Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Scribner • $37.50 • ISBN 9780743236713
On sale November 13, 2012

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon is the most fascinating book I have read in 2012—or at least it is so far, and I'm only 120 pages in (out of about 700 pages of text . . . there are also 701 footnotes and an extensive bibliography and index). The book explores "horizontal identities" and how parents, children and the world at large respond to difference. This might sound a little dry, but stick with me.

Vertical identities are identities that are naturally passed from generation to the next. For example: Most Jewish children also have Jewish parents; most parents who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too; most African-American kids have African-American parents. Families can relate to each other based on these shared identities that they've passed through the generations.

People with horizontal identities were born with (or acquired) traits that their parents don't have, so they had to form identities from a peer group. People with horizontal identities might include: deaf people, dwarfs, people with Down syndrome, people with schizophrenia and transgender people.

Solomon is gay (he was born to straight parents) and writes poignantly of his own horizontal identity in the first chapter. Then, in chapters grouped by type of exceptionalism he profiles hundreds of families, provides historical context and shows how many, many ways there are moving through this world. Yes, some of the stories are depressing or sad, but so many are hopeful and beautiful. This book is messy and it will make you think.

From what I've read, each chapter feels like a book in itself. (Besides the horizontal identities I mentioned above, Solomon writes about autistic people, severely disabled people, prodigies, people born of rape and criminals.) Far From the Tree is thoughtful and respectful and encourages readers to make their own conclusions. I am enjoying it very much and can't wait for some extended reading time over Thanksgiving.

It's hard to choose an excerpt for this post, since the real value in the book comes from taking in the many different experiences of the families Solomon talks to. But those stories are long and nuanced and don't lend themselves to a short excerpt. So, here's an excerpt that might make you think a bit about cochlear implants and the experience of children born deaf. (I had always assumed that the implants were a good thing—full stop . . . and had never considered the devices as a threat to Deaf identity and community.)

The question, really, is how we define the relationship between parents and children. A hundred years ago, children were effectively property, and you could do almost anything to them short of killing them. Now, children are empowered. But parents still decide what their children should wear, what they should eat, when they should sleep, and so on. Are decisions about bodily integrity also properly the province of parents? Some opponents of implants have proposed that people make their own choice when they turn eighteen. Even putting aside the neural issues that make this impractical, it is a flawed proposition. At eighteen, you are choosing not simply between being deaf and being hearing, but between the culture you have known and the life you have not. By then, your experience of the world has been defined by being deaf, and to give it up is to reject whom you have become.

Children with implants have experienced social difficulties; if the objective of the implants is to make the children feel good about themselves, the results are mixed. Some become what William Evans of the University of California has called "culturally homeless," neither hearing nor Deaf. The population at large does not like threats to binaries; binaries drive homophobia and racism and xenophobia, the constant impulse to define an us and a them. The wall between hearing and deaf is being broken down by a broad range of technology: hearing aids and implants that create what some activists call the "cyborg mix," bodies that are physically enhanced in some way.

Though some implanted adolescents disconnect them in their teen years, most perceive them as extremely useful. In one study from 2002, two-thirds of parents reported that their children had never refused to use the implant; there is presumably more adolescent resistance to, for example seat belts.

I'll stop there, but I implore you to pick up this book—although it may leave you with more questions than answers.

What are you reading today?


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