"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Monday, April 1, 2013

Far From The Tree

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

"Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of [the experiences described in the book] can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state."

In Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon introduces the  concept of "horizontal" identities. These are differentiated from "vertical" identities, or those elements of your identity that you share with your parents, such as being black or having a propensity towards sports or music. A horizontal identity is one that you don't share with your parents, but which you do share with peers, such as being gay. Where vertical identities are encouraged and reinforced, horizontal identities are often resisted, and can cause pain, difficulty and shame for parents and children both.

Solomon is a gay man. In what began as an attempt to understand his parents' experience, he spent 10 years researching and interviewing for this book about the tough business of parenting children who are unlike you. His goal is general exploration, but he often also has a more particular agenda: to shift his and the readers' conversation around certain circumstances from disability or disadvantage to identity politics. He focuses on nine kinds of children: those who are deaf, those who have down's syndrome, autism, or other disabilities, those who are prodigies, schizophrenics, criminals, transgender, or are born of rape.

The YouTube videos embedded are of particular subjects of the book, or Solomon's own thoughts about its themes. I think they're worth watching.

Although he's currently a PhD Candidate in Psychology, Solomon admits early on: "I have relied primarily on anecdotes, because numbers imply trends, while stories acknowledge chaos." In this way, this is almost the inverse of a science book, in which trends and statistics tell a story flavored by occasional personal anecdotes. Solomon instead relies on personal stories to make up the bulk of his (very bulky!) book, and these are only peppered with the occasional statistic or explanatory study.

For this reason, I was afraid the book would be my nightmare: a long parade of cherry-picked stories and quotes meant to present a unified, celebratory experience of finding meaning in difficulty. But Solomon was obviously committed to representing the full breadth of experiences within each topic, and the result reveals the full humanity of his subjects.

That is, we see that deaf people are not just one way, are not a bloc or type. They don't have just one feeling about their deafness or about deaf culture. They are people. Their experience is as variable as any non-deaf person. This is obvious in the abstract, but I don't know how real it feels to us most of the time, and reading about that variability is illuminating.

The book is about so many things. It's a sad book, obviously. The chapters about schizophrenia and rape are almost unreadably sad. It's also--and also obviously--about the meaning and strength that can come from adversity and sadness. It's about parents generally, but mothers in particular, as caregivers and activists and amateur scientists. It’s a book about illness, stigma, and identity.

It’s a book about politics, but it’s not a political book exactly. It’s too personal for that kind of attribution. Abortion is a popular topic, as genetic testing allows parents to abort fetuses who would otherwise have down’s syndrome or dwarfism. Peter Singer’s work is referenced often.  It just touches these kinds of things lightly.

Mostly it’s a book about empathy. It’s dense with the stuff. It challenges the reader to confront the boundaries of  her empathy and then holds her hand as she moves forward from there.

On a personal note, the chapter that was most revelatory to me was the one that focused on transgender individuals. I've never known a transgender person. And although I'm a male with a pretty strong helping of traditionally feminine qualities that I really like about myself, it's hard for me to imagine the desire to actually, physically be another gender. Like any good liberal, I've fully supported the rights of people to do whatever they like without harming someone else, but the shameful truth is that I've found transgenderism as an idea... kind of icky and sort of indulgent. But the heart-breaking, human stories of young men and women struggling with their gender included in this book are a strong antidote for that kind of resistance.

One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.

"Children with horizontal identities alter your self painfully; they also illuminate it. They are receptacles for rage and joy — even for salvation. When we love them, we achieve above all else the rapture of privileging what exists over what we have merely imagined."

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