‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’ by Andrew Solomon ****

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and is also the recipient of twelve other awards.  It has been called, among other things, ‘a monumental book’ (Stephen Pinker), ‘a landmark, revolutionary book’ (Jennifer Egan), and ‘the most amazing book I’ve ever read’ (Curtis Sittenfield).

‘Far from the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon (Vintage)

Throughout Far from the Tree, Solomon, a lecturer of psychiatry at Cornell University, draws upon interviews with over three hundred families, and studies those with such conditions as dwarfism, Down’s Syndrome, disorders which occur within the autism spectrum, children born of rape and those convicted of crime.  He also examines the way in which prodigies can be ‘surprisingly similar to those with disabilities’.  In Far from the Tree, he aims to discover what happens when children are radically different to their parents, and in doing so, he ‘celebrates repeated triumphs of human love and compassion to show that the shared experience of difference is what unites us’.

In his introduction, Solomon states that ‘parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity’.  He goes on to set out ‘vertical identities’, in which ‘most children share at least some traits with their parents’, and ‘horizontal identities’, where ‘someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’.  ‘All offspring are startling to their parents,’ Solomon writes, and ‘these most dramatic situations are merely variations on a common theme’.

Solomon’s interest in writing such a study began in 1993, when he investigated Deaf culture for the New York Times, and he couples this with the fact that he himself, a homosexual and a sufferer of dyslexia, is ‘different’.  Coming to terms with the things which set him apart from others has made him want to identify a wealth of differences, and how what sets them apart from the masses often serves to make the child in question more treasured.  He is a firm believer that ‘difference unites us’, and that ‘to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state’.  The book has been split into ten sections which relate to a certain disability or trait which goes against the ‘norm’.  It begins with a chapter entitled ‘Son’, and ends with ‘Father’.

Andrew Solomon (right) with his husband John Harbich and their son, George

Throughout, Solomon writes so coherently, and makes his book an eminently readable one.  His research is immaculate and far-reaching, and he weaves a wealth of facts into his narrative.  The entirety of Far from the Tree has been crafted in such a way that it is not in the least overwhelming, even to readers who have not studied psychology in any depth before.  The case studies within the volume, which are often very touching, are interspersed alongside the history of each condition, and Solomon writes of such diverse subjects as Alexander Graham Bell’s leading of the oralist movement in the nineteenth century, which encouraged deaf people to use their voices; the way in which genetic information has been discovered over time; the origin of the genius; and the history of abortion within the United States.  Somehow, the tone of his prose is both sad and hopeful.

Solomon examines every possible way in which the child’s differences in each case have impacted upon the lives of themselves and their families, from those parents who embrace the child and do everything within their power to allow it to blossom as far as possible, to those whose parents tried to brush the issues under the carpet, and caused deep-rooted problems as a result.  He has also spoken to other researchers and specialists in each field, whose ideas he then builds upon.  It is heartwarming to see that most of those whom Solomon speaks to have made the best of themselves despite – or, in some cases, because of – their disability or difference.  He examines those who have paved the way for change for others – Clinton Brown III, for example, a dwarf, who addressed the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to tell them that it was incredibly difficult for disabled people to access the city’s subway system.

Far from the Tree is a far-reaching and fascinating study upon humanity, and upon those issues which affect many of us.  It is intelligent and is certainly an important contribution to the field of child psychology.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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