Friday, November 09, 2012

NPR - What Happens When Kids Fall 'Far From The Tree'

This book sounds interesting, especially the idea about vertical vs. horizontal identities . . . the interview is also quite good. The book is Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon, who also authored the National Book Award winning The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

As the old saying goes, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In other words, the child takes after the parent; the son is a chip off the old block.

Of course, that's often not the case. Straight parents have gay children and vice versa; autistic children are born to parents who don't have autism; and transgender kids are born to parents who are perfectly comfortable with their gender.

That's the kind of family Andrew Solomon has written about in his new book, Far From the Tree. In it, Solomon chronicles the lives of families in which the kids are, in one way or another, different from their parents. He explores how some of those differences come to be viewed as disabilities, while others are seen as part of that child's identity.

He joins NPR's Robert Siegel to discuss how differences can sometimes serve to unite families, rather than isolate them.

Interview Highlights

On vertical and horizontal identities

"I've divided identities into two categories. There are vertical identities, which are passed down generationally — so, ethnicity is hugely a vertical identity, nationality usually is, language is, often religion is. These are things a child has in common with his parents. But there are many other ways of being that tend to occur for parents who don't anticipate them. ... You have parents who perceive themselves to be 'normal,' whatever that means, and they have a child who has a condition which they often perceive to be 'abnormal.' And those children often grow up with the sense that the way they are is really a tragedy, and it would be great if they could change and fix that. And then in adolescence, frequently — sometimes earlier, sometimes later — they discover other people who are like them in their peer group. And so I've called [that] a horizontal identity because of the way it reaches out across, sort of sideways."

On whether it's fair to compare the experiences of families whose kids are deaf with families whose kids are, say, dwarfs or prodigies

"I found as I did the research that each of these individual differences felt very isolating to the people who were experiencing [them]. But then, in fact, there was an enormous amount that the parents dealing with these things all had in common. And ultimately it seemed to me as though difference was not something that isolates people, but rather something that unites people. And I thought, if the people who were dealing with autism could understand how similar this situation is to the parents of people with remarkable gifts who are prodigies — or to gay people, or to transgender people, or to dwarfs — if they could understand how much they all have in common, a lot of the isolation of those conditions would be mitigated."

Andrew Solomon's 2001 book, The Noonday Demon, won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Annie Leibovitz/Courtesy of Scribner

Andrew Solomon's 2001 book, The Noonday Demon, won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

On the difference between disability and identity

"I think it's important for us to recognize that the idea of disability, and really the idea of illness, is an idea that's really very much in flux. When I was born, the wisdom was that homosexuality was an illness, that it was caused largely by somebody's mother and a distorted relationship with the mother, and that people who had it should be treated for it. And now, as I live my life — married to a husband with kids — it's an identity, for me at least. I know there are some people who are still experiencing it as an illness. Having had that experience, I recognize the fluidity of these categories. So do I think that deafness is an identity in which I would be comfortable? No, I'm very fond of my hearing. Here I am on [the] radio. But do I think there are people for whom it is primarily an identity? Yes, absolutely."

On the story of Solomon's own post-nuclear family, which begins and bookends Far From the Tree

"When I met John, who is now my husband, he told me that he had had some friends, Tammy and Laura, for whom he had been a sperm donor, and that they had a son named Oliver, of whom he was the biological father. A few years later, they asked him to be a sperm donor again, and they produced a daughter, Lucy. A good friend of mine from college had gone through a divorce and said that she really longed to be a mother, and I said how much I would love to be the father of her child. And so we decided to produce a child through an IVF process. John and I then wanted to have a child who would live with us all the time, and we decided to use an egg donor, and Laura, the lesbian who had carried Oliver and Lucy, offered to be our surrogate as a way of thanking John for providing her with a family. So the shorthand is: five parents of four children in three states. ...

"I'll tell you that we recently had a friend to dinner who said to me after dinner, 'I'm sure there should be a name for this relationship, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed talking to the daughter of the partner of the mother of your daughter.' And I said, 'We've had a lot of relationships for which there are no words.' "

On whether he believes his own children will fall far from the tree when it comes to their sexual orientation

"My assumption is that they will be heterosexual. I've certainly seen no evidence to the contrary, and there's no evidence that children of gay parents are more likely to be gay. And I don't particularly want them to be gay, though I certainly wouldn't mind if they turned out to be gay. A lot of people said to me, 'Gosh, you decided to have children in the middle of writing this book about all of these terrible situations?' And I really felt that I was looking at these terrible situations and thinking, here are all of these parents, they're dealing with so many challenges and so much difficulty, and yet they love their children, and almost none of them regret having had children — very few of them anyway do. And I thought if all of these people could love all of these children, then I think I'll be able to love mine whoever they are."
Here is an excerpt from Chapter One of the book.

Chapter One: Son

There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children's faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.

Yet blood, in modern as in ancient societies, is thicker than water. Little is more gratifying than successful and devoted children, and few situations are worse than filial failure or rejection. Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once said, "There is no such thing as a baby — meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship." Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life's most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

Because of the transmission of identity from one generation to the next, most children share at least some traits with their parents. These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity. Children of color are in general born to parents of color; the genetic fact of skin pigmentation is transmitted across generations along with a self-image as a person of color, even though that self-image may be subject to generational flux. Language is usually vertical, since most people who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too, even if they inflect it differently or speak another language much of the time. Religion is moderately vertical: Catholic parents will tend to bring up Catholic children, though the children may turn irreligious or convert to another faith. Nationality is vertical, except for immigrants. Blondness and myopia are often transmitted from parent to child, but in most cases do not form a significant basis for identity — blondness because it is fairly insignificant, and myopia because it is easily corrected.

Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors. Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family. Physical disability tends to be horizontal, as does genius. Psychopathy, too, is often horizontal; most criminals are not raised by mobsters and must invent their own treachery. So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability. A child conceived in rape is born into emotional challenges that his own mother cannot know, even though they spring from her trauma.


In 1993, I was assigned to investigate Deaf culture for the New YorkTimes. My assumption about deafness was that it was a deficit and nothing more. Over the months that followed, I found myself drawn into the Deaf world. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents, and those parents frequently prioritize functioning in the hearing world, expending enormous energy on oral speech and lipreading. Doing so, they can neglect other areas of their children's education. While some deaf people are good at lipreading and produce comprehensible speech, many do not have that skill, and years go by as they sit endlessly with audiologists and speech pathologists instead of learning history and mathematics and philosophy. Many stumble upon Deaf identity in adolescence, and it comes as a great liberation. They move into a world that validates Sign as a language and discover themselves. Some hearing parents accept this powerful new development; others struggle against it.

The whole situation felt arrestingly familiar to me because I am gay. Gay people usually grow up under the purview of straight parents who feel that their children would be better off straight and sometimes torment them by pressing them to conform. Those gay people often discover gay identity in adolescence or afterward, finding great relief there. When I started writing about the deaf, the cochlear implant, which can provide some facsimile of hearing, was a recent innovation. It had been hailed by its progenitors as a miraculous cure for a terrible defect and was deplored by the Deaf community as a genocidal attack on a vibrant community. Both sides have since moderated their rhetoric, but the issue is complicated by the fact that cochlear implants are most effective when they are surgically implanted early — in infants, ideally — so the decision is often made by parents before the child can possibly have or express an informed opinion. Watching the debate, I knew that my own parents would gamely have consented to a parallel early procedure to ensure that I would be straight, had one existed. I do not doubt that the advent of such a thing even now could wipe out most of gay culture. I am saddened by the idea of such a threat, and yet as my understanding of Deaf culture deepened, I realized that the attitudes I had found benighted in my parents resembled my own likely response to producing a deaf child. My first impulse would have been to do whatever I could to fix the abnormality.

Then a friend had a daughter who was a dwarf. She wondered whether she should bring up her daughter to consider herself just like everyone else, only shorter; whether she should make sure her daughter had dwarf role models; or whether she should investigate surgical limb-lengthening. As she narrated her bafflement, I saw a familiar pattern. I had been startled to note my common ground with the Deaf, and now I was identifying with a dwarf; I wondered who else was out there waiting to join our gladsome throng. I thought that if gayness, an identity, could grow out of homosexuality, an illness, and Deafness, an identity, could grow out of deafness, an illness, and if dwarfism as an identity could emerge from an apparent disability, then there must be many other categories in this awkward interstitial territory. It was a radicalizing insight. Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.

Excerpted from Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Solomon. Excerpted with permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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