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Recent Reading: Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon - Mo's Journal
February 12th, 2014
03:16 pm

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Recent Reading: Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Really engaging book about family dynamics and coping skills in families where the children differ in a major and unexpected way from their parents. This is not just a parenting book - although parents will certainly relate to it. Ultimately, though, it's a book about personal identity and where it comes from, using the circumstance of children who "fell far from the tree" to illuminate a search for identity that is part of the human condition.

A large book (not as large as it seems at first - although it's close to 1000 pages, nearly 200 are footnotes and index) Far From the Tree is divided into chapters by the different conditions the children have: deafness, dwarfism, schizophrenia, transgenderism, etc. Most of the conditions are disabilities of some sort - either because they are inherently handicapping like schizophrenia or because society isn't set up to accommodate them (like dwarfism, and some would say deafness and transgenderism). Solomon does, however, also cover prodigies, which would generally be considered a positive condition.

In each chapter the reader meets multiple families dealing with the particular issue and they vary in their coping skills, demographics, responses, etc. Some have grown children and are recounting how these conditions were dealt with a long time ago; some are dealing with the day-to-day issues. Interviews with the families occurred over the course of more than 10 years, sometimes with ongoing contact over a period of years.

The variety of the people interviewed and the way they view their identities is worth the read alone. Still the strongest part of the book, for me, is the connections he makes between and among the different conditions, musing on what's the same and what's different and sharing insights on what it means to have a child who is unlike the parent. Solomon talks about the "horizontal identity" the offspring have with people who share their condition and the "vertical identity" they share with their parents.

I did take issue with a few of the choices the author made. A chapter on children born of rape was heart breaking but didn't really fit in the book. All the other chapters were about conditions the children have and how they made them different from their parents. The chapter on rape was about the circumstances of conception and birth and would have been better covered in a different volume. The chapter on prodigies focused too much on musical prodigies to the exclusion of other kinds of genius. And the author was inconsistent in when in each family's story he tells how old their children are, very relevant information for many of the conditions he describes, which have been treated differently at different times. Sometimes he announces the birth date or age of the child at the outset of describing the families, but in an apparent attempt at stylistic variety, that information sometimes comes much later and it's not as clear why families made the choices they did if you don't know what options were available at the time.

One odd omission is families with gay and lesbian children. It is particularly odd since the author is a gay man and in the first chapter talks about how his mother's difficulty with him coming out affected his identity development and gave him the idea for the book.

These are quibbles, though. I highly recommend this book, although given the physical size it is, as my SIL has said, a good argument for e-readers.

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From:lunabee34
Date:February 13th, 2014 02:50 pm (UTC)
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I'm pretty sure Fresh Air did an interview with this guy about this book if you're interested in that.
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From:mofic
Date:February 13th, 2014 03:26 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, I'll look for that.
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