Parents of challenging children
Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love y
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