It is good,” opined Charles Darwin in an 1857 letter to the botanist J. D. Hooker, “to have hair-splitters and lumpers.” He was talking about how best to classify varieties of flora; being Darwin, he managed to establish an enduring intellectual distinction in a parenthetical aside. A century and a half later, his observation still holds. Splitters, focusing on difference, make sense of the world by dividing it into many small categories. Lumpers, focusing on likeness, sort it into a few big groups.
Andrew Solomon is a lumper. His previous book, The Noonday Demon, was an extraordinarily lovely and exceptionally thorough account of clinical depression: its history, literature, anthropology, epidemiology, biochemistry, treatment, and, in the middle of the panorama, its intermittent but terrifying grip on Solomon’s own life. His new book, Far From the Tree, is about parents who are raising children with, as he puts it, extraordinary needs. Here is its table of contents:
“Rape” refers to children conceived through sexual assault; “Crime” refers to juvenile delinquents. (There are also two framing chapters, “Son” and “Father,” about Solomon’s experience growing up gay and, as an adult, starting a family of his own.) My eyebrows shot up when I first read those headings, and I’m guessing yours just gained some elevation, too. What logic, one wonders, binds together a deaf person, a schizophrenic, and a 3-year-old who can play Brahms by ear? What justifies comparing the experience of raising a transgendered child with raising Dylan Klebold, the teenager who massacred his classmates at Columbine? On the surface, at least, this seems like not just a category transgression but also a moral one.
Solomon defends his decision by differentiating between two types of identity. Horizontal identities are those we share with others across society but not with our relatives. Vertical identities are those we inherit, genetically or culturally, from our parents. Those are the ones we have in mind when we say, per Solomon’s title, that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We usually invoke that idiom as an ex post explanation for why children behave as they do. (That hyperverbal 4-year-old? Her mom’s a writer. That fifth-grade bully? His dad’s a thug.) But it also expresses an implicit ex ante faith that our kids will basically resemble us: that, to a greater or lesser extent, they will share our looks, quirks, personalities, pastimes, pleasures, values, and communities.
The children in Solomon’s book violate that compact, sometimes radically. Some of them foil even their parents’ simplest dreams—a first step, a first word, a kiss good night. All of them pave the way to experiences those parents could never have imagined, from starting a disability-rights organization to institutionalizing a child to dancing till dawn at a convention of Little People of America.
As different as those experiences are, Solomon argues that these parents are united by their children’s horizontal identities: bound together in common challenges, and bound together, too, in common cause. That claim is original, intelligent, and interesting; it is also significantly and sometimes disturbingly flawed. And yet, curiously, it’s flawed in a way that serves this book’s larger purpose. In the end, Far From the Tree is not about parenting children with special needs. It’s not even about parenting in general. It’s about learning to overcome precisely the discomfort its own broad inclusivity provokes: our discomfort with difference.
We as a species are dramatically bad at this. Our fear and dislike of those who differ from us rears its head, and wreaks its havoc, in every culture and era. Solomon’s stroke of genius was to find a rare exception to this rule: a group of people who extend unconditional love to those who are different from them and cannot bear to see them persecuted by society. That’s because those different people are their children.
Raising a child with special needs can be devastating, and Solomon does not sugarcoat the difficulties. Many of the 300-plus parents he interviewed in the course of writing this book experienced grief and depression after the birth of their baby; a few talk candidly about wishing, at times, that their child would die. Some have children who live below what Solomon calls, vividly, the “disability poverty line”—the point where physical or cognitive problems become so devastating that they cannot conscionably be spun as positive. Even well above that line, Solomon reminds us, many disabled people “experience debilitating pain, struggle with intellectual incapacities, and live in permanent proximity to death.”
Given all that plus The Noonday Demon, one worries, at first, that Solomon is a man on the misery beat. That fear quickly proves unfounded. “I would not wish to trivialize the difficulty of these identities,” he writes, “but I knew about that going in. The revelation was all the joy.”
Still, Solomon’s most compelling example of common ground among his subjects is a sad one: Difference qua difference, he demonstrates quite convincingly, will leave you beneath contempt in so-called normal society. In 1968, the ethicist Joseph Fletcher argued that parents were free to murder their Down-syndrome babies because “a Down’s is not a person.” Until 1973, the City of Chicago had a law on the books stating, “No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object … [shall] expose himself to public view.” In 2005, the SEC uncovered a $160,000 stag party thrown by Fidelity Investments where the entertainment included the “sport” of dwarf-tossing.
The personal stories of callousness in this book are, if anything, more horrific. One doctor told the parents of a newborn suffering from seizures, “I wouldn’t rush to endow a chair at Harvard for her.” Another announced to new parents, “You have given birth to a circus dwarf.” In the classroom, kids with special needs are often seen as impositions. Outside school, they often aren’t seen at all. “You go into Central Park with a special-needs child, and the other parents look straight through you,” one father of a disabled daughter says. “They would never think to come over and suggest that their child could play with your child. I know how they feel, because until Maisie was born, I was one of those people.”
Faced with this degree of prejudice, parents of special-needs children have, in essence, two options: try to fix society, or try to fix the kid. Fixing society involves finding or creating a supportive community and fostering a proud identity. Fixing the kid involves eliminating, ameliorating, or hiding the condition. Within special-needs circles, these are hot-button issues; for parents, they are agonizing decisions, with risks and unknowns in both directions. As one mother of a deaf child put it, “You’re trying to make a decision for this future adult, but what you’ve got is a baby.”
Decisions like these are intensely personal, yet they have a profound social impact. The more a given condition is hidden or eliminated, the more those who still manifest it will seem marginal and strange. It’s sobering to hear Solomon use an aspect of his own identity (and mine) as an example. If queerness were reducible to biology and the technology existed to choose against it, he observes, most parents even today would probably do so. “I don’t wish for anyone in particular to be gay,” he writes, “but the idea of no one’s being gay makes me miss myself already.”
Solomon’s solution to this problem is a new civil-rights movement, one that extends across the spectrum of horizontal identities. “It’s time,” he writes, “for the little principalities to find their collective strength.”
Perhaps. But there is a blackly comedic moment early in Far From the Tree when Solomon acknowledges that the very people he interviewed for the book were put off by its broadness of vision. “Deaf people didn’t want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs; criminals couldn’t abide the idea that they had anything in common with transgender people.”
Reading this, I thought of Freud’s concept of the narcissism of small differences: the hatred of Cain for Abel and Dublin for Belfast; the instinct to use someone else’s minor difference as a foothold from which to scramble, alone, a tiny bit higher up the wall of privilege. But then I thought twice. Not all these difference are small; Solomon never did convince me that criminals have anything in common with transgender people, or deafness with schizophrenia.
Maybe there’s also such a thing as a narcissism of big differences—a refusal to acknowledge how much people’s experiences can vary, including from one’s own. I admire Solomon’s mind, and also his heart; but I was troubled by how glibly he drew analogies, both among the various people in his book and to his own experience of being gay. I was also struck by a slight note of what I can only call cluelessness, which most often took the form of imputing virtue and simplicity to anyone who falls outside the world of well-to-do white people. When he writes of an African-American woman—a housecleaner and single mother of five children, one of them autistic—that “I admired both Icilda’s acquiescence and the happiness that was its corollary,” he seems not to hear the awful historical undertone. Similarly, when he visits a community in Bali with an unusually high proportion of deaf people, he writes, in a kind of Noble Savage 2.0, “It seemed possible to contemplate this as an idyll, despite the poverty and disability of the villagers.”
Such moments made me cringe. And yet I found myself not merely forgiving Solomon’s lapses but almost honoring their place in this book. If there’s one thing Far From the Tree makes plain, it’s that we are all clueless to one degree or another. We all make uninformed judgments; we all dwell in ignorance of other people’s realities; we all fail, again and again, at empathy. This book occasionally demonstrates those failings. Far more often, though, it calls on us to reckon with our own.
Plenty of books help us think through moral issues, from the Nicomachean Ethics to Would You Eat Your Cat? to the endlessly fecund academic subdiscipline known, jokingly, as trolleyology. (Would you throw one person in front of a trolley to save five others? Would you throw yourself in front of a trolley to avoid 7,984 more versions of that question?) But I have seldom read a book that made me feel moral quandaries as intensely as this one. It is impossible to read Far From the Tree without wondering what you would do in these parents’ shoes, registering your approval of some actions and your qualms about others, and trying to figure out what laws govern the ebb and flow of your fear, aversion, outrage, discomfort, and sorrow.
The dominant conversation about parenthood in our country right now is predicated on privilege of every imaginable kind: material wealth, physical health, political power, cultural clout. It’s a conversation about helicopter parents and tiger moms and Snooki’s baby and why smart kids at fancy schools feel compelled to cheat on tests. It’s not exactly news that many of our contemporary ideas about parenthood are problematic, but after reading Far From the Tree, those ideas seem even more impoverished and parochial than usual. More damningly, so does our moral imagination—our sense of what is necessary to make a rich and happy life. “All my friends had these children they thought were perfect,” a mother of a child with Down syndrome says, “and then they’ve had to come to terms with their children’s limitations and problems. I had this baby everyone thought was a disaster, and my journey has been to find all the things that are amazing about her.”
I seldom cry at books, but I was moved to tears by Far From the Tree more times than I can count. What undid me, again and again, was the radical humanity of these parents, and their gratitude to and for children they never would have chosen. “If someone had said to me, ‘Betty, how’d you like to give birth to a lesbian dwarf?,’ I wouldn’t have checked that box,” one mother joked. Yet what once seemed alien and unwanted has become beloved beyond expression. A father of a child with Down syndrome says, “For David I’d cure it in an instant; but for us, I wouldn’t exchange these experiences for anything. They’ve made us who we are, and who we are is so much better than who we would have been.” A mother of a deaf child says that she “can see no benefit whatsoever in Tom being deaf—for him. But the benefits for me were absolutely huge … I’d been brought up among very clever, high-pressure people. For the first time, through disability, I met people who were good.” Solomon cites a poll in which parents of disabled children were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements. One of them was “I have increased compassion for others due to my experience.” One hundred percent of respondents agreed.
To be compassionate is to suffer with one another, and the belief that we must learn to do so lies at the heart of every serious moral system. That belief is also what ultimately justifies the breathtaking inclusiveness of Solomon’s book. The original, nineteenth-century lumpers didn’t deny the narrow differences among fauna that the hairsplitters perceived. They simply felt the common ground was more significant. Viewed in that light, Far From the Tree does not go too far in grouping together dwarfs and transgendered kids and juvenile delinquents. On the contrary, it doesn’t go far enough: All the rest of us should be in there, too. As Darwin could tell you, probably in a parenthetical aside, our own species has already been lumped: There is only one kind of human being. The sole work that remains is to accept that.
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. Scribner, $35.
*This article originally appeared in the November 19, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.