World of difference

Far From the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love, by Andrew Solomon, Chatto, RRP£30, 976 pages

In his superbly researched but oddly problematic new book, Andrew Solomon considers the parenting of children who stray from accepted ideas of what is normal, and how these children negotiate the environments that marginalise them.

Solomon, an American writer whose study on depression won the 2001 National Book Award, illustrates, through a series of case studies, the harrowing consequences of being exceptional. Transgendered teenagers are murdered, exhausted musical prodigies hang themselves and severely disabled children succumb to ill health while onlooking parents display a hundred different shades of the same horror.

This, however, is only part of the story told in Far From the Tree. The product of more than 300 interviews, it is also a catalogue of astonishing tenacity and unexpected joy that inevitably expands both our sympathies and sense of wonder at the immense variety of human experiences. A common refrain throughout this pageant of difference comes from parents who share an ordained sense of good fortune at having received this child over all the other less challenging, less painful possibilities.

The book compellingly outlines certain ethical questions – Would curing deafness amount to the destruction of a community? Will advances in prenatal screening narrow our concept of humanity? – but it also reveals the mechanisms through which we all construct a sense of belonging. The mother of a child with gender identity disorder “cried with gratitude” at finding a community for transgendered youth and their families. Dwarf conventions offer participants an “annual exception to a certain kind of loneliness”.

Solomon has endured similar isolation, writing of the anger caused by his parents’ reluctance to accept his homosexuality as a motivation for this project. Indeed, it is his sense of his own gayness as something immutable that informs the book’s overarching and somewhat restrictive conceptualisation of other kinds of identity.

Solomon writes eloquently about the empowering effects of subcultures formed through shared difference – but overall he neglects to address how they might reproduce the same limiting categories that oppress them. Such positive identifications are pragmatic and offer life-saving quantities of solace; they should not, however, stifle our collective indictment of any dominant culture that fosters this kind of loneliness and alienation.

In searching for inclusion, some parents clearly find it difficult to separate their atypical child from mainstream notions of value. In one case, a severely autistic teenager attends the school prom with “a non-disabled girl” and is “elected to the king’s court”. Understandably his parents are pleased, but it seems a pity to map this young man’s worth on to social structures that replicate, albeit in the supposedly harmless guise of corsages and garlanded gymnasiums, the same instincts for hierarchy that impede the rest of his life.

“We like categories and clubs as much as we ever have,” Solomon writes with uncharacteristic complacency. His reverence for identity, which he cites as a “law” and one of “the first precepts of philosophy”, forecloses much of the possible critique of culture that the book’s impressive range of material provokes. He describes the online forum as being “a vital setting for the emergence of true selves”, but is being able to exist uncloseted, unashamed and in community with others necessarily the outward manifestation of a singularly “true self”?

Solomon does not readily acknowledge that a quest for free identity-formation can itself become a sort of tyranny. He doubts the wisdom of two transgendered parents raising their child with what he interprets as a damaging level of gender fluidity, claiming that: “The longing of a child is to be seen, and once the child is seen, he or she wants to be loved for a true self.” The implication is that children whose upbringings do not encourage stable gender identities will not be able to offer up visible versions of themselves to parental affection.

What if the truth of the self is that the self fluctuates? At times Solomon seems to half-accept this idea before returning to the safety of his essentialist model: “We all have multiple identities,” he writes, “and most of us regret some of them, but identity is who we are.” For Solomon, a consequent trauma of impregnating rape is that “who the mother is in the child’s eyes and who the child is in the mother’s are often in flux”. Solomon appears curiously wary of flux, despite confessing to a futuristic fantasy of experiencing the reality of another gender or sexual orientation. “What trip could be more fascinating and exotic than to know what it truly is to be your own opposite?”

Other than in crude binaries, though, men are not the opposite of women. Solomon sounds drearily old-fashioned in the solemn recollection of his adolescent self’s wish to emulate his father “in the life of the mind, to which men most often stake first claim” and his mother in “that of the heart, in which women usually have the upper hand”.

But self-definition is a quietly violent business, and ultimately both Solomon’s insights and his blind spots illuminate our shared dilemmas and afflictions, no matter how exceptional we are.

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