Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book review: "Far From the Tree"

Although I usually do a series of short book reviews on my blog at the end of the year, the book I've just finished seems to require a separate entry of its own.  It's Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree:  Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.  I first read about this book on Ellen Painter Dollar's blog and then watched a TV interview with the author on The Agenda with Steve Paikin (see the full hour-long interview here:  it's really interesting).  I should say right off the bat, though, that this isn't really a scholarly review or anything like that; it's just an explanation of what the book's about and how I felt about it.
 Far From the Tree essentially looks at how parents raise and relate to children who are very different from them.  The author distinguishes between vertical identities (like race or ethnicity), which are handed down through the generations, and horizontal identities, in which a child is very different from his or her parents because of some medical or psychological condition, skill, or circumstance.  Solomon, who is gay, devotes much of the first chapter, "Son," to his own upbringing and relationship with his parents -- especially his mother, who worked diligently with him to overcome his dyslexia and tried in vain to do the same with his homosexuality.  He then investigates ten different horizontal identities, which he labels with the following chapter titles:  Deaf, Dwarfs, Downs Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, and Transgender.  Each chapter gives numerous case studies of children and families dealing with that particular issue, as well as extensive background information about (depending on the issue being discussed) causes, treatments, social stigmas, subcultures, controversies, etc. The level of research and detail is incredible:  the book weighs in at 900+ pages, 200 of which are endnotes.

I found this book very eye-opening in many ways.  Some of the issues it addresses, such as dwarfism, were totally unfamiliar to me:  I knew nothing about the different types of dwarfism nor about controversial treatments such as limb-lengthening (in which children or teens in their growing stage have their arm and leg bones repeatedly broken and stretched).  In other cases, such as schizophrenia and transgender, I had some indirect familiarity with the subject but no clue about its complexity.  And some of the subjects I really didn't want to know about:  the chapter on crime contains a long interview with the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine High School killers.  Many times as I read, I found myself unable to keep from turning the pages, yet almost afraid to read more about the subject in question.

I also found myself having to step back and choose to open my mind at times.  I've always been against abortion, yet when I read about the thousands of women who were raped and became pregnant during the Rwandan genocide, it's difficult to hold rigidly to a position that every pregnancy must be sustained no matter what the circumstances.  Solomon seems to have found himself in a similar state of mind when conducting the extensive research for this book, because he frequently addresses the need to hold different, even competing viewpoints in tension.  Is a particular condition an illness or an identity, or both?  Is there such a thing as a "person with autism," implying that removing the autism would reveal the "real" person underneath?  Will the technological advances in treatment of deafness (such as cochlear implants) lead to the extinction of a rich culture?  Does acceptance of a child with a particular condition mean we shouldn't try to cure that condition?  One of the messages of this book seems to be that in many situations there is no either-or.  One quotation in particular stood out to me, from the father of a deaf child:

"When you have a disabled child, you say either, 'I've got this new asset in my life who is going to make me happy and proud,' or 'I'm enslaved by my child who is going to be full of needs until I get so old and exhausted that I fall over dead.'  The truth about this situation always involves both.  Buddhism is about nothing else than these dualities.  But did that make it easy?  No.  I had to relearn my Buddhist practice from the point of view of playing for real.  I lost my hobby." (p. 96)

This quotation spoke to me because I've felt both of those sides:  the joy of my kids' lives and accomplishments, and the fear and dread about what the future will hold for them and for us as parents.  The intentional practice of Buddhism (faith moving from "hobby" to real-life experience) helped this father reconcile the two sides. It strikes me that as Christians we often prefer to judge and choose right vs. wrong in a situation than try to live in the uncomfortable tension of holding on to conflicting perspectives.  Perhaps only when you're actually in the experience are you able to live in that tension:  whether you embrace it willingly or are eventually forced to accept it reluctantly, the alternative is probably bitterness and resentment.

The chapter on Autism was the one I most dreaded reading and found hardest to read.  Because both our kids are on the autism spectrum, it struck close to home to read about the most extreme cases:  children with no speech, no comprehension, no apparent ability to give or receive love.  I also found this chapter tough because it ends with a long discussion of how autism involves a high prevalence of filicide:  parents killing, or attempting to kill, their autistic children.  Solomon is clearly critical of the assumption that most parents who kill their autistic children do it for the altruistic motive of ending the child's suffering; he lists many examples in which it was obviously the parents' own suffering, frustration, and hopelessness that led to these acts.  This is one instance in which he thinks it is important to emphasize identity over illness, because focusing only on the latter may lead to the devaluing and ultimately the termination of autistic lives.  He is also critical of the relatively light sentences given to these parents; yet he still acknowledges the overwhelming stresses that parents of autistic children can experience. His conclusion is logical:  if society is really as sympathetic to these parents as it seems to be after they kill their children, then society should ensure that there are more options and resources available, so that the child's death is not seen as the only solution to a hopeless situation.

The author talks a great deal about how parents are changed -- or at least can be -- by the experience of parenting in difficult circumstances.  The issue of finding meaning in suffering is one that parents in the book seem to return to again and again.  Solomon says,

"Those men and women who believe that parenting a disabled child has given them knowledge or hope they wouldn't otherwise have had find worth in their lives, and those parents who don't see such possibilities often can't.  Those who believe their suffering has been valuable love more readily than those who see no meaning in their pain.  Suffering does not necessarily imply love, but love implies suffering, and what changes with these children and their extraordinary situations is the shape of suffering -- and in consequence, the shape of love, forced into a more difficult form."  (p. 42)

I appreciated this comment because it highlights what the parents of "difficult" children share with those who don't have such challenges, but it also acknowledges that there are very real differences.  So while I understand those who say "Every child has special needs" -- because after all, every person is unique and needs to love and be loved in a way that fits that uniqueness -- I also want to respond by saying, "But not every 10-year-old child wears diapers to bed or needs one-on-one assistance at school to help him remember what day it is and to ensure he's safe if he has a seizure; not every 14-year-old has public temper tantrums."  Again, it's not either-or, but both-and:  as a parent of children on the autism spectrum, I want to say yes, my kids are like all kids; and no, they have specific, exceptional challenges that can't be brushed away by nice words or accommodated with the same resources that suit everybody else.

The following quote also resonated with me because I see life with my kids as a process of adjusting to what is, not to what should be:

"Empathy and compassion work best in concert with the belief that you are still capable of shaping a meaningful life for yourself and your family.  The technical term for this is internal locus of control, wherein one determines one's own trajectory, rather than external locus of control, wherein one feels entirely subject to outside circumstances and events.  To achieve an internal locus of control, people actively seek to match their lifestyles with their priorities .... Paradoxically, however, parents of disabled children often achieve a feeling of control by making a firm and positive affirmation of their lack of control.  The most important thing, often, is a belief in something bigger than one's own experience.  The most common source of coherence is religion, but it has many other mechanisms.  You can believe in God, in the human capacity for good, in justice, or simply in love."  (p. 371)

For me, faith in God is a huge part of this process.  I can honestly say, my belief that (1) God has a purpose and plan for each of us, and (2) caring for my kids is a calling from Him, is the reason I can face whatever lies ahead.  I have sometimes gone to bed crying, but I've never once woken up with the desire to hide under the covers and avoid what the day will bring.  That's God, period.

Solomon's final chapter, "Father," focuses on how the writing of Far From the Tree helped him reach a more accepting and forgiving place in relation to his own parents.  It also explains how he and his partner, John, became parents together.  They have a son who was carried by a surrogate; this woman is also the mother of another child whom John fathered as a sperm donor but to whom he has no parental rights; Solomon also fathered a child for another female friend and does have a parental relationship with the child, although the child lives with the mother.  This complicated arrangement seems positive for all of those involved as they work through parenting decisions with a respectful sense of boundaries and roles.  Solomon's journey of becoming a parent and writing this book ultimately leads him to a place of greater empathy and openness:  "Insofar as I have written a self-help book, it is a how-to manual for receptivity:  a description of how to tolerate what cannot be cured, and an argument that cures are not always appropriate even when they are feasible." (p. 702)

One reviewer I read commented that reading this book would make you "count your blessings."  The unspoken implication seemed to be "that is, if you don't have any of these ten things going on in your family."  But I can honestly say that the book did have that effect on me. There is no doubt that we have a lot of challenges with our kids.  Jonathan probably will not live independently, so we will need to think long-term about his care; his narrow range of interests and his tendency to be inflexible make it hard to have any real social life as a family; and his repetitiveness and fixations can be very wearing on the nerves.  But on the whole we have a great deal to be thankful for.  Jonathan is very affectionate and engaging and has a gift for making people happy.  His liking for the same few activities means he's easily pleased by simple things like a puzzle or a DVD he hasn't watched in a while.  He is growing more communicative all the time (full sentences like "Can I have some orange juice please" are now common), and he continues to surprise us with what he knows:  I was reading him "Jesus Visits Mary and Martha" in the Children's Bible last night and asked, "Where's Jesus?"  I expected him to point to the little picture of Jesus with his beard and blue robe, but instead he looked at the text and then pointed tentatively to the word "Jesus."  It is much easier to reason with him and explain changes in plans than it used to be, which means there is a lot less screaming (by him and me!). 
And Allison, for whom social skills have always been a struggle, is developing a friendship with another girl; they've had play dates and gone to movies together, and the friend has come twice to Allison's youth group.  Allison also has supportive teachers who can't say enough good things about her.  In fact, school is a high point in our lives in general:  both kids are getting great support and services from their schools -- services we don't have to beg for, but that are just there for us because the need has already been anticipated and met.  So this book did make me count my blessings -- not in a flippant "There's always someone worse off" way, but just in terms of looking at the reality and being able to recognize and celebrate the good things that are there.

I could go on and on, but I did set myself a goal of making sure that my review was shorter than Solomon's book.  I would recommend that anyone set themselves the challenge of reading this book.  Yes, it's huge and daunting, but I think it can help us better understand other people, even those whose experience seems totally foreign to us.  And if we're parents, I think it helps us love our own kids better.  Solomon comments on how, regardless of the challenges they face, most parents would consider it unthinkable to want different children from those they have:  “If some glorious angel descended into my living room and offered to exchange my children for other, better children — brighter, kinder, funnier, more loving, more disciplined, more accomplished — I would clutch the ones I have and, like most parents, pray away the atrocious specter.” (p. 698)

Writing this book seems to have made Solomon a more loving and accepting person.  I think reading it can make us more loving and accepting people too.

 I linked this book review up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's 
blog, which has a "Twitterature" linkup on the 15th of each month.  
Check out this very fun and interesting blog sometime!  


  1. You have given an interesting and comprehensive review so that we can, with some clarity, choose to read (or not to read) it. I find that the issues you and Solomon have presented do broaden the perspective I may otherwise have to exceptionalities which we would call 'unbiblical' in a constructive and kind way. Kindness is a give of the Holy Spirit and in this, enlightenment is a definite positive. Thanks, Jeannie.

    1. Thanks, Sarah; I appreciate your reading and commenting!

  2. Wow. If reading that book will make me more loving and accepting, I'm all over it! What a challenging subject! And yet SO vital! I'm touched my your personal examples.

    I just hopped over to Amazon. Looks like there is already 190 reviews, but still, I think you should post a portion of this review there. I'm sure the author would appreciate it!

    1. Thanks, Adriana; I'll consider that. Appreciate your comment as always!

  3. Hi Jeannie, Thank you so much for this reminder to love and accept our children the way they are. It brought tears to my eyes. You are an inspiration to me! I have gone to bed crying many times myself, and even though I do sometimes feel like I don't want to get up in the morning, somehow God always gives me the grace to do so. "He tends his flock like a shepherd ... He gently leads those that have young." Isaiah 40:11 Maureen

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Maureen. God's compassions are new every morning. May God give you the grace you need daily too.


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