Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

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Sitting across a table from me, a father sobbed intermittently as he scuffled to accept his present circumstance with a Down syndrome child. When his wife was with that child, as persons of faith he and his wife did not contemplate once about terminating the pregnancy. Ignoring the doctor’s counsel, their faith assumed that it was God’s unfathomable providence. The challenges of raising a Down syndrome child were harmlessly in the future. But now that the child was in his arms, at once his career path, financial concerns, parental task and familial needs took an unpredictable and difficult detour. Being a father of “normal” children, I felt no moral authority to embolden him to carry on. I could only listen silently to his not so silent desperation.

“Far From The Tree” informatively explores how families cope with raising children with “horizontal identities” – a term coined to describe those who possess cognitive, physical and psychological disparities that their parents do not share. The title is from the old adage that claims an apple does not fall far from its tree. For the 300 families with deaf, dwarf, Down syndrome, autistic, schizophrenic, and severe physical disable children in the book, the “apples” have fallen far from the tree, even to other orchards. The study also includes children who are prodigies, conceived in rape, transgender and serial criminals. Having spent 10 years in research, in some cases living with these families, Andrew Solomon, an academic and journalist, concludes that unhappy families who reject their less than “normal” children have similar travails, but the “happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways.”

The book is wise, graceful, generous and rich in imagination. At times biographical, Solomon offers intimate glimpses into the mystery and the desperation of these families’ psychologies. It is intuitive for parents to love their children; it is more intentional to accept them but not for what they might have been. He reminds us that parents do not “reproduce” children who are duplicates of who they are. Parents only “produce” children who are unpredictably different. With some, these differences are overwhelmingly disparaged. Parents and other family members of children with horizontal identities are left with the onerous tasks of caring for them.

As an Evangelical cleric, my theological traditions alert us that we are a broken humanity living in a broken world. In our brokenness, some are more broken. What then is normality?  Is it a normal with abnormalities at its extreme ends or is it a spectrum of shades of abnormality. I dare not say. But my theological traditions also says there can be triumph through adversity. Whatever our lot, St Paul says that we “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I find his book warm, affirming, hopeful and empowering. However, at the end, Solomon made this startling, but not unexpected, observation. All those families with less than normal children long to live a better existence and a better alchemy toward a better future. But in their amelioration, very few family members really want to make personal changes for the better. They may want circumstances and others to change but not substantive changes from themselves. With sobriety and also in hope, Solomon affirms that to watch a family with just enough courage to make changes and industry to nurture a less than normal child is to “witness a shimmering humanity.” All parents and those who help them would do well to read “Far From The Tree.”

Scribner, 2012