Occasionally it happens: you meet someone, or read someone, or – the Internet being what it is – you click on a link and spend 15 minutes watching something, and a world opens up. You suddenly see or know or understand something that had been entirely invisible only minutes earlier. Even more occasionally it happens that this shift in understanding or perspective is coupled with a deeper movement: a shifting in compassion, in recognition, in empathy.
Recently, I clicked on a link to a talk by Andrew Solomon, on http://www.ted.com. About 20 years ago, Solomon was asked by his editors at the New York Times to write an article about Deaf culture. He knew nothing about the deaf, except that they couldn’t hear. Deafness was, he presumed, an awful disability. Tasked with this assignment, he went out into the world of the Deaf, and met people. He encountered poetry, theatre, sign language – an entire culture, complete with its own subcultures and tensions of identity politics – and a community of people who regard deafness primarily as an identity, rather than an illness.
Solomon noticed a resonance between his experience as a gay man, and the experience of many Deaf people he encountered. Many deaf children – like most gay children – are born to parents who do not share this identity, parents who may regard it as an unwanted or even tragic disability, something to be cured or rectified. Unlike ‘vertical’ identities (the identities we share with our parents’ generation – such as our ethnicity, nationality, language, and so on), our ‘horizontal’ identities are aspects of our identity that we share with a peer group. These are identities that arise when the apple does, indeed, fall a bit far from the tree. In his talk, Solomon says:
“These are identities that are alien to your parents and that you have to discover when you get to see them in peers. And those identities, those horizontal identities, people have almost always tried to cure.
And I wanted to look at what the process is through which people who have those identities come to a good relationship with them. And it seemed to me that there were three levels of acceptance that needed to take place.
There’s self-acceptance, there’s family acceptance, and there’s social acceptance. And they don’t always coincide.”
(Andrew Solomon, in “Love, no matter what”, at http://www.ted.com)
Over a period of about ten years, Solomon researched ten different identity groups, interviewing hundreds of families. And he distilled his research into a book, titled Far from the Tree.
Each chapter deals with a specific identity: deaf, dwarfs, Down’s syndrome; autism; schizophrenia; disability; prodigies; children born of rape; crime; transgender. He immerses himself in the family life, joys and tribulations of the families he meets. He recounts their anecdotes with a consistent and compelling mix of generosity and lucidity, academic analysis and compassion.
The ten researched chapters are framed by an introduction, titled ‘Son’, and a final chapter, titled ‘Father’, in which he tells his own personal story – his personal journey towards accepting his own horizontal identity as a gay man, and his journey even further into the domain of parenthood.
This is a phenomenal, mind-opening, soul-opening sort of a book. You may find – like me – that you’re glued to it from beginning to end, for Solomon’s writing is a skilful blend of mesmerising storytelling and compelling analysis. Or it may be the kind of book you can dip into if you have a specific interest in one or other of the identities/conditions he discusses. Some chapters are tougher reading than others – at seven months pregnant, I found the chapters on multiple disability and children of rape particularly difficult. The chapter on crime was equally difficult, but the narratives of Sue Klebold make utterly unforgettable reading.
There are recurrent themes: identity vs illness; judgment and horror vs love and acceptance; the impact of medical interventions on identity; the risks and vulnerabilities that each group faces. But the strongest recurrent theme of this book, and one that resonated deeply for me, was the universal challenge of parenthood: loving a person that is, essentially, different from you, and in many ways unknowable, and yet irrevocably and forever the beneficiary of your love. Solomon says:
“I thought it was surprising how all of these families had all of these children with all of these problems, problems that they mostly would have done anything to avoid, and that they had all found so much meaning in that experience of parenting. And then I thought, all of us who have children love the children we have, with their flaws. If some glorious angel suddenly descended through my living room ceiling and offered to take away the children I have and give me other, better children — more polite, funnier, nicer, smarter — I would cling to the children I have and pray away that atrocious spectacle. And ultimately I feel that in the same way that we test flame-retardant pajamas in an inferno to ensure they won’t catch fire when our child reaches across the stove, so these stories of families negotiating these extreme differences reflect on the universal experience of parenting, which is always that sometimes you look at your child and you think, where did you come from?”
Go look at the talk. Solomon’s delivery is impeccable – gentle, sincere, funny. When I found myself on a long-distance flight earlier this month, I imagined what fun it would be to be seated next to such a person on the plane. As it happened, the seat next to me was free. And I had the next best thing: his book on my Kindle.
See Andrew Solomon’s TED talk here. His book is available on Amazon.com (US site) here or on Amazon.co.uk (UK site) here. I got it downloaded directly to my Kindle. Or you can check out more about this astonishing work at his website.