“The apple never falls far from the tree.” So the saying goes as a way of explaining why children most often resemble their parents. It is usually people’s response when they learn I am a historian just as my father is a historian or that my son’s tongue spends 90% of its time outside of his mouth because…well…so does mine. WHAT! I’m thinking about something very important! Who has time to close their mouth all the time?!
But that maxim is not universally true—sometimes the apple falls very far from the tree and may even roll down a hill or get carried way downstream. Families may discover that their child is unlike them in a significant way. Perhaps he is born deaf or neurodiverse. Perhaps she has dwarfism or Down Syndrome. Perhaps they have bipolar or have been convicted of a crime or identify as a transgender person. Parents discover that they have not reproduced so much as they have produced, bringing forth into the world an offspring who will carry unexpected challenges and profound gifts into their lives.
This is the topic of Andrew Solomon’s bestselling investigation Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. This book and documentary may safely be termed monumental, not just because it is a fact-crammed volume over 950 pages in length; or because it is the result of over 300 interviews over 10 years, producing 40,000 pages of transcripts and a massive bibliography, but also because it is a vastly important look at the lives of America’s largest minority: people living with disabilities. Solomon tells us that we are all capable of falling into that minority. “The cycle of life,” he says, “runs in actuality from disability to temporary ability back to disability, and that only if you are among the most fortunate.”
Though many are the ways that the mind or body may be differently abled from the womb, Solomon has chosen ten different conditions that profoundly affect children and the families they are born into, ranging from the Multiple Severe Disability (MSD), where a child, sometimes termed a “pillow angel” may be only able to sleep, wake, breathe, and smile, to the severely gifted young genius, to the trauma of the woman bearing the child of a rapist. Solomon does not say these are equivalent experiences. Only that they are differences. In immersing himself into the family and social life of these children and their parents, Solomon discovers that there are joys as well as sorrows, love and lessons among the burdens.
Among those areas which Solomon explores—and some of the most helpful vocabulary I’ve gleaned—is the difference between vertical and horizontal identities. A family is a good example of a vertical identity; traits are passed down from generation to generation. Ethnicity is vertical. Languages are usually vertical. Religion is only moderately vertical.
An acquired or inherited trait that differs from one’s parents–the product of recessive genes or mutations, or strong social influences–creates a horizontal identity. A boy genius, an autistic child, or a gay youth will be in need of a peer group that can understand and support them in ways that parents often struggle to. Sometimes our family isn’t the one we inherited but rather the one we choose.
Solomon begins his explorations with one of these challenging horizontal identities: deafness. Here he makes the crucial distinction between capital-D Deaf (the culture of those who cannot hear) and small-d deaf (the physical condition). This difference reflects the problem that confronts the parents of non-hearing kids: do they try to ameliorate that condition with cochlear implants which may help social integration, or must they agree to forgo the surgery, raise their child with sign language, and see them as part of Deaf culture, which celebrates the difference, and vehemently rejects implants as “genocide” or a “cultural and linguistic extermination campaign.”
Solomon’s book and film present a hopeful message. He believes that differences unite us and that everyone is flawed and even a bit strange. Most people, he asserts, are valiant, too—the lengths we will go for the ones we love. The incurable may be tolerated and the different may in the end, not even need to be cured but perhaps celebrated.
Join along as we read and discuss Far from the Tree for this month’s Everything Happens Book Club. You can read the book, watch the film, or listen to this podcast conversation with author Andrew Solomon. Learn more about the book club, here.