Andrew Solomon on Horizontal Identities, Extreme Difference and Connectedness, and Sexuality
Andrew Solomon with his spouse and son. (Photo by M. Sharkey)
National Book Award winner Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree has the feel of a book that opens up a new way of looking at something so usual, one sees it for the first time.
People who bear children have told me (a woman whose biological clock ticked only once for about five minutes when I was 35) that being a parent is the definitive event of their lives, forever changing and shaping their destiny and sense of self. Far From the Tree, through interviews with over 300 families, explores the nature of the familial bond between parents and children whose identities render them different — both from the parental lineage, and from the culture at large. Chapters on autism, schizophrenia, deafness, dwarfism, disability, and prodigies detail how parents and families have coped with the fall-out of what Mr. Solomon calls “horizontal” identities.
Readers will be familiar with the idea of deaf culture perhaps — the phenomenon in which a medical diagnosis is embraced as a vibrant and worthy aspect of one’s being, and not endured as a condition of impairment. What happens when one applies that sensibility to mental illness, autism, gender, even the tendency toward crime?
Like others, I was at first cowed by the 700-page text, with its additional 200 pages of meticulous notes. But those experiencing similar awe should know that each of the book’s 12 chapters can be read individually, as manageable courses one can digest while making a long meal of the book itself. It’s a surprisingly rapid read, both because of Solomon’s variously droll, insightful, and heart-breaking prose, and because the writing encodes the deep and respectful — even loving — relationships he seems to have developed with the book’s sources, the parents of children who are different, and the children they love.
I found the stories deeply reassuring. They offer a kind of moral lesson for all of us at sea in a world of confusing and sometimes alarming diversity: that is, even extreme difference does not require us to sacrifice connectedness. As we confront our own warring subjectivities about what is normal, what is unnatural or unnatural, and even what values inform those concepts, Mr. Solomon shows us that we can and do still belong to each other. He agreed to take a few questions via email:
You write about your own difference as one of the reasons you undertook this book. As a gay man, who is now a father yourself, were there things you learned about yourself as a result of this work?
I’ve often heard people give a date when they came out of the closet — when they turned what had been secret into public information. And I used to say that I had come out in my twenties, giving the process a full decade. There was admitting it to myself, admitting it to the people I slept with, admitting it to my parents, admitting it to friends.
I moved in with my first serious boyfriend when I was 24, and then I thought the information was out, but when I published a novel that dealt with my sexuality and began doing readings, I found that I hadn’t yet reckoned with what it meant to be full open with the world, and the process was part of what knocked me down into depression. I come out of the closet every day. I go to a doctor’s office and tick the “married” box on some medical form and brace myself for the possibility that the nursing staff holds prejudices against people like me; I sit next to someone on an airplane who asks whether I have children and find myself having to explain; I get to know a bunch of gang members in researching Far From the Tree and have to tell them at some point about who I am and what my life looks like.
I’d hoped that this book would take care of the coming out forever, that I wouldn’t have to do it any more. What it taught me instead is that we are all constantly coming out about one thing or another, that my experience of coming out as a gay man is part of a vast web of people negotiating the tension between their acknowledged and unacknowledged selves. Understanding that made me less self-pitying, and perhaps less self-aggrandizing, and certainly less sad. I felt that I was part of a human fabric of struggle, that my highly personal experience was part of a larger collective experience. Knowing that made it much easier to tolerate.
I think, also, that the book made me more forgiving. One tends to be most forgiving of the things for which one needs forgiveness oneself, and unforgiving of what is foreign and strange, and now almost nothing is foreign and strange to me. If that doesn’t make me a better father, I don’t know what will.
Your chapter on autism, with its exploration of the controversial neurodiversity movement, was able to present all sides of that issue — that autism is an identity which the world should welcome and adapt to, and that it is a diagnosis that entails suffering, impairment, and loss. Where did your personal views of this end up after all of the research?
I know this sounds like a cop-out, but my personal view ended up being that this is a very complicated area and that one person’s affliction is another person’s identity. I definitely came to believe in the deep worth of the autistic experience, and I think we would impoverish the world if we were to eliminate it. I also met many people with autism in whom it seemed to engender (or at least be accompanied by) suffering. I do think there’s a difference between having some capacity for communication and having none, and that people without communication have difficult lives.
Autism isn’t my way of thinking; I am not neurodiverse in that sense. But I ended up thinking that much as I am happy with my own life despite the characteristic of being gay, which seems alienating to many straight people, many people with autism are content in who they are and how they think. And I think we have an obligation to respond to those people’s self-esteem with respect.
The chapters on children of rape and criminality seemed different to me in nature from the other chapters. I find it harder to describe that part of the book, and harder to think about it. How did you decide to include those chapters? And, do you think they raise somewhat different questions?
Part of my objective in writing this book was to say that these impediments to love, these forms of difference, reflected not only the child’s unusual genome, but also that child’s point of origin or type of behavior. I wanted to ensure that people understand the true complexity of this idea of a child who is “different” — that the difference can take many forms. Additionally, I wanted to look from the perspective of the child. While we have a social impetus to treat criminality as an illness, we are dishonest if we don’t acknowledge it as an identity as well. And for children conceived in rape, the difficulty is often that they experience themselves as different without understanding the nature of that difference — that they cannot seek community because their identity goes unacknowledged.
Of the many ways these stories instruct us (how to be brave, how to be steadfast, how to surrender, how to accept limitation, how to give up) were there particular instructions you took to heart, or that you would recommend to others?
I needed the span of the book fully to answer that question, but the essential messages are that people dealing with all these situations are less alone than they imagine — less alone insofar as there is community around each of these topics, and less alone in that each of these individual topics has so much in common with the others. Community is an essential part of healing. Any aspect of any person can be seen as an illness (negatively) or as an identity (positively). Holding onto that reality, even in the moments of shock when it seems implausible, is a key way of coping with problems that may look very intimidating.
At the presentation you gave in St. Paul, Minnesota, which I attended, the crowd sat forward on their chairs. There is a sense for many of us who read it that you are telling our stories. You are bringing certain things out of the closet we have been unable to say for ourselves. Do you see that also? And, what is that like for you?
It’s the most gratifying thing in the world. I hope the book will serve in its tiny way to make a kinder and more tolerant world. If I can help people to experience their own lives anew, to see meanings they had not previously noted, then I’ll feel like I have been doing my job. I lived with a big secret — my sexuality — for years, and casting off that burden of secrecy was the great liberation of my adulthood. I hope that others, in reading the book, will feel empowered to redirect the enormous energy that keeping secrets requires, and will be able to use that energy to build rich and productive lives.