Review: Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Friday, March 15, 2013

Title: Far From the Tree
Subtitle: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Author: Andrew Solomon
Pages: 702 (plus notes)
Genre: Non-Fiction, Sociology
Publisher: Mariner (Houghton Mifflin)
Pub. Date: November 13, 2012

I read this book slowly over the course of maybe 6 weeks, but it was well worth it! In Far From the Tree, Solomon chronicles the lives of various families whose children have created what Solomon terms "horizontal identities"; this refers to the new cultures their children are inherently born into as a result of the differences they're born with such as deafness, dwarfism, transgender, etc. Unlike "vertical identities" where one's children have essentially the same characteristics and life experiences, children with "horizontal identities" become part of a life that their own parents can't truly relate to. The premise of this book was to be the focus of the families themselves and how they manage their differences, but I found it to be more of a sociological study on the different groups Solomon reveals.

Solomon began the book discussing his experience as son to his parents and his own differences from them. Then in following chapters he discusses those who are deaf, dwarfs, have down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disabilities, those who are prodigies, were conceived from rape, grow up to commit heinous crimes, and those who are transgender. Then in coming full circle, he writes about his decision to become a father and the very non-traditional means by which he decides to do this.

This book was a fascinating look into the experiences of the individuals dealing with each of these issues and of their families as well. I would go so far as to say that I think this book should be required reading for social workers (my bachelor's degree!) or sociology degrees. Solomon was not afraid to thoroughly flesh out each topic each chapter so I really learned a lot. I felt pretty knowledgeable already, but I was not aware of some of the controversies involved with related treatments. Some of the treatments are so risky or controversial that it seems only right to allow children to mature and make the decision to do so on their own, but the same treatments become moot by then because it's too late once the children become adults. Solomon illuminated many other questions that arise when advocating for each group of people; for instance, many of these groups do not want to be labeled as having a disability because they see themselves as living different lifestyles rather than being disabled; however, if it's not a disability then wouldn't that contraindicate funding that goes into managing associated challenges and/or toward medical research to resolve the "disability"? And that in itself is another controversy because there are those who don't believe in medical advances to "cure" the issues such as those who support "neurodiversity" rather than pathologizing autism and those who advocate for "mad pride" for people with psychiatric disorders.

I found all of this to be an important look at the experiences of people and families everywhere. The only two downsides are that 1) each chapter is very thorough... to the point that I thought he could have not included quite so many interviews and 2) readers will surely find varying degrees of interest in the different chapters because the range of topics are so diverse. But regardless of these two things, I highly recommend this book!