Par­ents of chal­leng­ing chil­dren

Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love y

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jo Case

By An­drew Solomon Chatto & Win­dus, 976pp, $75 (HB)

AN­DREW Solomon’s ac­claimed Noon­day De­mon: An Atlas of De­pres­sion (2001) is a his­tory of de­pres­sion and an in­tensely per­sonal ac­count of liv­ing with it. The New York writer con­cludes that in the long run de­pres­sion ‘‘ makes good peo­ple bet­ter’’ and ‘‘ bad peo­ple worse’’. With­out ro­man­ti­cis­ing or triv­i­al­is­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence, he re­alises he val­ues his own hap­pi­ness more for it be­ing so hard won.

Far from the Tree, an ex­tra­or­di­nary book 10 years in the mak­ing, sim­i­larly ex­plores the way ex­pe­ri­ences one would ‘‘ do any­thing to avoid’’ can ul­ti­mately en­rich lives.

Solomon looks at fam­i­lies in which the chil­dren are very dif­fer­ent from their par­ents, in ways that sig­nif­i­cantly shape their iden­ti­ties and make it chal­leng­ing for par­ents to iden­tify with them.

His cen­tral pur­pose is to dis­cover how th­ese par­ents have come to love their chil­dren, and to de­scribe the ob­sta­cles they have over­come along the way. The book was driven by Solomon’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a gay man whose mother loved him but found it hard to ac­cept him.

He in­ter­viewed more than 300 fam­i­lies to ex­plore 10 cat­e­gories of what he calls hor­i­zon­tal iden­tity (mean­ing shared with peers, rather than ver­ti­cally in­her­ited): deaf, dwarves, Down syn­drome, autism, schizophre­nia, dis­abil­ity, prodi­gies, chil­dren of rape, chil­dren who com­mit crimes and trans­gen­der chil­dren.

He ex­pertly weaves the di­verse ex­pe­ri­ences of th­ese fam­i­lies into a nar­ra­tive whole, ex­plor­ing a se­ries of ques­tions that sketch a nu­anced por­trait of dif­fer­ence.

To what de­gree do th­ese par­ents ac­cept their chil­dren as they are, try to cure them, or a blend of both? What is it like to in­habit th­ese iden­ti­ties, here and now? Have th­ese iden­ti­ties given rise to com­mu­ni­ties and, if so, what are their shared goals and in­ner con­flicts? And what roles do na­ture and nur­ture play?

‘‘ Hav­ing ex­cep­tional chil­dren ex­ag­ger­ates parental ten­den­cies,’’ Solomon writes. ‘‘ Those who would be bad par­ents be­come aw­ful par­ents, but those who would be good par­ents be­come ex­tra­or­di­nary.’’ In­deed, many of the par­ents he in­ter­views have be­come full­time ac­tivists, found­ing schools and sup­port groups. Oth­ers are just as awe-in­spir­ing in their abil­ity to en­dure: su­per­vis­ing adult schizophren­ics who refuse their med­i­ca­tion, or deal­ing with autis­tic chil­dren who eat their own fae­ces and at­tack their sib­lings. ‘‘ Peo­ple

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