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Andrew Solomon’s exploration of difference

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.

Our son fell far from the tree. Some of this we understand as the result of his having fallen from another tree entirely. Some of it, especially his learning difficulties, we attribute to the circumstances of his birth — a month or so premature, abandoned in neonatal intensive care by his distraught biomom, three weeks under fluorescent lights vying with desperately sick infants for the attention of put-upon nurses who stood guard against us and our (to them) disruptive ways. Or we attribute it to our own mistakes, like our failure to recognize that when he turned his back on the toddler-gymnastics instructor, it was because he was overwhelmed by the demand to follow a sequence of instructions and not because he was merely willful.

Such explanations are inadequate and coherent in equal measure, serving at least as much to satisfy the demand for a story as to get to the truth of our differences. But stories are what we need when difference imposes confusion or suffering, and the hoary tropes of nature and nurture seem to be our most common devices for telling them. The cleverest thing Andrew Solomon does in Far from the Tree, his new book, is to sidestep that divide, which, like the divide between mind and body, is a pathology of rationalism and its need to reduce us to our first causes. Solomon’s starting point is the simple fact of difference between parents and children. “There is no such thing as reproduction,” Solomon writes. The idea that two people making a baby “are but braiding themselves together . . . is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads.”

All our acorns, in other words, fall far from the tree. But some are more distantly sown than others, and for Solomon, sameness/difference is a much more significant and interesting divide than nature/nurture. “Most children share at least some traits with their parents,” he writes. They possess what he calls “vertical identities,” in which “attributes and values are passed down . . . not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms.” Ethnicity, skin color, nationality — these are all bases on which vertical identities are constructed. But a child can also acquire — and sometimes, through recessive or mutated genes, inherit — traits “foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity.” Autism, physical disability, and schizophrenia are all horizontal identities, and the burdens they impose on child and parent alike are Solomon’s main subject.

Far from the Tree is not an argument so much as a travel guide, the result of a series of journeys Solomon has taken over the past decade into ten duchies of difference, ranging from deafness to Down syndrome, from children born of rape to children born with prodigious musical talent. It’s more Lonely Planet than Frommer’s, eschewing bland neutrality in favor of educating readers about these contested territories, where parents, doctors, and policymakers square off over basic questions about human nature and its limits. Solomon wants us to look beyond that confusion to recognize the opportunity he thinks is built into disability, if only parents understand and respond to it properly. “Children with horizontal identities alter your self painfully,” Solomon writes near the beginning of his book.

They also illuminate it. They are receptacles for rage and joy — even for salvation. When we love them, we achieve above all else the rapture of privileging what exists over what we have merely imagined.

But these children are more than containers for our private emotions. They also fulfill a liberal epiphany: that diversity is an imperative not only of the natural world, as in the inexplicable but undeniable burgeoning of species noted by Darwin, but also of the moral world. Our struggle to nurture our children’s horizontal identities exposes the tribalism and narcissism with which vertical identity infects us. But when we succeed — when we surrender to the world as we find it (and to our children as we find them) — we gain the antidote to our pathologies. The result, Solomon claims, is transcendent. “As the jagged Alps are to the romantic sublime,” he writes, “so this curious joy is to the character of these families — nearly impossible, terrible, and terribly beautiful.”

Like most salvific visions, Solomon’s is at once forward-looking and prelapsarian, anticipating a future that returns us to some exalted origin. His notion of radical acceptance harks back to the first chapter of Genesis, in which God appoints Adam and Eve “masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth.” Because the first couple have not yet partaken of the forbidden fruit and fallen into judgment, God can rely on them not to rearrange creation, to be stewards of the garden and leave the sowing and reaping to him.

In suggesting this parental catechism, Solomon commits heresy against that most compelling of modern religions, scientific medicine, according to which differences, or at least the differences that cause suffering, are best understood as diseases. Solomon, a gay man who was born in 1963 and whose sexuality was evident to him early on, is perfectly situated to understand just how oppressive the orthodoxy can be. When he was ten years old, the American Psychiatric Association, under pressure from activists inside and outside the profession, removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Having been freed from diagnosis, Solomon grasps the meaning hidden in the word “disease”: to call a difference that causes suffering an illness is to say we’d all be better off without it, that it ought to be eradicated. And because, as Solomon writes, “there is no ontological truth enshrined in what we think of as good health,” to render a diagnosis and prescribe a cure is to enforce a “tyranny of the majority.”

If health and illness are matters of social agreement rather than scientific fact, the doctor becomes an ambiguous figure, as much Frankenstein as Pasteur or Salk. From the perspective of people at the wrong end of the hypodermic needle or curette, the Enlightenment impulse to perfection through knowledge can appear more monstrous than the monstrosities it seeks to eliminate. “The question of what lives are worth living is now answered in doctors’ offices instead of in the Nazis’ T-4 program,” writes a professor of deaf studies whom Solomon quotes approvingly. “The forces of normalization seem to be gaining ground.”

This kind of rhetoric is a staple of identity politics, in which victimization and oppression lurk around every corner. “Most hearing people assume that to be deaf is to lack hearing,” Solomon writes.

Many Deaf people experience deafness not as an absence, but as a presence. Deafness is a culture and a life, a language and an aesthetic, a physicality and an intimacy different from all others.

Which means that therapies — not only cochlear implants but also hearing aids, attempts to teach lipreading, prenatal counseling for genetic deafness — cannot be entirely benevolent, no matter their intent. What most of the world thinks of as illness, Solomon tells us, some deaf people — those who would call themselves Deaf — think of as an identity. What most of the world thinks of as coping techniques, the Deaf think of as culture. And what most of the world thinks of as cure, the Deaf think of as genocide.

Solomon acknowledges that identity politics are better suited to some illnesses than others. When a father contemplating limb-lengthening surgery for his dwarf daughter asks, “What is the most important thing you can think of other than being able to wipe yourself?” the scales seem tipped toward treatment; it is hard to imagine a culture that can confer dignity quite as effectively as the proposed operation. “Schizophrenia cries out almost unconditionally for treatment,” Solomon writes. “The remarkable parents I met during this research would be better off, as would their children, if schizophrenia didn’t exist.” I don’t think he is expecting an Ebola Pride movement to arise anytime soon, and I doubt anyone would argue that polio vaccinations ought to be discouraged so that people with withered limbs can make the world more interesting.

But even if he never quite says how we can know which conditions are too awful to be redeemed, Solomon does make clear that identity and illness are not mutually exclusive categories. As he points out, transgender people were among the most vocal groups weighing in on the recent revision of the DSM — not to object to being pathologized, but rather to demand that the diagnosis of gender identity disorder be preserved in the new edition, and with it their potential access to insurance-covered, doctor-sanctioned surgery and hormone treatments. Similarly, people with Asperger syndrome have objected to the removal of their diagnosis from the updated DSM — and with it the loss of many educational and vocational services, along with an identity that explains their awkwardness. A disease is, among other things, a condition of suffering that is deemed worthy of societal resources.

The resources in question aren’t always, or even primarily, material, at least not in Solomon’s telling. When an autistic man writes that “autism isn’t something a person has, or a ‘shell’ that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being,” he’s not after insurance payments or special ed. Just as some gay and transgender people have affirmed the word “queer” in order to claim their place on what they insist is a natural spectrum of sexual orientation, so this man would affirm his label in order to live unmolested in a neurodiverse world. He (or, as in most of Solomon’s examples, his parents) would cleanse the disease label of the stink of pathology in order to gain that most precious of all social goods: acceptance.

Anyone who has read Solomon’s previous book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, knows he is a very good writer. His ear for assonance, his flair for aphorism, and his eye for detail allow him to pull readers deep into his subject without tangling us in its weeds. His gift for rendering the complex intelligible without oversimplifying compensates for an earnestness that sometimes borders on cloying. And his evident rapport with his interviewees provides an immediacy impossible to resist, no matter how disturbing their stories. When he observes of the mother of a teenager convicted of murder that “there’s a fine line between heroic love and willful blindness,” you can’t help but agree and contemplate how you would tread that line. When parents of profoundly disabled children confess their filicidal thoughts, you can’t help but be devastated on their behalf and wonder whether the same thoughts would pass through your mind. When the father of a gangbanger says that his boy just “needs a cause” and then asks Solomon to help find one for him, the man’s piteousness is so vivid as to be nearly unbearable. And when the Rwandan mother of a child conceived in rape implores Solomon (because, she says, he “write[s] about this field of psychology”) to “tell me how to love my daughter more,” you’re simply gutted.

On the other hand, when he writes that brain-damaged children are receptacles for rage and joy, or when he suggests that “the world is made more interesting by having every sort of person in it,” it’s difficult not to see these as purely aesthetic judgments by which other people’s suffering becomes his occasion for empty, if delightful, grandiloquence. Even the most sophisticated pyrotechnics can be dangerous to readers. The noise and smoke can distract and obscure, even if that’s not his intent. And indeed Solomon has left something important hidden in his gorgeous fog.

The book’s heft is the first clue. The ten chapters about various horizontal identities are all versions of the same story. Parents who expected only the usual trials and rewards of parenting are confronted with children who are anything but usual. They react with grief and despair, with anger and denial and demands. They consider abortion, institutionalization, abandonment, and murder. They get exhausted, overwhelmed; their friends desert them, their doctors and therapists betray them, and the mess that passes for a health-care system bewilders them. They agonize over the meaning and purpose of life, about what it means to “cure” a condition that isn’t necessarily a disease. And though Solomon is not judgmental, the characters he is most interested in are those who consistently choose the harder path, who do not consign their children to institutions or professionals but remain steadfast and fiercely loyal. They see, as Solomon says he did when he thought for a moment that his own infant son might be brain-damaged, “how splendor can illuminate even the most abject vulnerabilities.” They discover that “pain is the threshold of intimacy, and catastrophe burnishes devotion.” And they emerge stronger, better, and with no regrets; over and over again, people pronounce themselves grateful for their experiences and insist they wouldn’t have had their lives any other way.

But you’re left to wonder why Solomon wanted to tell this story so many times. After all, the tensions he introduces between identity/illness and acceptance/cure are not exactly new; nor is he even pretending to resolve them here. And it’s really not that hard to extrapolate from any one or two of the dilemmas presented to any of your more mundane parental struggles. Indeed, extrapolating is pretty much what parents do all the time. Your daughter pulls against your hand in a parking lot and a reel of mayhem unspools before you — the screech of brakes and the thump of body — so you squeeze her for dear life. Your toddler bites a nursery-school classmate and you foresee a life of violent crime. You hear about a writer’s son’s inability to read at age ten and you wonder what it means that your four-year-old still can’t sound out Hop on Pop. You learn of a neighbor’s daughter gone deaf and you snap your fingers behind your own daughter’s head to make sure she whirls around. And your panic isn’t only over the catastrophe under discussion. It’s over the whole panoply of disasters that can befall any life. Inter urinas et faeces nascimur, St. Augustine supposedly said; parents are alternately pissed off and scared shitless forever afterward, and if it is salubrious to be reminded that we are all in the same boat, or perversely encouraging to find that some boats are leakier than others, we hardly need to hear it so many times.

Still, the rise of reality television indicates an unending appetite for participating, up close, in other people’s travails — and not, or so I like to tell myself, only because cruelty and humiliation make such compelling entertainment. These programs do generally hold out redemption. The survivor survives. The bachelor gets his woman. The American gets idolized, the cops get their man, and the man, presumably, learns his lesson, puts on a shirt, and gets a job. Solomon is conscious of filling this voyeuristic appetite, although he doesn’t invoke reality TV to explain it. Instead he gives us his gloss on a comment William Dean Howells once made to Edith Wharton: “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

The implication of his remark was that we didn’t have the stomach for Lear mad upon the heath with no redemption in sight. I would offer a different reading. I would say that it is increasingly our character to seek transformation . . . But the vital piece of this inclination toward the light is the unshakable belief that catastrophes properly end in resolution, that tragedies are frequently a phase rather than an endgame.
This book seeks the nobility buried in Howells’s disparagement. It is predicated on an even more optimistic notion, which is that the happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies, that they not only transcend the mawkishness to which Howells alludes, but also produce a contentment more cherished than one untempered by suffering . . . Tragedies with happy endings may be sentimental tripe, or they may be the true meaning of love.

To judge from the book’s success with critics and readers alike, the notion that parents with severely afflicted children can still incline toward the light is just the sort of happy-ending tragedy the public wants at this moment.

Salvation awaits. All you need is the right catastrophe to burnish your devotion and carry you over the threshold to intimacy. But Solomon is not wishing ill on you and yours. Quite the contrary. As he explains in his conclusion, he intends Far from the Tree to be read at least in part as a self-help book. This goes some way toward explaining its reiterative nature. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Power of Positive Thinking, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — all follow the same method: stating and restating one or two (or seven) simple ideas and illustrating them with vividly rendered, often extreme tales designed to solicit empathy, teach virtue, and provide inspiration.

Solomon calls his book a “how-to manual for receptivity.” His parental subjects are exemplars of this virtue, showing us all a better, if more difficult, way to live. In a nation of self-improvers, it is hard, perhaps heroic, to submit — to refuse the benefits of capital and technology, to say no to the surgeon or the psychologist, and to allow suffering to abide.

But receptivity isn’t much of a virtue until we know just what we are receiving. To a surgeon who knows how to lengthen a dwarf’s limbs, it might seem anything but virtuous to deny the operation to a dwarf. To a psychologist, a mother’s love of her criminal son might seem not so much willful blindness as “enabling.” Only a nihilist would insist that the ecstasies of receptivity always trump the possibilities of therapy, and that no suffering ought to be relieved.

Solomon has an agonized relationship with choice. As a gay man, how could he not? Choice may be, as he observes, the “aspirational currency” of American life, but the nation’s recent welcome of homosexuality rests on a notion that sexual orientation is immutable. As his examples make clear, he believes our sense of what we can change about ourselves has been juiced by a concoction of medical science, technological wizardry, and, perhaps above all else, the blind optimism of American life — the faith, so close to the bone as to be undetectable, that we are deciders; that circumstance is just raw, infinitely malleable material; that if we make the right choices, we will be rewarded with health and abundance and above all with a strong and coherent identity.

The parents in Solomon’s book find happy endings to their tragedies only when they submit to their children’s pathologies. Solomon contends “that everyone has a defect, that everyone has an identity, and that they are often one and the same.” In Far from the Tree, defect offers what sin once provided: the boundary where freedom leaves off.

And this is the revelation that lurks in the haze of Solomon’s book, the message it rehashes at every turn: not that you have to play the hand you are dealt, but that you are dealt a hand in the first place, that there is such a thing as fate. After a century that fetishized a self unconstrained by heredity or class or fortune, by anything other than insufficient resolve, a hundred years in which self-perfection was just one more therapy session or surgical procedure or job change or purchase away — after all that, Solomon suggests, still there are choices we are not free to make and destinies we cannot escape.

There’s relief in this discovery. We might be spared not only the “weariness selection entails” but also the vertiginous confusions of building a self amid endless possibilities. I’m glad to have the labels that help me understand and accept my son and help him do the same for himself. I’m grateful not to have to deliberate over whether to give him a pill or a surgery that might cure his learning disabilities at the expense of his gifts. I don’t even want to ponder the decisions I might have made about whether to adopt him had I known in advance of the troubles he’d face. Some choices weren’t meant to be made.

Or so I tell myself. In fact, we can’t really be sure what those limits are, and Solomon’s attempt to justify them by valorizing diversity is unconvincing. Is victimhood, even victimhood with a happy ending, the best we can do?

Not that long ago, this question would not have been before us. Falling far from the tree simply meant being denied water and fertile soil even as those lucky enough to drop close by took deep root. Lucky and unlucky alike, people knew where they belonged in the world, what was expected of them, and what they should expect from themselves. Those old sources of identity have dried up. As liberating as this may be, still we yearn for that solid footing. That we may be finding it in defect perhaps only reflects how weary of our freedom, how horrified by what it has wrought, how sick of ourselves we have become.

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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