As the writer Andrew Solomon, his husband, John Habich, and their three-year-old son George descend the stone steps, they bring a burst of colour to the dark grey underworld of the New York Transit Museum: John in brilliant red corduroys, George in an orange-striped shirt, Andrew in a bright-blue striped shirt and scarlet socks.
I have brought along my son, Leo. Being three, the boys don’t really talk to each other, they run. There are antique buses to drive, models of the third rail to electrify, subways to bounce around.
Solomon has just published his spectacularly successful book Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love, which chronicles the stories of children who, for various reasons, are extremely different from their parents. The book took 11 years to write and its 702 pages include autism, schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, child prodigies, transgendered children, deafness, dwarfism, and crime. Each chapter tackles a different subject, seen through interviews with numerous families.
During the long, intense research process, Solomon travelled all over the world. He talked to the parents of children who are unable to speak to or acknowledge them. He met with parents like the Klebolds whose son was one of the killers in the Columbine school shooting. He listened to the mother who makes, for her daughter with cerebral palsy, elaborate Halloween costumes that incorporate her wheelchair.
The book is an epic inquiry into the farthest reaches of parenthood, so I thought it would be interesting to meet while, well, parenting. It’s a situation almost comically unconducive to conversation and yet somehow we manage to fling a few words at each other as we dart after the boys. The two of them clamber up into the driver’s seat of a square blue bus from the 1970s. It looks charmingly retro now, though these are the same buses that passed through the posh streets of the Upper East Side when Solomon was growing up.
Born to wealthy parents, Solomon felt “far from the tree” because he was gay and because, even before he had intimations of his sexuality, he felt there was something odd about him. As he puts it, as a child “people thought I was strange and, frankly, I was rather strange”. One pictures a miniature Andrew, unathletic, formally dressed, with a fondness for opera and stirrings of some far-from-the-treeness he didn’t understand. You want to step in and protect him, on the school bus with the chanting bullies who have, with the brutal brilliance of bullies everywhere, hit on the name “Percy” to humiliate him, to put his difference into words.
He describes going home after school to his mother, with whom he was very close. They would talk for an hour. “I would tell her every single thing that happened except for this whole segment of myself that I completely left out and kept totally secret and never revealed to anyone. I didn’t tell her about the bullying because I felt that the bullying was the clue into who I was. I had a sense that I was different in a way that I knew my parents weren’t going to be very keen on.” He was protecting her from the pain of his isolation, from something he felt might be abhorrent to her also. “She would try to fix it,” he explained, “and the underlying issue wasn’t fixable, the way I was wrong or broken wasn’t fixable.”
To evoke that period, Solomon quotes an article from Time from the 1960s: “Homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty. It is a pathetic little second-rate substitution for reality, a pitiable flight from life … it deserves no encouragement, no glamorisation, no rationalisation, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste – and above all, no pretence that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.” It was in this atmosphere that he struggled to be straight, and that he kept his sexual experiences with men entirely secret from his parents. Eventually they accepted his sexual preference, but there was a rocky period, and that rockiness is still vivid to him, animating. He tells me that it is only very recently that he felt totally comfortable going on television and saying, “As a gay man, I feel … ”
The downstairs of the Transit Museum, a little piece of kid heaven on earth, is a defunct platform lined with old subway cars from different eras that you can roam through freely. We adults are racing through elegant 100-year-old cars, with lovely cane seats, leather straps and antique advertising posters for soap or cereal, trying not to lose the boys, or kind of trying and kind of talking.
It is very foreign to contemporary bourgeois culture to celebrate suffering, to see or extol its benefits, yet that is one of the obsessions that runs through Solomon’s work. “I would do anything I can to spare my children from suffering,” he says, “but I also believe that if I could be successful at that, they would have narrow, small lives.” Both The Noonday Demon, his dazzling National Book Award-winning study of depression, and Far from the Tree contain an awareness that terrible things, that difficulties, that pain, can transfigure or strengthen you, that you can turn suffering into depth, into a more vivid experience of life. At one point, he quotes Schopenhauer: “The polar opposite of suffering [is] boredom.”
It seems clear that, say, an Andrew Solomon who had not suffered depression, or the arduousness of coming out, would not be able to write the books he has, or think in the generous, creative ways he does about the world. There is an imagination in his books that was forged in that suffering, and he is deeply, honestly ambivalent about that pain, neither sentimentalising nor romanticising it, but really getting inside it and seeing it for what it is. “I hated being depressed,” he writes, “but it was also in depression that I learned my own acreage, the full extent of my soul.” There is in all of his work a prevailing fascination with acceptance, with the surprising or amazing ways in which people manage to turn struggle into joy or knowledge.
The surprise of Far from the Tree is perhaps the glow of great love or happiness in its pages. In spite of often harrowing circumstances, and almost unimaginable difficulties, the parents Solomon talks to mostly rise to the occasion. The mother of a child with Down’s syndrome told him, “Thank God I didn’t take the test because it would have been the biggest mistake of my life … I had this baby everyone thought was a disaster, and my journey has been to find all the amazing things about her.” She tells another woman pregnant with a Down’s syndrome baby, “I’ll tell you what. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Then there is the father of a severely autistic boy who tells Solomon about putting locks on the doors of a weekend house “because we didn’t want David possibly going into the pond. But there were times when you hoped he did, because you wouldn’t want him to suffer like this all his life.” As a writer Solomon does not shy away from the darkest or most disturbing aspects of the stories he tells, but he is also able to see and honour the startling brightness. He says, “I have had some people say ‘this is too depressing to read’ and some say ‘this is too optimistic’. If I have succeeded at all it is by doing both things.”
The boys, meanwhile, barrel through the cars. Peeking into an empty cargo train, Leo calls out to George, “Look it’s a whole train full of bulldozers!” George goes to peer in and agrees, “A train full of bulldozers!” They climb on seats, hang like monkeys from straps, drive, jump, shout. They are going to Africa, Grand Central Station; they are crashing into mountains, boulders, dinosaurs; a rocket ship is alighting; Batman is saving someone.
This is Solomon’s subject, of course. How you take a subway car from the 1920s and turn it into a rocket ship. The perverse, unstoppable power of the imagination, here manifested in three-year-old boys, in its purest form.
When it’s time to leave, Solomon and I go off for a glass of wine to talk a little more. As we say goodbye to our families on the windy street, Leo decides to have an epic scene. He screams and weeps and clings to me, like I am stepping into the last chopper out of Saigon and have decided to leave him there. Solomon is very gracious about this drama as we talk about it afterwards. I think of a line from Far from the Tree: “parenting is no sport for perfectionists”.
Solomon’s own family consists of five parents and four children in three different states. The constellation includes the children Habich had with a lesbian couple in Minnesota, the daughter Solomon had with a friend in Texas, and George, whom the two of them raise together in their townhouse in the West Village.
One of his great themes in Far From the Tree is the difficulty of creating a family without a script, the sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating improvisation which is unconventional family life. He uses a phrase that I love – “the complex imagining” – to describe the work of pioneering an irregularly shaped family. The challenges are obvious, but I ask him about the advantages.
“The absence of gendered expectations means we could figure it out on our own,” he says. “John and I could figure out ‘Hey, you are good at this and I am good at that,’ and none of it seemed to be laid out ahead of time; neither of us had to be ‘the mom’. Which gave a kind of freshness to the enterprise. Because we are inventing it as we go along there is a sense of great freedom. We could both find our way to the things we are best at. We can be to him who we truly are.”
Solomon mentions that he saw a woman he went out with decades before, when he was still trying to be straight, and she asked him how he had become so comfortable in his skin. He had been that conspicuously uncomfortable then. It occurs to me that it is not that easy to “be who you truly are” and that not that many people have entirely arrived at that place.
Does Solomon ever feel that his affluence gets in the way of his journalism, his ability to connect to or draw out different kinds of people? He says he doesn’t think it does. I read somewhere that one of his interview subjects was surprised to see Solomon pull up in a chauffeured car at his home in Pennsylvania, but this same man went on to say how much he trusted him, how he told him everything, how he wanted to hug him.
Solomon does not have the air of comfort, of expecting extra little accommodations and pleasures that we associate with the extremely rich. He has a sweetness that somehow overrides all that. He has enough experience of being an outsider that he doesn’t register as privileged, so much as unusually open. And when he talks about the people in Far from the Tree, you can feel that his connection with them transcends the cool professional contacts of the ordinary working journalist.
Was it a bit surprising that a book about such a difficult cluster of subjects was a runaway success? Solomon says, “There was a point right before it came out where I did think to myself: It’s a thousand pages about disabled children. Maybe no one is going to read it.” It does seem on the surface like a topic people would be wary of, a catalogue of bleak experiences, of catastrophic disappointments we would rather not discuss and prefer not to think about. But Solomon’s far-reaching idea of being “far from the tree” taps into something universal.
Many people feel they are far from the tree even when, by any external standard, they are not. This churning internal anxiety of not fitting in, of disappointing expectations, of somehow being different or outside, is more common than one would think (which may be why any kid, not just weird outsidery kids, can identify with weird outsidery characters like Holden Caulfield). “I think that everyone does feel far from the tree,” Solomon says. “Everyone does feel difference.”
And of course, the struggle to accept an actual child versus one’s fantasy of a child is also a daily part of parenting, even if your child is not particularly different from you. In looking at extremes, Solomon says he is also trying to illuminate the subterranean conflicts inherent in ordinary life; his subject is nothing less daunting than the challenges and resourcefulness of love.
By the end of our conversation, Solomon and I have spent more than four and a half hours together, but I felt like I needed more time. Which is similar to how I had felt over the previous week or so: that reading 702 pages of one book and 443 pages of another – 1,145 pages of Andrew Solomon – was nowhere near enough.
Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’ (Dial Press, £15.62). ‘Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love’ by Andrew Solomon is published by Chatto & Windus, £30