Celebrate their difference
keep saying, ‘ I don’t know how you do it’,’’ says the exhausted mother of an autistic child. ‘‘ It’s not like I can wake up and say, ‘ I don’t think I’ll deal with it any more’.’’
Most of the parents interviewed are positive about their experiences; given the choice, they would not rewrite the past. Solomon suggests the book is self-selecting: those who are bitter are less likely to bare their lives for an interviewer. But the balance also reflects his aim: ‘‘ The difficulties such parents face have long been acknowledged by the outside world; only recently have the pleasures become a topic for general conversation.’’
Inhabiting many of these differences is better today than it has ever been, with the rise of activism, medical improvements and the internet’s ability to connect people with their peers. (Not to mention contemporary society’s increased tolerance of difference.)
Ironically, technological advancements such as genetic mapping and prenatal testing simultaneously put these identities at risk. Roughly 70 per cent of women who discover Down syndrome in prenatal testing choose to abort. The activist deaf community regards the cochlear implant as akin to genocide, offering an inferior alternative to a rich deaf culture. ‘‘ Basically, with aids you’re constantly translating every line of language into itself,’’ says one man who tried and abandoned hearing aids. ‘‘ Like the high-school sophomore at the college bar with a great fake ID, I could fool everyone into believing I was who I pretended to be.’’
Is it better to get by in the mainstream world, with effort, but always be aware of not quite fitting in, or to relax into your natural self in a marginal world?
This question, along with the shifting categorical border between illness (implying the need for cure) and identity (implying acceptance) runs throughout this book.
The existence of cures such as the cochlear implant, or methods of avoiding disability such as prenatal testing, impose a dangerous burden of choice. Solomon predicts a future where parents who decide not to avail themselves of these advancements may be seen as having created their own challenges and may forfeit their right to disability status.
One area at the frontline of this quandary is the decision of parents undertaking IVF to choose selectively foetuses bearing disabled genes, so as to have children like themselves. ‘‘ You cannot tell me that I cannot have a child who’s going to look like me,’’ says one, a dwarf. ‘‘ It’s just unbelievably presumptuous.’’
Bringing together these diverse communities of difference, Solomon uncovers surprising connections and similarities. Some categories — prodigies, children of rape, children of criminals — spark fewer connections than others, but those they do make are welcome. For example, the high intelligence of prodigies alienates them from their mainstream peers as effectively as the low intelligence of Down syndrome children does; many of them also fit the criteria for the autistic spectrum.
Far from the Tree is a stellar example of the kind of sociological, reportage-based nonfiction that Americans seem to do particularly well. ‘‘ Numbers imply trends, while stories acknowledge chaos,’’ writes Solomon of his approach.
He has sifted through the chaos to find a kind of sense in it, but has just left it just ragged enough that there are still ample discoveries for the reader to make.