Far From The Tree / Andrew Solomon

While most parents realize that their children will have a personality of their own, few expect or can imagine a child that does not match society’s prevailing norms.  In this fascinating book, Andrew Solomon chronicles stories of families coping (and not always succeeding) when they learn that their child has an inherited or acquired trait foreign to their experience.  Solomon brings his own unique perspective to the work.  Being gay, he was raised at a time when such an orientation was considered a disease, something shameful that was frequently blamed on poor parenting.

His opening chapter, Son, focuses on his childhood and early adulthood in which both his parents and he struggled to understand and accept his sexual orientation.  The closing chapter, Father, addresses his decision to become a father later in life.  Between these bookends, Solomon’s presence mostly disappears as he documents the stories of parents dealing with the demands and emotions experienced when a son or daughter is born with a perceived handicap or trait that sets them apart from other children.

In separate chapters, Solomon first writes about families dealing with inherited conditions: deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and multiple severe disabilities.  In the book’s second half, he focuses on acquired traits, such as children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, or who are transgendered.  Throughout, he highlights the difficulty parents face in raising a child who has fallen far from the tree.  Not only do they have to come to terms with their own shattered dreams, they must deal with a world in which their children do not easily fit.  And yet in most cases, he documents the triumphs of love over prejudice.

Reading this book brought to the surface a good many of my own prejudices.  I’ve always felt uncomfortable around the severly disabled, and subconsciously I questioned why parents  did not let their babies die in infancy rather than spend an incredible amount of money to keep them alive.  And in light of today’s transgender rights movement, I had a hard time accepting (or understanding) their demands for equality.  By putting human faces and personalities to the labels these children have been given, I was forced to confront my own lack of compassion.

Throughout the book, Solomon is never judgemental of the parents who fall short of their ideals when raising their children.  He does not sugar coat the problem and provide a happily ever after ending.  For these parents and children there is no magic wand that can be waved to make it all better.  In his summary, Solomon writes, “Insofar as I have written a self-help book, it is a how-to manual for receptivity: a description of how to tolerate what cannot be cured, and an argument that cures are not always appropriate even when they are feasible.”  Far From The Tree was an eye (and heart) opener for me.  It is must reading not only for expecant or current parents, but for all struggling to accept society’s outliers.  After all, there is no such thing as a normal child.  Diversity is indeed the spice of life.

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