Reviews — From the June 2013 issue

Root and Branch

Andrew Solomon’s exploration of difference

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Discussed in this essay:

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. Scribner. 976 pages. $37.50.

Sixteen or so years ago, after it became apparent that neither nature nor medicine would provide my wife and me with a child, we turned to bureaucracy. Social workers vetted us and took our money. After a wait of (as it turned out) almost exactly nine months, and on a couple days’ notice, they delivered into our arms an infant boy. Save for a brief, fraught meeting in a roadside café, we and his birth mother knew each other only as dossiers carefully assembled under the tutelage of the social workers. As much as we might have wanted to, neither party could peer into the mouth of this gift horse to count its teeth or swab its cheek for DNA, to assure ourselves that the person we’d turned to in our mutual need was right for the job.

In keeping with the trends of the time, we treated our son’s origin story as just another fact of life. We read him books like Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, Jamie Lee Curtis’s encomium to social-worker-assisted family building. We answered all his questions honestly. We told him that if the time came when he wanted to meet his “biomom,” as the hospital charts called her, we would help him. We never considered doing otherwise, and it’s just as well: fifteen years later, a five-foot-two mother and five-foot-five father would have difficulty maintaining such a ruse with their six-foot-plus (and still growing) son.

There are some other differences between us and him. Readers by the time we reached kindergarten, we floated more or less effortlessly from there to graduate school and on to our chosen professions. Our son, on the other hand, learned to read his second time through fourth grade, and only after three schools, two neuropsychological evaluations, a few attempts at expensive gimcrack cures, and, finally, an immersion in the lexicon of disability — “dyslexia,” “deficits in associative learning,” “problems with sequential processing,” “disruptive behavior disorder not otherwise specified.” That language mastered, we were taught even more of these secret words: “individualized educational program,” “resource room,” “classroom modifications.”

Measured in some ways, our and our son’s joint education has been a success. He no longer throws a tantrum when, having returned from school to the safe confines of home, he is confronted with some small frustration. He serves out his sentence now — thirteen 180-day years in a place that could not be more unsuited to his temperament and talents — more or less peaceably. He will probably never read a book for pleasure; he hasn’t yet read anything I’ve written, and perhaps he never will. But his preternatural understanding of mechanical devices, his exquisite hand–eye coordination, and his love of improvisation have led him to deeply satisfying pursuits. This winter alone, armed with welder and hammer and torch, he turned a bicycle into a steerable sled, a discarded weight machine into a sleigh, rebar salvaged from the scrapyard into a chair, and railroad spikes into an ornament for my wife’s herb garden.

But of course modern parenting is inescapably and unrelentingly about anxiety, and it is impossible not to worry about what will become of this boy who, though he has mastered the arts of downloading awful music and facebooking with friends, is no match for the information age — its demand that we manipulate symbols for our living, its erasure of the reliable and dignified employment that once afforded handworkers a decent living. And it’s also impossible not to worry over whether we have done enough. Not because we haven’t dedicated ourselves to the task, but because there is something that no amount of testing and advocacy, of nurturing and nagging and pleading, of sympathy or discipline or any other parental effort can overcome. And that is the difference itself. I’ve built a house or two in my time, stripped down and rebuilt car engines, even put down a few beads of weld, and I like to think my interests have something to do with his, but when I look out the window and watch sparks fly for hours from the little workshop he fashioned out of a garden shed, or when words fail him as he tries to explain to me how the thing he is building will work, I see an intelligence so alien to mine as to strike me dumb. We can sometimes — more often these days, as we get to know each other better — bridge the gap, but the gap remains. And every once in a while, when it conjures love in its purest form, it seems holy.

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is the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry (Blue Rider Press). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Apocalypse, Now What?,” appeared in the September 2011 issue.

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