Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

At 702 pages of text (not counting the extensive notes, bibliography and index), it's a beast.  A behemoth, even.  The first time I checked it out of the library - for three weeks - I made it through about 300 pages.  Then I had to return it because my library doesn't allow you to renew books that have been requested, and this one had a huge list of folks wanting to read it.  So I put myself back on the waiting list and my turn finally came around again about two months later.  There aren't many books that I'd make that much of an effort to get back to, but this one is well worth it.

In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon explores the parent-child relationship at its most fraught, where difficult situations emerge and change the job description that parents perhaps expected.  He looks at how families interact within themselves when children are born with a series of circumstances that somehow set them apart from their parents, and how parents deal with the reality of shifting expectations, grieving the loss of the child they thought they would have and accepting the child they do.  The specific groups Mr. Solomon studied include children who are born deaf, as dwarfs, with Down syndrome, autism, children who develop schizophrenia, or who have other physical disability.  He also includes child prodigies, children born from rape, children who commit crimes, and transgender children.  (I have at least a passing familiarity with some of the groups, including Deaf, autism, and disability.  Others I had honestly never thought much about before reading Far from the Tree.)  Each chapter is a masterful weaving together of scientific studies and personal portraits that provide insights into these families' lives, and shows that "the parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances."

Though all of the categories of differences discussed in this book cover a range of individuals who each have their own trials and challenges in relation to their situation, Mr. Solomon points out that none of us are immune to suffering.  "The raw grit of anguish will never be in short supply.  There is enough of it in the happiest life to serve these instructive purposes and there always will be. We are more sympathetic to Holocaust survivors than to malcontent children of privilege, but we all have our darkness, and the trick is making something exalted of it."  With that in mind, he delves into the unique challenges of each horizontal identity group, looking for the parallels within each group, as well as the similarities with the others he interviewed.  He presents a broad spectrum within each group, too, including those with vastly different experiences, opinions, and outcomes.

A recurring theme is the ongoing struggle between defining many of these conditions as "identities" or "illnesses."  For example, many members of the Deaf community shun the label "disabled," claiming that Deafness is a culture, a point of pride and identity, and decrying the use of cochlear implants as a form of genocide.  However, access to many services depends upon maintaining the status of deafness as a disability. Harlan Lane sums it up well: "The dilemma is that deaf people want access and as citizens in a democracy have a right to access--access to public events, government services, and education--but when they subscribe to the disability definition in order to gain access, they undermine their struggle for other rights--such as an education for deaf children using their best language, an end to implant surgery on those children, and an end to efforts to discourage deaf births in the first place."  This was a constant balancing act for many parents, fighting for the care and intervention that would give their children the best possible chance to reach their potential, while not succumbing to self-hatred, negativity, or feelings of inferiority that may come from identifying with a marginalized label.

Another delicate balance many families face involves finding and focusing on the positive in each situation without over-sentimentalizing the experiences or minimizing the struggles.  In the section on raising children with disabilities, Mr. Solomon says, "It's hard to know to what extent positive experiences generate positive perceptions, and to what extent it is the other way around.  Aggrandizing the nobility of woe is a coping strategy, but some parents and some disability scholars exalt the catalog of wonders until having a disabled child seems not merely rich in meaning, but almost preferable to other experiences of parents.  The disabled child becomes a glowing family hearth around which all gather in shared song.  Such sentimentality can be destructive; it makes parents who are having a rough time feel worse, adding layers of guilt and defeat to their general experience of trouble."  (I have found this to be true even when parenting children without disabilities; it's hard to listen to those who wax on about how thoroughly they enjoy every moment of parenting, particularly when your day has involved screaming, defiant children, cleaning up bodily fluids, and other parenting highlights.)

"Parenting is no sport for perfectionists."  Even with the best of intentions, parents are going to mess up simply because they are human, imperfect and not omniscient.  Over and over in each section, Mr. Solomon documents different parents with different children who made different choices, all wanting the best for their children.  Of course, there will be unintentional negative consequences sometimes.  "Doing something with love does not necessarily make it good.  Even outside the world of disability, we all perpetrate and are subject to loving yet damaging acts within our families.  That damage is likely to be greater and more frequent with horizontal identities because the good intentions are less informed."

Unlike many of these conditions which come to light before or shortly after birth, schizophrenia usually doesn't manifest until the child is in his or her early twenties, though some warning signs may be seen, often recognized only in retrospect, during the teenage years.  In a book filled with difficult situations, Mr. Solomon declares, "Schizophrenia may be in a class by itself for unrewarding trauma."  Schizophrenia frequently represents a break with reality and "can take away the ability to connect to or love or trust another person, the full use of rational intelligence, the capacity to function in any professional context, the basic faculty of physical self-care, and large areas of self-awareness and analytic clarity."  It can be accompanied by visual hallucinations as well as the famous auditory hallucinations or "voices".  Many parents in this section described the unrelenting worry that their children would hurt themselves or others because of their psychosis, the fatigue from the non-stop supervision needed, and the constant fight to get adequate treatment for their child, particularly once their child is an adult and can legally refuse medical and psychological intervention.  What can be most disheartening is accepting the reality that the seeming normality of the child before the psychotic break and his or her promising future no longer exists.

The chapter on children conceived through rape was heart-wrenching.  I cannot imagine the incredible torment of conceiving a child as the direct result of such a violation.  "Rape," Mr. Solomon says, "is a permanent damage; it leaves not scars, but open wounds."  One woman in this situation described her child as "a living, breathing torture mechanism that replayed in my mind over and over the rape."  Unlike many of the other children and families in this book, children conceived in rape generally do not have a peer group or horizontal identity; there are few support groups or charities designed specifically with their needs in mind, or even the needs of the mothers who keep their children.  (Mr. Solomon quotes from a 1996 study of rape-related pregnancy: "half of the subjects terminated their pregnancies; of the rest, two-thirds kept the child, one-fourth miscarried, and the rest gave the children up for adoption.")  I was furious to read that in some instances, particularly when charges were never filed, rapists can sue for joint custody of their child, thus prolonging the terror and trauma of the rape for the victim through constant enforced contact with the rapist.  Sadly, but understandably, some women are unable to separate their love for their child from their hatred of the rapist, and this prevents the mother and child from bonding and having a fulfilling, affectionate relationship.  The tragedy of the initial rape is compounded again and again in the lives of the victim and the child.

This review is already getting too long, but there's so much I haven't even touched on!  Mr. Solomon spends a significant portion of the chapter on children who commit crimes discussing Dylan Klebold (one of the two shooters at Columbine High School) and his parents, Tom and Sue.  My heart absolutely ached for them.  The chapter on transgender children was eye-opening for me on a topic I knew very little about, and urged readers to "focus on the child rather than on the label."  Good advice for any of these situations, actually.

As a final note, what really shone through this book for me was this overall theme as stated by Mr. Solomon in his conclusion: "I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones.  My journeys toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon--that every increase in love strengthens all the other love in the world, that much as loving one's family can be a means of loving God, so the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families."

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
by Andrew Solomon
ISBN: 9780743236713
Here's the book's website.
Buy it from Amazon (hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Or check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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