamentally different from their parents pose to families. Solomon interposes personal stories of families who have struggled with their child’s differentness/handicaps and, wrestled with the question of whether to try and normalize their child or at least help their child overcome their differentness as much as possible,  with more abstract discussion of the conditions that make children significant different from their parents (Autism, Deafness, Transgender, Down’s Syndrome and others) and the challenges and variations associated with these conditions or different ways of being.  For example, when discussing Dwarfs Solomon contrasts those who have attempted to cure their child’s short stature with those who have accepted and supported their child’s identity as and participation in Dwarf culture.  Similarly, he examines the tensions parents of the Deaf face: whether to allow and/or facilitate their child’s involvement in the Deaf Community, become part of Deaf culture, versus trying to cure their child’s deafness with cochlear implants.

Solomon examines conditions we would normally think of as handicaps, and questions whether these conditions are really handicaps or alternative identities.  This argument in most challenging when raised in regard to questions that we typically think of as handicaps, such as deafness, Autism and Down’s Syndrome.  In his examination of  deafness and Down’s Syndrome he notes the technological innovations that may lead to a decrease if not the potential elimination of Down’s Syndrome and Deafness, questions whether this will be a benefit or a loss for our society. By contrast he notes the dramatic increase in Autism and questions how this will change how we view people with Autism.

Solomon notes that historically certain conditions, homosexuality, were previously considered handicaps or forms of deviance, but now have been accepted (by many) as a normal variation of human experience. He muses about whether technological advances that might allow for parents to “cure” or prevent differentness (by early identification and abortion or even more advanced technologies) will truly be a boon for humanity or a loss.

This is a valuable book because it makes us rethink questions we may think we have answered. While it may be unsettling to think of conditions we normally think of as handicaps as “identities” (a different but equally valid way of being in the world) and as part of human diversity (the loss of which would lessen our diversity and potentially some aspects of our humanity) these questions are worth pondering.  Moreover, for those with children who are significantly different than their parents this book offers hope, inspiration and a reassessment of how we think about certain conditions.

I would also note that at times this book can be repetitive both in drawing out distinctions between vertical (inherited) and hierarchical (constructed) identities and in offering one too many personal stories of families who have grown from accepting and valuing their child’s differentness. However, in Solomon’s defense his discussion of and interviews with families with Autistic children is certainly not upbeat or overly positive.  In addition, there are times where  Solomon seems to be stacking the deck  when considering how a child’s differentness as facilitated their parents’ emotional growth and allowed the child to form a unique identity.  In  Solomon’s defense this may have been unavoidable as the parents he interviews and draws inspiration from are ones who have found much to value in their child’s differentness. Obviously, it would be much harder to find parents with the opposite perspective.  Finally,  the question of differentness is clearly not an either or situation: being Deaf or a Dwarf can be a different identity and a handicap; trying to nurture and support children who are different in forming their own identity while also helping them learn to navigate mainstream society is clearly superior to insisting that only one of those alternatives is correct.   Despite these weakness this is a valuable book that can make us all appreciate the humanity and grace, as well as the challenges and limitations, of conditions we all too often quickly dismiss as handicaps.

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