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Testing the Bond: What’s family without shared identity?

Reviewed By Diane Cole

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity
By Andrew Solomon
Scribner. 962 pp.
ISBN: 9780743236713
Purchase this book on Amazon

How do parents and their children come to identify with each other as family when, as a result of nature, nurture, or both, they differ so vastly that they wonder how they ever came to be related? If we knew, we wouldn’t need Andrew Solomon’s recently published book, the widely acclaimed, ambitiously intentioned, and unevenly successful Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.

It’s ironic, given the book’s title, that Far from the Tree actually falls close to the mark of Solomon’s previous book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Each attempts to chart, in one massive volume, the complex workings of entire worlds of pain and confusion. Moreover, Solomon’s familiarity with each of these worlds derives from personal experience.

His decades-long struggle with depression lent urgency to The Noonday Demon: he had a real stake in trying to uncover the origins of the disease and the efficacy of different treatment options. For Far from the Tree, his point of departure isn’t psychiatric illness, but parent–child relations—specifically, the excruciating mutual misunderstandings that resulted from his being a gay child with dyslexia raised by straight parents with no learning disabilities. In other words, contrary to the old adage, Solomon perceived himself as having fallen far from his own family tree.

Solomon wondered how parents and children forge positive family bonds with one another in the presence of inborn differences, such as those that distanced him from his mother and father. Where and how do children discover role models for themselves when they grow up with parents who are radically different from them, physically, emotionally, or mentally? What impact do such differences have on how the parents view their own identities and grade themselves as nurturing caregivers?

The questions are daunting, and Solomon’s book in answer to them is encyclopedic in its heft (almost 1,000 pages long) and the amount of labor (10 years in the writing) and research (40,000 pages of interview transcripts) he devoted to it. The structure resembles that of a reference book, with one comprehensive chapter after another laid out, each covering 10 distinct differences that can separate parents and children. He even titles those chapters as if they were Encyclopedia Britannica entries: “Deaf,” “Dwarfs,” “Down Syndrome,” “Autism,” “Schizophrenia,” “Disability,” “Prodigies,” “Rape,” “Crime,” “Transgender.”

The mix is striking, as varied as it is idiosyncratic—which is why at first glance his subject areas, ranging from the biological to the psychiatric to the experiential, seem unrelated, except by the unusual and, at times, extreme medical or psychological needs of the families coping with these challenges. This emphasis is heightened by the author’s decision to pay little attention to the mundane differences between parents and children: the divergent temperaments, interests, and life choices that in and of themselves can produce a sense of family disconnection.

Solomon presents his reasoning this way: “Many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs,” he writes at the start of the book. “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity.” What’s most crucial to Solomon’s project is how we come to acknowledge and deal with our fear of and discomfort with what we view as abnormal. Hence his focus on disabilities of varying kinds, and how parents and children come to frame them as abilities.

Solomon begins his exploration by positing two types of identity. Vertical identity derives from “attributes and values passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA but also through shared cultural norms,” he writes. Common examples of self-image that are often (but not always) passed from one generation to the next include ethnicity, religion, and language.

By contrast, he continues, horizontal identity results when a child possesses “an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. . . . Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.” In a baffling omission, Solomon pays scant attention to families that choose to adopt, even though that would seem an ideal opportunity to look at identity formation and family bonding in the absence of genetic inheritance.

It’s the presence of horizontal identities within a family, Solomon believes, that compels us to confront just how broad a range the word difference covers—and how narrow the word normal can seem by comparison. That’s the story he chronicles repeatedly as he profiles families grappling with ways to create models for normalizing differences that stem from horizontal identities.

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