Embracing difference

Conditions such as dyslexia or deafness need not be isolating

Charles McGrath / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 25, 2012 at 04:00AM

“Far From the Tree:

Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” by Andrew Solomon (Scribner $37.50)

Andrew Solomon’s enormous new book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity,” is about children who are born or who grow up in ways their parents never expected. It’s a subject Solomon knows from experience. He was dyslexic as a child and struggled to learn to read. As he described in “The Noonday Demon,” which won a National Book Award in 2001, he once suffered from crippling, suicidal depressions. And Solomon is gay, which made his parents so uncomfortable that as a teenager he visited sexual surrogates in the hopes of “curing” himself.

Solomon, 49, is also different — different from most writers, anyway — in that he is independently wealthy and lives in baronial splendor in a West Village town house that once belonged to Emma Lazarus, who, though she wrote about those poor, huddled masses, was not herself among them.

Sitting in the kitchen of his town house, occasionally raising his voice over the strident chirping of a canary named Barack — who flew in the window one day, recognized a nice situation and never left — Solomon explained that “Far from the Tree” took 11 years. It stemmed from a 1994 article about deafness he wrote for The New York Times Magazine. In the course of reporting it, he said, he realized that many issues confronting the deaf are not unlike those he faced as someone who was gay. A few years later, watching a documentary about dwarfism, he saw the same pattern again.

Eventually the book grew to also include chapters on Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigies, transgender identity, children who are conceived during a rape and those who become criminals. His file of transcribed interviews swelled to 40,000 pages, and the version of the book he originally turned in to his publisher, Scribner, was twice as long as it is now.

Solomon said he included criminal children after deciding that society’s thinking on the subject hadn’t really advanced very much, even while it has on autism and schizophrenia.

“We still think it’s the parents’ fault if a child becomes a criminal or that something creepy must have gone on in that household,” he said.

He included the children of rape because he discovered that their mothers shared a lot with all the other mothers in the book. “They feel alienated, disaffected, angry — a lot of the things a mother feels about a child with a disability.”

This kind of commonality, he went on, was something he discovered only while writing.

“Each of the conditions I describe is very isolating,” he said. “There aren’t that many dwarfs, there aren’t that many schizophrenics. There aren’t that many families dealing with a criminal kid — not so few but not so many. But if you recognize that there is a lot in common in all these experiences, they imply a world in which not only is your condition not so isolating but the fact of your difference unites you with other people.”

His other great discovery, he added, was joy. He had been prepared to encounter sadness in the families he visited; what surprised him was how much love there was.

“This book’s conundrum,” he writes, “is that most of the families described here ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.”

Reviewing “Far From the Tree” in The Times, Dwight Garner said, “This is a book that shoots arrow after arrow into your heart.” But it’s also a frightening and disturbing book. Its chapters are a vivid catalog of all the things that can go wrong in giving birth to and then bringing up a child, and also raise difficult ethical questions: whether it’s proper to give cochlear implants to deaf children or to subject dwarfs to painful limb-lengthening surgery, for example.

But Solomon said that working on the book had emboldened him and his husband, John Habich, to have a child, something he had been ambivalent about before. Their son, George, born to a surrogate mother, is now 3 1/2.

“Forewarned is forearmed,” he said. “Some things, on some scale, go wrong in everyone’s life. I think I have perfectionist tendencies, but I know you can’t go into parenthood thinking, ‘I’m going to love my child as long as he’s perfect.’ Rather, it should be, ‘I’m going to love my child whoever he is, and let’s see how he turns out.’”

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