Friday, February 14, 2014

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this deeply humane work, Andrew Solomon examines how parents cope with children that are very different to themselves.

This mammoth book (700 pages, plus another 250 of notes) examines what happens when parents have children that are far from ‘normal’, either physically, mentally or psychologically. How do people cope? What’s involved? Does having a child with Down’s syndrome make for a more rewarding life, or does it lead to misery and depression? What happens when people suffer from schizophrenia or autism? How is it treated, what sort of support is there for parents? In this extraordinary work of research and reportage, Andrew Solomon tries to answer these questions and many, many more.

Far from the Tree is organised into twelve chapters. It’s perhaps best to list them all here. The first chapter is called “Father”, and chronicles the author’s own upbringing and his difficulty in coming out as a gay man. His parents had not expected a gay child and the news was not particularly welcomed. From this autobiographical sketch Solomon launches the major theme of the book: parents often dream that their children will be even more perfect versions of themselves, yet often they end up with children they neither understand nor can cope with.

The other conditions that the book addresses, in chapter order are deafness, dwarfism, down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, extreme disability, musical prodigies, children born out of rape, criminal behaviour and children who discover they are transgendered. The last chapter, called “Father’, describes Andrew Solomon and his partner’s decision to have children of their own.

In so many ways this is a book that will stretch your mind and heart around so many different situations and human possibilities. Indeed, reading Far From the Tree is a most humbling experience. Sometimes you think you’ve had a hard day, or that life is a struggle, then you read of the extraordinary things that parents with extraordinary children have to deal with. In most cases, love triumphs all, and parents overcome their difficulties and often feel they become better people for it. Parents often credit their severely disabled or different children with teaching them humility and patience and the true meaning of love.

But not in all cases. The most distressing chapters are those on autism and schizophrenia. Children with autism present extreme challenges. There was so much about this condition that I didn’t know, and it sounds like an extremely frustrating and unrewarding affliction to have to deal with. The kids are often violent and don’t show their parents much affection, if any. Worst of all was the chapter on people with schizophrenia. Schizophrenics can also be violent and unpredictable. In one shocking case, Solomon described a sister and mother who took their schizophrenic family member out on a deserted road. The sister then shot him to death because they couldn’t handle him anymore and didn’t know when he would attack someone next. When you read the chapter on schizophrenics, you can understand, although not condone, such an extreme action.

The genius of Far From the Tree is the book’s organisation, research and the author’s absolute commitment to his project. Andrew Solomon intereviewed hundreds of families about their experiences. This interview material is interspersed with thoroughgoing research. It’s all weaved together so expertly that is makes for compulsive reading. It has an overwhelmingly humane touch, and is balanced with Solomon’s extensive reading. The good thing is the academic research plays supporting role to the real life stories, and doesn’t overwhelm in any way.

The lesson to take away from the book is that you can be happy with a special needs child once you accept the situation entirely. Conversely, the chapter on child prodigies shows that high expectations for high achievement are bound to bring misery to both parent and child. If your child suffers schizophrenia or autism, unfortunately there’s not much to envy.

This is a deeply humane book that treats its subject matter with great respect and intelligence.

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. Published by Chatto & Windus. ISBN: 9780701188764  RRP: $32.99