April 13, 2013 by Reader's Connection
I’m not in the habit of sloshing coffee on my library books, thus forcing myself to pay for them and bond with them, but I seem to have made an exception in the case of Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree : Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.
And it’s just as well. When (fearless prediction) this book wins the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction on Monday, April 15th, I won’t have to worry about new requests that are made on library copies.
Solomon was interested in children whose identities are in some way problematic for their parents, so the book has chapters on a number of “disabilities,” but also on prodigies, children of rape and criminals. He interviewed 300 families over a period of ten years, enabling him to write sentences that begin “Five years later, I asked Deirdre how Catherine’s education was going.”
Not once while reading the earlier portions was I tempted to skip ahead to the chapters on Down syndrome and autism, with which I had the most personal connection. I was too interested in the way Solomon considers his dyslexia a handicap, while being gay is part of his identity. He hasn’t always managed to feel this way, and when he was younger he attempted to remold himself.
When I was nineteen, I read an ad in the back of New York magazine that offered surrogate therapy for people who had issues with sex . . . I knew the back of a magazine was not a good place to find treatment, but my condition was too embarrassing to reveal to anyone who knew me . . . I began “counselling” with people I was encouraged to call “doctors,” who would prescribe “exercises” with my “surrogates”–women who were not exactly prostitutes but who were also not exactly anything else.
The question of whether a condition is a handicap or a part of one’s identity is at the center of the book, and a question that’s with me all the time. If my elder son didn’t have Down syndrome, he would look completely different, speak differently, and our lives as we’ve lived them together wouldn’t have happened. So I’ve known for years that I didn’t wish he didn’t have Down syndrome, because that would amount to wishing him out of existence.
But an email group to which I subscribe is called D.A.D.S., which stands for Dads Appreciating Down Syndrome, and that feels like a stretch. I appreciate Thomas, but do I appreciate Down syndrome? As I sit hear, typing, I don’t know how to answer that.
Some of the passages on autism remind me that our autistic guy, in addition to being a sterling fellow, has also been a piece of cake, relatively speaking. The conditions that have been assigned that term autism cover a lot of ground, as do most of the conditions explored in the book. I learned here that some autistic individuals think of autism as part of their identity, and resent the idea that there’s a “real” identity being cloaked by the autism. Sitting here, typing, I realized that I don’t spend time, as I used to, waiting for moments when my “real” son would shine through; but I didn’t deliberately stop out of respect for his identity.
Solomon speaks of vertical identities–elements of identity derived from one’s parents & family–and horizontal identities–which one shares with others in society, not usually with family members. In Solomon’s case, being gay and depressive are horizontal components of his identity. (His 2001 title The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression won the National Book Award.)
My own battles with depression have contributed to a meaningful identity for me, but if I were choosing between a depression-prone child and one who would never suffer such ravages, I’d go with option B in a heartbeat. Even though the illness would probably become a locus of intimacy for us, I still wouldn’t want it to happen.
I’m about halfway through Far From the Tree, just finishing the chapter on schizophrenia. As always with blogging, I continue to learn how little I know.
Interviewing schizophrenics, I was struck by the way those deep in the disease seemed not to feel self-pity, which contrasted sharply with my experience of people with depression and other psychiatric disorders–a frequently whiny group to which I myself belong. People in the early stages were horrified and sad, but those who had been sick a long time were not. They complained about their particular delusions or felt guilty not to be functioning better, but there was surprisingly little railing at the disease itself. Many had once been headed for wonderful lives, but the woman who had been a great beauty seemed, unlike her parents, not to think about the adventures in love she would have had; a sweet-natured fellow who had been wildly popular in high school could not tell me, as his parents could, how much pleasure a lifetime of friendships could have given him; a man who excelled at Harvard at the time of his first psychotic break never talked, as his parents did, about the career he so narrowly missed. It seemed that illness had cut these schizophrenics off from those lives so entirely that they were hardly conscious of them. They had stoic grace in relation to their illness and I was consistently moved by it.