Sunday, December 23, 2012

Far From The Tree by Andrew Soloman

I don’t know when a book has more profoundly agitated me.  When I try to comprehend why, the only explanation I can come up with is that Far From The Tree by Andrew Soloman is just too much of everything. It is too full of well-crafted and deeply-anchored observations on the relationships between exceptional children and their parents. There were too many heartrending family stories, too many epiphanies, too many realities, too many words and pages, and it was too interesting to stop reading.

Solomon (pictured), a Lecturer in Psychology at Cornell University, spent 10 years, interviewed 300 families, and codified 40,000 pages of notes to 960 pages, in the process of mining the question, “To what extent should parents accept their children for who they are, and to what extent should they help them become their best selves.” As if this wasn’t a colossal  enough conundrum to explore, Solomon amplifies the issue by examining it in the context of families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. 

The author was compelled to explore “different children” and their parents as a result of his own identity struggles as a gay child of straight parents – which could suggest agenda-driven research. However, there are two things that, for me at least, underpinned the objectivity of his results. First, it didn’t take him precisely where he thought it would. Solomon said, “Many conditions I had thought of as illnesses emerged as identities in the course of my research. When one can experience a condition as an identity, one can find pride and satisfaction in it. People who don't share such a condition with their parents must build horizontal identity among others who do share it.” (FYI - horizontal identity is peer-oriented, vertical identity is inherited or learned at home). Also, the words of the parents he interviewed cut like a knife in their clarity and meaning. Here are a few examples. Click on Read More...

Prevailing themes in Far From The Tree, in addition to “identity,” include prejudice, policy, scientific and legal breakthroughs, and the below, which I found particularly insightful:
  • Love: “Challenges to the usual course of love can damage it, but equally, they often fortify it, and exceptional children awaken their parents to unexpected, unimagined kinds of beauty and tenderness.”
  • Struggle: “Parents struggle to accept their children; children wrestle with their conditions; families face oppressive social expectations. Everyone struggles with medical crises. Triumph is often preceded by great pain.”
  • Hope:  “Hope is the engine of social changes that mitigate disability and difference.”
  • Transcendence: “Parents may outgrow the bias they once had toward unfamiliar conditions; their children may transcend the idea that they are wholly defined by their singularities.”
  • Illness: “Our notion of what constitutes an illness is in constant flux. Defining something as an illness paves the way to good treatment and ensures that research gets funded. But the term illness can be dangerously stigmatizing.”
  • Activism: “Some people become activists as a means of convincing themselves that they are okay; others, as a means of convincing the world that they are okay.” 
When I brought Far From The Tree up during dinner conversation last week and gave a brief overview of the book, a friend asked me if it was inspiring or depressing. My response was “Yes, it was.”

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