Andrew Solomon’s new book from Scribner, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, is a behemoth worth every one of its 976 pages.
You write that before you were able to hear these stories of “horizontal identities”—about children severely disabled, children who were deaf, dwarf, gay, criminal, autistic, schizophrenic, or with some sort of stigma attached —you had a great deal to learn. What was that?
I had to go in without a lot of judgment. My first thought, for example, when I learned about the Deaf movement, was, that’s ridiculous, people don’t want to stay deaf! But over time I began to understand those parallels with my own identity. I had to get to the point where I could understand the human reasons behind their conditions, how much diversity there was in each of these conditions, and how people experience them.
You interviewed more than 300 families for this book. How did you find your subjects?
Finding the subjects was the hidden work of the book. Except for autistic children: everybody I met said they knew or had an autistic child. For the chapter on children with criminal tendencies, I worked in juvenile prisons. For children of rape, I found rape survival groups. The chapter on schizophrenia was particularly painful. I went to researchers working with patients and asked how to approach patients and their families. Schizophrenia has a compromising effect on people’s version of truth; it’s hard to trust narratives that may be inflected by delusion.
Why did you choose juvenile criminals—a choice rather than a disability or illness?
There is a tendency to dehumanize kids that commit crimes. The system is focused on punishment, not on rehabilitation. These kids are the most misunderstood and most cruelly treated.
You chronicle the social progress that has taken place over time in the recognition of these identities. Have we done enough?
We are making progress, and we are living in a more accepting world, but there’s a long way to go. The essential piece of the book is that in order to ennoble one’s unique condition, you have to recognize how much is in common with everyone else.
What were some startling discoveries for you?
These were stories that contained great resilience, and inside the misery I found more joy than I’d have expected. For example, you wouldn’t wish you had Down syndrome, but for many of these parents, they wouldn’t exchange these experiences for anything in the world. I found it extraordinary how much people could grow and stretch. As I was drawn deeper and deeper into the lives I was studying, the sympathy I felt for other people’s disabilities was in many instances replaced with a feeling almost of envy. I came to admire the communities to which many belonged. The interview process was very unguarded, and that feeling of anthropological remove evaporated quickly.