FULL TITLE: Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity
PUBLISHER: Scribner 2012
PAGE COUNT: Including Notes, Bibliography,and Acknowledgments, the book is 962 pages. The actual narrative, and all that I read, is 702 pages.
READING TIME: When I first read this book back in 2012, it took me 3 months to read. This second reading took 1.5 months.
The final lines of Andrew Solomon’s beautifully-written narrative about families who come to love the exceptional children they didn’t know they wanted perfectly describe 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. Despite many of the advances that have made these exceptional families possible, they continue to 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.
The plank Solomon writes about was built from his research, and it also became a plank for me as a reader. Reading about parents who accepted that their children weren’t the ones they imagined themselves having yet made it their life’s mission to help these children become their best selves, it feels wrong to wish for children who aren’t deaf or autistic or prodigies. When you read these families’ stories of extreme love and hardship, 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 as 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 so they can hear or have them learn 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.