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Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
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Far From the Tree (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Andrew Solomon

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6572114,646 (4.48)40
Member:cmartlib
Title:Far From the Tree
Authors:Andrew Solomon
Info:Scribner (2012), Kindle Edition, 702 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:social psychology, abnormal psychology

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Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (2012)

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This book examines the difficulties and rewards for parents in identifying with children perceived as different from themselves. And does much more. Just as an example, there’s a section on medically deaf people who find a horizontal identity in the Deaf community, rather than a vertical identity via their hearing parents. This section also includes careful examinations of the arguments for and against cochlear implants, for and against Deaf people choosing to have Deaf children. Andrew Solomon ends on a positive note, focusing on the growing acceptance of difference and diversity. I want to be that optimistic. Yet there are some unforgettable horror stories in these pages too. Overall, it’s rare and pleasurable to have found a non-fiction book that’s as satisfying and nuanced as the best fiction.
  Bernadette877 | Jun 18, 2015 |
Although this book, at 900+ pages (although 200 of those are notes) would make a good doorstopper, it is one of those books that I would recommend to everyone. The wide-ranging topics in the book are all connected by their focus on horizontal identities: children who are different in some way from their parents. (Vertical identities would be something that would be inherited from the parents: black parents with black children, girls all have a woman as a parent.) Many of the horizontal identities would be considered disabilities (although the author discusses the term, meaning, and controversies on definitions at length) – deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, but there is also a chapter on prodigies – children highly gifted in the field of classical music in this case. In the case of children born of rape, the child will not necessarily differ from the mother, but the painful conception hangs over the relationship. A child who has committed a crime will also implicate his parents, even if the relationship is loving. Transgender children are at a high risk of rejection from their birth families. Andrew Solomon writes movingly about the parent-child relationship and sympathetically portrays the lives of a number of families. He deftly explains the nuances of the science, general living difficulties, and controversies about the different conditions. While his own opinions are pretty clear, Solomon is remarkably nonjudgmental. The impetus for the book came from his own troubled relationship with his parents, who found it difficult to accept their gay son. Usually, I am a bit wary when an author wants to insert him/herself into a work of nonfiction (that is not explicitly about the author, like a memoir), but in this case it works very well. Solomon is already comparing families dealing with the same condition and compares different groups. His writing about his own experiences is also quite insightful. The first chapter is about his experience growing up and the final chapter about his efforts to start a family with his partner. They end up with a very non-traditional, but seemingly happy and supportive, extended family.

Solomon focuses on horizontal communities – or the lack of community. In the first two chapters, on deaf children and little people (following the more personal one describing his relationship with his parents), the author skillfully captures the strength of the communities that have developed. There is often tension over “losing” a deaf child to the Deaf community, especially because of the communication barrier. There are deaf boarding schools, colleges, and activist groups so some hearing parents often find themselves growing more distant from their deaf children. The little people community has a similarly high level of solidarity, but, with smaller numbers, there is always going to be negotiation with the outside world. Even in those communities, there are conflicts – whether being deaf or dwarf is an identity or disability, whether to date and marry only within the group, whether having children like them should be avoided or is desired – for example, “deaf of deaf” children tend to do better on a number of markers. In the deaf communities, proponents of either American Sign Language or oral communication (lip reading/speech) tend to be fiercely protective of their sides. While Solomon talks to people across the board, he has a clear opinion in favor of ASL, as early as possible. But even with some conflicts, the deaf and dwarf communities are fairly strong and cohesive. Throughout the rest of the book, Solomon contrasts them to other communities.

While there is historical background on how the deaf and little people were treated in the past, movements to recognize and develop communities for other conditions were slow to form. Many of the people Solomon interviews are activists, founders of support groups, or very well-known in the community. While these stories were quite interesting in showing the difficulties and ignorance in the past (although the present is still problematic), this led to my strongest quibble with the book: sometimes it seemed that a high percentage of the people he interviewed were well-off East Coasters. For example, nearly all the families interviewed in the chapter on Down syndrome were New Yorkers, most of them well-off, and some were very prominent and visible DS activists. One story was about an educated, ambitious couple where the wife was a writer for Sesame Street. Her son made an appearance on the show, becoming one of the first public figures with DS.

The autism communities, in contrast, are full of infighting. Although there are opposing views on the surgeries for deaf people and little people, with autism and schizophrenia, the conditions themselves are not fully understood, and indeed the chapters for DS, autism, and schizophrenia movingly relate the perpetual search for treatment or improvement that many parents and children undertake. While hearing parents of deaf children worry about losing them to deaf schools, peers, and partners, the choice to send children with DS, autism or schizophrenia to residential facilities is filled with guilt. Solomon notes that in the past, children deemed developmentally delayed would be shut up and forgotten, but now we have gone in the opposite direction – getting services, treatment, and residential placement is an agonizing bureaucratic struggle and limited services are spread too thin. If sometimes I thought that the chapter on DSfocused on people who were a bit too well-off, the stories in the chapters on autism, schizophrenia, and disability (referring to children with a range of conditions, but who were severely impaired in things like communicating, moving, and eating) were more varied.

The chapter on child classical music prodigies was interesting, but I didn’t think it was quite as well-organized as some of the others. Some of the comparisons to other conditions could be a stretch, but Solomon did convincingly portray the isolation and sometimes difficult parent-child relationships that came along with being a prodigy. Solomon clearly has a love of classical music and opera – references easily slip into the book – which explains his focus on this one area. He talks to some very well-known prodigies such as Leon Fleisher, Lang Lang, Joshua Bell, Nico Muhly. There’s not as much about community here, and Solomon does note the lack of support for families. In several of the other chapters, the author places a lot of emphasis on the importance of early treatment, and here, he describes the worries parents have over pushing their child early to make the most of their gift or trying to give them a normal life as both paths have downsides.

Meaningful communities for women who choose to give birth to a child from rape or parents of criminals are almost nonexistent. Both conditions have some shame and stigma, and unsurprisingly, the sections were sometimes difficult to read. In these chapters, as elsewhere, the author provides many details of his subjects’ lives and he often relates how poverty, mental illness, and other factors exacerbate or contribute to other conditions.

In the chapter focusing on transgender children, Solomon is enormously sympathetic and pretty clearly on the side of supporting transitions. Almost all the families he portrays have parents who were very supportive from the start or eventually came around – while some of the families have difficult lives in general, a lot of the conflict is parents and children vs. a judgmental society. As he uses real, full names for the families (except in a few cases, like the family of one severely disabled girl in the Disability chapter who opted for controversial surgery and had strong reasons to remain anonymous), it makes sense that people who treated their trans children cruelly or disowned them wouldn’t want to talk to him. In all the chapters, however, Solomon does present opposing views, actual cases or anonymous comments about treatment that would incur judgment or is illegal – people giving up different children as soon as possible, parents murdering autistic children or babies born after rape, trans children who committed suicide after familial rejection.

For all this, the book is in no way a parade of misery. Many of the families profiled discussed their strong, loving relationships with their children, or how becoming an activist was intensely rewarding, or, no matter the difficulties, how happy they were with their choices. Solomon gives detailed stories that cover a span of many years, so there is always a sense of life moving and new troubles and happiness arising. In this way, the book provides a hint of how families get used to even very difficult situations. There is some discussion about how people are highly motivated to be satisfied with their choices – they can’t unmake them in most cases – and also how, for example, parents who placed their children in residential facilities or parents who kept them at home may both have been content with their choices, as those inclined to each direction would have done so. Solomon notes “Many of the people I interviewed said they would never exchange their experiences for any other life” even when it came attached with much pain. There is a lengthy description of the Klebolds, whose son, Dylan Klebold, was one of the perpetrators of the Columbine school shooting. Sue Klebold told the author: “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.”

While overall the book is a hefty read, each section flew by. I could usually read a chapter in one sitting. In addition, the book is very well-written with a number of memorable and insightful sentences. For example, describing some of his own experiences – first with dyslexia, then being gay –

“The standards of perpetual triumph were high in our house, and that early victory over dyslexia was formative: with patience, love, intelligence, and will, we had trounced a neurological abnormality. Unfortunately, it set the stage for our later struggles by making it hard to believe that we couldn’t reverse the creeping evidence of another perceived abnormality – my being gay.”

Or comparing schizophrenia to some of the other conditions –

“The trauma of Down syndrome is that it is present prenatally and can therefore undermine the early stages of bonding. The challenge of autism is that it sets in or is detected in the toddler years, and so transfigures the child to whom parents have already bonded. The shock of schizophrenia is that it manifests in late adolescence or early adulthood, and parents must accept that the child they have known and loved for more than a decade may be irrevocably lost, even as that child looks much the same as ever.”

And he concludes with ideas that have percolated throughout the book –

“Sometimes, I had thought the heroic parents in this book were fools, enslaving themselves to a life’s journey with their alien children, trying to breed identity out of misery. I was startled to learn that my research had built me a plank, and that I was ready to join them on their ship.” ( )
4 vote DieFledermaus | May 19, 2015 |
Read introduction and first chapters (Son, Deafness, Dwarfs) in April 2013; continued in April 2015 (Autism, Schizophrenia), May 2015 (Disability, Prodigy, Rape, Transgender, Down's Syndrome, Father) ( )
  JennyArch | Apr 22, 2015 |
Summary: Solomon's thesis is that there are horizontal and vertical identities. Vertical identities are those that generally don't change from parent to child - like race, religion, and ethnicity. Parents as well as outsiders are generally comfortable with children staying within these vertical boundaries. But when children exit these boundaries, everybody becomes a little uncomfy. Horizontal identities is one way to cross out of the vertical boundary. A horizontal identity is one in which the child conforms to a cultural identity which differs from that of the parent - such as mental illness, deafness, LGBTQ, Transexuality, Autism, Down Sydrome, etc. Several of these, such as LGBTQ and deafness have strongly developed communities of people with the related identities. Often, the parents have to learn to become a member-from-the-outside of these communities in order to support their children.

Review: Amazing book. There were some parts that were difficult to read - such as the ones about children of rape victims and crime - but those sections were also very poignant. Solomon did a fantastic job of covering a large variety of topics while keeping to the same thesis, and not sounding repetitive. It's possible the book could have been shortened a bit if there were fewer individual interviews, but I liked having so many examples. It shows that no two individuals have the same story. One criticism I have (especially of dwarfism, deafness, and Autism) the people interviewed were more often than not exceptional members of the community who had resources (great intelligence/resourcefulness, money, education) than the average person would have. So stories in those sections seemed a bit skewed. ( )
1 vote The_Hibernator | Feb 21, 2015 |
Pretty much just read the anecdotes..... ( )
  jrsearcher | Feb 12, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
In Far from the Tree, he [Andrew Solomon] explores the experience of parents having offspring who in one way or another present them with an unexpected set of problems--either neuropsychological impairments from birth or behavioral problems as they grow. This theme drew Mr. Solomon's attention because he is ever aware of how his emergent homosexuality during adolescence represented a serious challenge to his parents--a challenge that he believes they didn't handle well. . . . He explicitly relates their [the parents he interviews] responses to what he remembers his parents doing and saying to him when they became aware of his homosexual predilections. This feature gives the book both a personal edge and a less than subtle political subtext. In the end, Far From the Tree is an exercise in identity politics. . . . Despite offering touching stories of parents who face challenges they didn't expect--and deal with them nobly--Far From the Tree ignores, to its detriment, some of the most natural and telling aspects of human beings as they relate to each other across the generations.
added by sgump | editWall Street Journal, Paul McHugh (Dec 18, 2012)
 
Part journalist, part psychology researcher, part sympathetic listener, Solomon's true talent is a geographic one: He maps the strange terrain of the human struggle that is parenting. "Far From the Tree" is the product of a decade of research and interviews with 300 families. For each horizontal identity under discussion, Solomon moves easily from often-harrowing individual stories, told largely in the subjects' own words, to broader observations informed by his theoretical research, and arrives at a surprising level of synthesis.
 
Narrating the stories of hundreds of families in which children and their parents must struggle with identity — whether due to disability or difference of other kinds — Solomon’s project boils down to this: with stories come understanding, empathy, and respect.
added by melmore | editBoston Globe, Kate Tuttle (Nov 23, 2012)
 
“Far From the Tree” doesn’t purport to be an original work of theoretical research on family dynamics. It’s more of a hybrid series of thematically linked oral histories, the majority of which are deeply moving about the strength of parents who display heroic energy and creativity.
added by melmore | editWashington Post, Lisa Zeidner (Nov 21, 2012)
 
...suffice it to say that you end this journey through difference and diversity with an even stronger conviction that life is endlessly, heart-stoppingly, fragile and unknowable.

And yet. Spending time with the parents of a child so disabled he has to be lifted from his bed with a pulley, Solomon notes that to be in the room with them and their son “is to witness a shimmering humanity.” It’s a phrase that should be smoke-trailed across the sky, or at the very least stuck on the family fridge. It’s also a very accurate description of what he’s achieved in this wise and beautiful book.
 
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Epigraph
The imperfect is our paradise. /
Note that, in this bitterness, delight, /
Since the imperfect is so hot in us, /
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
--Wallace Stevens, "The Poem of Our Climate"
Dedication
for John, for the sake of whose difference I would gladly give up all the sameness in the world
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There is no such thing as reproduction.
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Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies: those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents become extraordinary.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0743236718, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2012: Anyone who’s ever said (or heard or thought) the adage “chip off the old block” might burrow into Andrew Solomon’s tome about the ways in which children are different from their parents--and what such differences do to our conventional ideas about family. Ruminative, personal, and reportorial all at once, Solomon--who won a National Book Award for his treatise on depression, The Noonday Demon--begins by describing his own experience as the gay son of heterosexual parents, then goes on to investigate the worlds of deaf children of hearing parents, dwarves born into “normal” families, and so on. His observations and conclusions are complex and not easily summarized, with one exception: The chapter on children of law-abiding parents who become criminals. Solomon rightly points out that this is a very different situation indeed: “to be or produce a schizophrenic...is generally deemed a misfortune,” he writes. “To...produce a criminal is often deemed a failure.” Still, parents must cope with or not, accept or not, the deeds or behaviors or syndromes of their offspring. How they do or do not do that makes for fascinating and disturbing reading. --Sara Nelson

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:45 -0400)

Solomon tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.

(summary from another edition)

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