Book Review: Far From the Tree (Andrew Solomon)

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What would you do if your child was born deaf? Would you keep keep a fetus with Down Syndrome? How would you handle a child with severe autism? Or what if your child was a true musical prodigy? Have you given thought to how you might handle a child who commits crimes, or a little boy who insists he’s a girl?

Far From the Tree doesn’t just examine those questions – it delves into them, with a great deal of care, thought, and sympathy. Solomon introduces us to families with children in ten categories that vary widely, but contain the major element of being outside the spectrum that we might anticipate for our children – deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, autism, severe disability, schizophrenia, prodigies, children conceived in rape, children who commit crimes, and children who are transgender.

Solomon’s central idea is about identity within a family – vertical identity – and without it – horizontal. For instance, I am a white, heterosexual, able-bodied female born to white, heterosexual, able-bodied parents – these are my vertical identities. But had I been born gay, or deaf, or disabled, I would have an identity outside my parents’ experience. These families must come to terms with their children’s horizontal identities, and they often do so by searching out other members of that horizontal community – others with the same conditions or situations.

The remarkable thing about this book is how even-handed and thorough Solomon is in each section. He examines each condition from every angle – historic, genetic, medical, social, legal, and ultimately personal, weaving detailed and often heartbreaking accounts from family after family into a tapestry of pain and triumph.

The book isn’t for those faint of heart – some of these accounts are sad and terrifying, as of the parents who gave birth to a son they thought was healthy until the doctors discovered his eyes were the size of peas – a sign of a brain defect so monumental that their son would never learn to walk, talk, or feed himself. There is the mother who begs Solomon to tell her how to love her child, borne of rape. The family who pour their lives and money into autism activism, establishing a school with the hope of creating the best life possible for their son, only to realize after years of effort that they must take him out of their home. The mother who eventually chooses her marriage over her disabled daughter, surrendering her to foster care. The countless bright lives lost to the raving hell of schizophrenia.

But there are also incredibly inspiring stories, of parents who have found a new purpose in their lives, families who become activists for a cause they never knew about before they became parents. I was particularly heartened by the many parents of transgendered children who were willing to do anything to help and protect their sons and daughters.

I don’t think it’s possible to read Far From the Tree without seriously contemplating what it means to be a parent. I admit that it made me reconsider my desire to have a kid; I cannot imagine what I would do if my child became schizophrenic, or was lost in a world without language, or without hope of a fulfilling future. And yet, again and again, I read accounts of people who felt as I do – and somehow adapted. Many of them do not regret the course that parenthood has taken them on.

Above all else, what will stay with me is the overwhelming amount of compassion in this book – compassion within the families portrayed, but also the compassion from Solomon in his handling of not one, but ten difficult subjects. I highly recommend it – though it’s definitely not a beach read, it’s a book that will challenge you in ways you might never have considered.

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