Book 37 of my 2016 Reading Challenge
read from February 15 - April 17
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search For Identity
by Andrew Solomon
Summary (via Goodreads)
Solomon's startling proposition in Far From the Tree is that being exceptional is at the core of the human condition - that difference is what unites us. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down's syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, or multiple severe disabilities; with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, and who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, and Solomon documents triumphs of love over prejudice in every chapter.
All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent should parents accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. Drawing on ten years of research and interviews with more than three hundred families, Solomon mines the eloquence of ordinary people facing extreme challenges.
Elegantly reported by a spectacularly original and compassionate thinker, Far From the Tree explores how people who love each other must struggle to accept each other, a theme in every family's life.
Don't be discouraged by the heft of the book; only 702 of 962 pages is actual text and the rest are notes, bibliography, index, etc. :)
This is a really good summary of the book:
"The timeworn adage says that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, meaning that a child resembles his or her parents; these children are apples that have fallen elsewhere - some a couple of orchards away, some on the other side of the world. Yet myriad families learn to tolerate, accept, and finally celebrate children who are not what they originally had in mind. This transformative process is often eased and sometimes confounded by identity politics and medical progress - both of which have infiltrated households to a degree that would have been inconceivable even twenty years ago."
Even though he wrote the research in an accessible way, the pages turn slowly but were fascinating to read. There were definite ups and downs; the part about autism dragged the most for me. With the other sections there is a clear genetic thing so he would explain it and move on to anecdotes but since there are so many theories on the causes of autism, he got a little bogged down in the "why" kids are different than their parents when the book is about "how" they are. This is also the reason the section on dwarfism read super fast for me; there was much more anecdotal information than medical. I was also fascinated by Krishna's story and would read an entire book just on him and his family.
I found this perspective from Deirdre Featherstone very interesting and good way to look at parenting children with disabilities: "All my friends had these children they thought were perfect, and then they've had to come to terms with their children's limitations and problems. I had this baby everyone thought was a disaster, and my journey has been to find all the things that are amazing about her. I started off knowing she was flawed, and all the surprises since then have been good ones."
This is an interesting perspective that I believe has truth in it as well: "While some people with severe disabilities may experience acute health crises or frightening seizures, much of their care has a rhythm, and human nature adapts to anything with a rhythm. The care can be done competently. An extreme but stable stress is easier to handle than a less extreme but erratic one. This is one reason why parents of people with Down Syndrome have an easier time than parents of schizophrenics or of people with autism; with Down syndrome, you know with whom you are dealing from day to day, and the demands on you change relatively little; with schizophrenia, you never know what weirdness is about to strike; with autism, what meltdown moment."
I'm glad the author included prodigies as well. As the interviews showed, it's sometimes just as hard to fit in when you have an adult brain in a child's body as it is to have a child's brain in an adult body.
It was also an unique choice to include children born to mothers who had been raped but it fit with the theme of the book because even though there's not a genetic aspect to this, there is a definite stigma and struggle for both mother and child to reconcile the result with the cause.
There were themes of internal and external blame, especially on mothers, throughout. The traumas and light sentences mentioned for filicide made me sick. To quote from the book, "As the vast majority of these sentences suggest, the habit of the courts has been to treat filicide as an understandable, if unfortunate, result of the strains of raising an autistic child. Sentences are light, and both the courtroom and the press frequently accept the murderer's profession of altruistic motives."
A few examples -- In 2005, Patrick Markcrow, age thirty-six, was suffocated by his mother, who received a two-year suspended sentence. In 2006, Christopher DeGroot was burned to death when his parents locked him in the house and set it on fire - each of them sentenced to six months in jail. In 2007, Diane Marsh killed her son, Brandon Williams, age five; the autopsy said he had died of multiple skull fractures and an overdose of Tylenol PM tablets; his legs were covered in burn scars because his mother used to discipline him by dipping him into scalding water.
Growing up with a sister with Down Syndrome, I completely related with Emily Perl Kingsley when she said this about her son Jason (who also has Down's): "The primary job of most parents is to make their kids think they can do anything; my primary job is to take him down. Reduced to a sentence, it's 'You're not smart enough to do what you want to do'. Do you know how much I hate having to say that?""
A Few Quotes from the Book (all quotes are from the author unless otherwise cited)
"From the beginning, we tempt [our children] into imitation of us and long for what may be life's most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us."
""Other people have no idea what it's like to be me. But then, I have no concept of what it's like to be normal."" ~ Taylor van Putten
"I did not/ Only lose you in an instant;/ I abandoned the infinite possibilities/ Of what you might have become." ~ Jennifer Franklin
"Four years later, when they finally interred Sam's ashes, Sara said, "Let me bury here the rage I feel to have been twice robbed: once of the child I wanted, and once of the son I loved.""
""It is not a joyful thing, by any means, to have a special-needs child. But Max, himself, has given us a lot of joy."" ~ Susanna Singer
"Parents of prodigies are intimidated and awestruck at what their children can do - but so, fittingly, are parents of children who are not prodigies. Remembering that is the surest way to remain sane when parenting a child whose skills dramatically differ from or radically exceed one's own."
"Any of us can be a better version of himself, but none of us can be someone else."