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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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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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Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
The final lines of Solomon’s beautifully-written narrative about families who come to love the exceptional children they didn’t know they wanted, perfectly describes the feelings and moral quandaries I encountered throughout its 702 pages: “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.”

In the final chapter, the author becomes a father, creating a family that, he notes, would not have existed 50 years ago. In part because it was considered morally wrong, and also in part because of science. Without scientific advancements and societal changes many of the families Solomon writes about wouldn’t exist. But despite many of the advances that have made these exceptional families possible, these families face many hurdles that range from receiving little support for their autistic child to living with the stigma of raising a child conceived in rape.

This plank that the author writes was built for him from his research also becomes a plank for the reader. As I read about parents who came to accept that their children weren’t the ones they imagined themselves having but made it their life’s mission to help these children become the best people they could be, I felt it wrong to wish for a child that wasn’t deaf or autistic or a prodigy. When you read these families’ stories of extreme love and hardship so closely intertwined that the joys and sorrows of parenting are felt so much more intensely, you can’t help but feel that you should be ready to join that ship.

The wide conception of parenting is that parents are responsible for raising children who can one day live independently, contribute to society, and produce children of their own. But parents of children who will never be able to meet these expectations quickly learn to redefine success, focusing on an identity that is more closely an expression of who their children are.

In each chapter, Solomon focuses on a different horizontal identity. He defines horizontal identities as independently divergent; they are inherent or acquired traits that are foreign to a child’s progenitors. These identities are anchored between the chapters titled “Son” and “Father.” In these two chapters, the author writes about himself and the connection he feels with these families’ struggles, being a gay man who suffers from serious clinical depression. Solomon begins the book with the statement, “There is no such thing as reproduction.” While two people who decide to have a baby believe they are “braiding themselves together,” they are actually just producing a “stranger,” and the more “alien” the stranger, the harder it is to accept him. The conception that by having a baby we will live on forever is a comforting prospect for parents-to-be, but all it really does is formulate fantasies that will most likely be shattered.

In “Father,” Solomon connects parenthood to loss because the act of having a child means that a great deal for the parents is lost, mainly the fantasies they might have had for their child. After fathering a son to raise with his partner, Solomon expresses that he felt sorry for what is always lost when a gay couple decides to have children: “I would never see what might come of mixing John’s genes with my own.” Despite believing in “production” as opposed to “reproduction,” the author couldn’t help feeling that two people who love each other should have equal claim to their child.

The ten horizontal identities described in the book make it clear that right and wrong are categories that are just as limiting as pro-choice and pro-life, Liberal and Conservative. The way these parents love their children is situational, because experience is what dictates how they should raise them. Should parents of severely deaf children choose to have them get Cochlear implants or learn to speak instead of learning to sign? Would parents be better off aborting a pregnancy if prenatal diagnosis revealed the child had dwarfism or Down syndrome? How should a family cope with a child who has become a criminal or is transgender? Most of these families stated that they wouldn’t want their children to be any other way, and if they did it was mainly because it would mean an easier life. But in the end, they were happy to have had choices, however limited. ( )
  tinkettleinn | Mar 15, 2014 |
A brilliant meditation on identity and childhood. It's filled with explorations that are alternatively hilarious and heartbreaking. The strength and determination of many the children and their parents will amaze you.

As an exploration of what Solomon calls "horizontal identity" it's valuable for anyone to read as a way of understanding how we become who we are. The tribes of people who share things that their families may not be able to share are described with kindness and compassion.

The discussions with Dylan Klebold's parents is worth the price of the book alone. ( )
  Vantine | Mar 14, 2014 |
I had resisted getting this book, because the subject matter sounded too...prurient, I guess. After reading someone else's review, I was intrigued, though, and decided to give it a try. I'm so glad I did! Though the subject(s) of the book are delicate, Solomon treats them with such delicacy and compassion - but also with clear-eyed honesty - that he quickly overcame my reservations. It seems to me so difficult for someone who is not a member of a particular community, especially one that is popularly consider to be based on a disability, to speak of that identity without being either offensive or pandering, yet Solomon appears to weave his way between that particular Scylla and Charybdis with amazing grace. I ended each section feeling, myself, imbued with a bit of the understanding and compassion he displayed but, like him, not feeling that "I understand" something I have never experienced, or believing that my compassion is either needed or desired.

Its truly an amazing book. Not an easy read, either in length or content, but well worth both the time and the dedication it requires. It is truly a book about humanity, both as an attribute and as a condition. ( )
  duende | Feb 6, 2014 |
Really mixed feelings about this one-- the idea was great, the interviews remarkable, but the personal conclusions the author drew were not usually logical or consistent. I think it would have been a much stronger book if he'd left more of himself out and not ended each section with his sometimes wishy-washy summations. He's clearly a gifted nonfiction writer, but this book couldn't decide if it was presenting the truth or bending it to suit a worldview. ( )
1 vote marti.booker | Dec 2, 2013 |
When it comes to having children, Andrew Solomon doesn’t believe in reproduction. He says the word implies making a copy of something. He does believe in production, recognizing that every child is a new, different, individual person. He acknowledges that children do share some traits with their parents, which he calls vertical identity. They may have some traits different from their families but shared by peers. These he calls horizontal identity. He is gay. His parents are straight. Gay is a horizontal identity.

In FAR FROM THE TREE, he interviews people who have a child in a horizontal identity. The categories are deaf, dwarf, Down’s Syndrom, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disability, prodigies, children conceived through rape, crime, and transgender. In each chapter, he interviews both the families as well as individuals in the category and provides information about causes and treatment. Many of these theories have changed over the years.

Children who don’t resemble their parents are more likely to be abused. He states. “Prehistoric societies were cruel to those who were different, but did not segregate them; their care was the responsibility of their families. Post-industrial societies created benevolent institutions for the disables, who were often whisked away at the first sign of anomaly.”

Solomon compares, in a nonjudgmental way, not only families with children having the same condition, he contrasts the way different conditions affect both the child and the family. For example, deaf children can live in families where one or both parents and other family members are also deaf. He discusses the benefits of oral speech versus sign language, the pros and cons of cochlear implants, and whether mainstreaming the children or having them with other deaf children is more beneficial to the child. Should they live at home or with peers? He mentions many groups do find local communities of peers. Some, for example dwarfs, are much more isolated and asks what difference that makes. He points out the advantage of on-line communities to help children who are different develop contact with peers.

When discussing dwarfs, he writes about providing surgery to help the child grow taller and in the case of children with Down’s Syndrome, the use of tests to determine whether a fetus has DS and whether or not the fetus should be aborted. In all these cases, he raises the question of if these conditions are eliminated or ameliorated, what message does it give to a person who is living with condition? Should severely disabled children be kept alive by medical means? Are children with disabilities less valuable than other members of society?

He asks who has the problem, the child or society and quotes British academic Michael Oliver who wrote “Disability has nothing to do with the body; it is a consequence of social oppression.” Children who don’t resemble their parents are more likely to be abused. He asks if the child should adjust to the world or if the world should adjust to the child. He mentions many groups do find local communities of peers. Some, for example dwarfs, are much more isolated and asks what difference that makes.

He quotes Simon Baron-Cohen:”Autism is both a disability and a difference. We need to find ways of alleviating the disability while respecting and valuing the difference.” A deaf child will develop other senses to compensate for the loss of hearing.

He points out positive aspects of some conditions, e.g., DS children are usually very sweet and trusting.

He presents many viewpoints, both medical and via family interviews. This results in some contradictions such as why autism is more common now.

The timing of the onset of the condition creates different experiences. A child with Down’s Syndrome is often identified at birth. Schizophrenia usually doesn’t develop until the mid to late teens. The parent and child are faced with dealing with a major change for which they are usually unprepared. Transgender children may know before they start school that they are the wrong gender. Should the parent support a son’s request to wear dresses to school? Should they allow surgery before the child reaches puberty to keep the child from developing the characteristics of their current body?

While most conditions are caused in the child, in the case of children who are conceived via rape, it is the mother who provides the difference.

Children who commit crimes are often removed from their homes and institutionalized. Whether the child receives treatment or punishment is largely decided by the community-at-large as it opts for retribution or prevention. Many communities blame the parents.

Parents who don’t want to label their children may find the child is not able to receive services unless they are labeled.

While most people don’t think of prodigies as a problem, the way the child is raised can have a profound effect on the family. Like other families with a horizontal identity child, the child may receive more or less attention than his siblings. Solomon focuses on musical prodigies and has examples of parents pushing their children as a way to fame and fortune as well as letting the children determine what they want to do with their gift.

He asks what do parents need from their children and how can a horizontal identity child fill that niche.

At the end of the book, he observes that in almost all cases, if the parent of a horizontal identify child could choose, they would pick their own child.

FAR FROM THE TREE Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is more than 700 pages, plus extensive notes, bibliography, and index. I think it could have been at least 100 pages shorter without losing its point. It raised a lot of issues I had never thought about previously and provided a lot of information to consider. I would recommend it to all readers who have ever met someone who is different from themselves ( )
1 vote Judiex | Sep 10, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (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
First words
There is no such thing as reproduction.
Quotations
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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:06:27 -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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