I started reading Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon months ago… literally. It’s taken me ages to read – but that’s more down to the fact of my moving house and having been stupidly busy and lazy lately. This book is quite large, and therefore not very transportable – it’s been on my bedside table, and only read at bed time – ten or twenty minutes here and there. Normally when it’s taking me this long to read a book, I give up and find something fluffy and easy – but this book was so compelling, I couldn’t give up! It’s an amazing read.
This book is an investigation into how parents cope with their children’s horizontal identities.
No idea what a horizontal identity is? When your child is born and they have the same colour skin as you, follow the same religion, and are basically the same – that’s a vertical identity, where they’ve basically fallen straight down from the tree. When a child is born with a different identity, something the parents don’t have as a part of their identity, and are different in some way, that’s their horizontal identity – they’ve fallen far from the tree – hence the name of the book.
Still struggling with the concept? Let me tell you what the chapters are about: deafness; dwarfism; Down’s Syndrome; autism; schizophrenia; disability; prodigies; children born of rape; children who end up criminals; transgender children.
This book is nothing short of amazing. Solomon met with hundreds of families and spoke with them numerous times, over many years in a lot of cases. He stayed in their homes and got to know them, and writes with authority on all aspects of their lives. He doesn’t just say “Jane and Jim have a deaf son” – he knows all about Jane and Jim’s lives, how they met each other, their relationship, their deaf child and any non-deaf children, all the ins and outs of their lives. This is probably the most thoroughly-researched book I have ever read… though I have a feeling that’s only because I’ve not finished reading The Noonday Demon, Solomon’s earlier book about depression.
This book is not just “this couple get on fine dealing with their autistic son, whereas this couple split up” – it’s not just comparisons between families and situations. It tells a wider story, of how parents of a Down’s Syndrome baby were often advised to leave “it” in the hospital and forget the birth had happened; it tells of how people tried to ban sign language and force deaf children to get by on lip reading in the late 19th century, how Alexander Graham Bell believed deaf adults should be sterilised so as not to produce deaf children. This book is a massive lesson in difference, and how we as a society cope with it.
I think part of the reason I took so long to read this book is that I was forever stopping to look things up on Wikipedia, to order further books so that I could learn more about the different subjects, to make notes, to turn down page corners.
As a part of the chapter on children born of rape, Solomon travelled to Rwanda to speak to some of the thousands of Tutsi women who were raped by Hutus in the genocide of 1994. I knew about the genocide; I remember reading about it in the news, and watched Hotel Rwanda; I even read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch a few years ago… but I still didn’t grasp the concept of what was done over there. Some estimate that as many as half a million women were raped in the hundred days that the Hutus rampaged through towns and villages. This section of the book tells some truly harrowing stories of rape as warfare, of women who became pregnant and in many cases contracted HIV, and now have children who are not accepted by their families and culture. These children are referred to as the children of bad memories; the stories of what happens with both mothers and children are horrific. The other stories in this chapter are far from sunny either, but they make compulsive reading and are at points, strangely uplifting. At one point a woman who had a child after being raped by two men in the back of a cab comments that the men who raped her will “never know that they have a beautiful daughter… and so, as it turns out, I’m the lucky one.”
Solomon also included a chapter on criminals, and as a part of that he visited, and got to know, children in juvenile detention facilities. Their stories were mostly heartbreaking, but the most heartbreaking of all has to be his conversations with Tom and Sue Klebold – parents of Dylan Klebold, who became infamous the world over, when he and his friend Eric Harris killed twelve students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves at Columbine High School in 1999. These are two people who are still, years later, struggling to come to terms with their son’s horizontal identity, with how far that apple fell from their tree. It’s heartbreaking reading.
It was really interesting to see that Solomon included prodigies in this book, as I’m sure a lot of people would see having a child who’s a prodigy as a definite bonus, as compared to finding out your child has a life limiting disability or autism. Actually though, Solomon finds that parents of prodigious children have their own struggles to deal with.
As they grow, all children develop a horizontal identity – whether that’s turning their back on the religion they were born into, or becoming a criminal. It’s something all parents have to deal with, to one degree or another. This book is about the extremes of that. Don’t be put off by the size of the book – at least 250 pages at the end are the acknowledgements, notes, references and index.
This is, without doubt, the most well-researched, well-referenced and well-written book I have ever read. It’s just astounding, the wealth of knowledge and insight contained within the pages – but in a way that makes it easy to read and understand. I would recommend this book to anyone – parent or not – who is interested in the way people deal with different situations, and the way society as a whole reacts.