If I had my way, I would require every parent, expert, advocate and friend – that is to say, every living human – to read Andrew Solomon’s book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, published (Scribner) in the fall of 2012. At this holiday season, I write to suggest this as a loving gift to anyone on your list (including yourself!).
Solomon writes eloquently, compassionately and passionately about the extraordinary array of qualities and conditions that make people different from another, within a family and within the community. In a decade’s work, Solomon interviewed hundreds of families with “exceptional” children, children that he describes as reflecting “horizontal identities,” their differences arising from “recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.” He earned the trust of those families and was welcomed into their lives with an approach that was informed by his own experience as a person who had struggled with differences both as a gay man and as one who had suffered with depression. He discusses the consequences of those differences for the individuals, their families, and the organizations, movements and points of view that explain, advocate for, or thwart the prospects for healthy and productive lives for those individuals. The personal stories of the parents and children are moving, often surprising, and always profoundly informative. A sample of the chapters illustrates the great breadth of his work: “Autism”; “Dwarf”; “Schizophrenia”; “Transgender”; “Crime”; Deaf”; “Rape.”
At this moment in our cultural/political lives here and abroad, as we witness new waves of fear and intolerance rolling through communities far and wide, there could be no more fitting gift. History teaches that personal contact can loosen the grip of fear and intolerance as the stranger becomes an acquaintance and then, in many cases, a friend, or at least a person whose common humanity is seen and acknowledged. This book, through the telling of many compelling stories, will move the reader toward understanding and openness to differences. For those who work in our field, the book can also provide a shortcut to understanding the sources and effects, as well as the surrounding philosophies and politics of what we call “disabilities” or physical, social, cognitive, emotional or medical “challenges,” an understanding which will greatly enhance your effectiveness as an advocate, evaluator, clinician or other service provider.
I recommend that readers put this book on their electronic readers if possible. It’s a 700-plus page volume and one runs the risk of a concussion if s/he tries reading the hard-copy in bed. The length may seem daunting, but the book wears beautifully if one takes one’s time, reading it in pieces, off and on, rather than straight through. I would begin by reading the introduction and the afterword, as they tell the story of the author and his approach in a way that, even if you read nothing more, would open your eyes to a rich and productive way to think about differences and community and family responses to those differences. I’d love to hear from readers about their experience with this book if they are so moved.
Happy Solstice to all!