I have been reading journalist Andrew Solomon’s (he wrote the excellent exploration of depression The Noonday Demon) new book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. I have to say: not at all a comfortable read but really pleased to have read it, you are left with so much to consider, and Solomon’s curiosity, empathy and honesty about what it is like to parent a child with needs and behaviours that you didn’t expect imbues his writing with a clarity and certain grace.
Far from the Tree is a fascinating exploration of what happens to families and people when their babies are very different from what they imagined back before they were even a twinkle in anyone’s eyes. We meet families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. Solomon discusses his own tale of being gay, with one parent in particular who hadn’t planned on that for her child. There is much interesting discussion of the new technologies that might eradicate such differences (some of which cause huge physical and mental suffering) as they allow people to make decisions they couldn’t make even a few years ago: the reactions to these technologies are as varied as you might expect.
Of course, all children are a surprise and source of bafflement to their parents but these often extreme differences elicit extreme emotions of love and despair, sometimes all in the same paragraph. Many of the people he speaks with find profound and joyous meaning in their exceptional child, while at the same time acknowledging the practical, often detrimental effects on their own lives and other family members – a lot of which appears to be down to the practical help and respite that is, or isn’t, available in each case. Certainly it is almost impossible to start dreaming new dreams when you are exhausted and shell-shocked and grieving for what might have been.
This is a remarkable and important book, the winner of a number of prizes and much critical praise, affording glimpses into people’s lives and allowing them to say what is a bit difficult, what isn’t a problem at all, what is wonderful and life-affirming and what is well-nigh unbearable but has still to be bourne.
Can’t recommend it highly enough…