I’ve had Far from the Tree on my to-read list ever since it came out in 2012. I was very happy to receive it as a gift for Christmas this year, but as soon as I started reading it, I realized that I should have gone out to buy it myself three years ago. Words like “monumental” and “life-changing” get bandied about in relation to this book, and honestly, they’re not exaggerations. This is a truly important book; it’s scope and subject matter reframe the world. It is also a mind-boggling achievement. Researched for what must have been at least twenty years, over 700 pages long, not counting the extensive notes, and extremely wide-ranging in its breadth, I literally can’t imagine how Solomon managed to put it together.
Very early in the book, Solomon presents his organizing principle: vertical vs. horizontal identities. Vertical identities often are shared between parents and children: race, nationality, religion. Horizontal identities often are not: trans, deaf, gay. Of course children can be of a different race than their parents and children of gay people can also be gay–this isn’t an absolute distinction. What Solomon delves into, though, are the relationships between parents and their children whose assorted horizontal identities that they don’t share. He profiles particular people and families, goes into various movements’ histories, explores science and morality, and inserts his own experiences, impressions, and interpretations. It seemed, at least to me, that he did a really good job presenting a cross-section of experiences, including families of diverse of socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds–although he immediately admits that there is an element of self-selection in terms of his subjects which may skew the perspectives he presents.
The book is organized into twelve chapters: “Son,” “Deaf,” “Dwarfs,” “Down Syndrome,” “Autism,” Schizophrenia,” “Disability,” “Prodigies,” “Rape,” “Crime,” “Transgender” and “Father.” Solomon ordered these chapters in a particular way; each builds from the last. In the first chapter, he introduces himself as a writer, researcher and human-being. He is gay and struggles with depression. He posits that his horizontal identity as a gay man provided him a surprising way in to understanding Deaf culture; he illustrates for the reader the many parallels. The chapter on dwarfism draws on the chapter on deafness; the Down Syndrome, Autism and Schizophrenia chapters intersect in surprising ways. The disability chapter then recasts a lot of what came before it, before presenting an interesting perspective on prodigies. Before picking up this book–and maybe after–a prospective parent may point to that horizontal identity as the most desirable for his/her child, but the evidence presented in the chapter seems to suggest that exceptionality in one direction may not be easier to negotiate than exceptionality in another. The rape chapter deals with mothers who give birth to children conceived in rape; while many of the challenges these families face are imaginable, Solomon makes the novel point that this is a potentially different kind of horizontal identity–many children conceived in rape don’t know the circumstances of their births. The crime chapter was the least successful for me, although it was by no means unsuccessful–I think I found it a little less compelling because the stories were more familiar and I didn’t find too much new insight in them. (This is a little bit of a strange reaction, now that I think about it–because I’m still young-ish, most of the parents I spend time with have babies or very little children. So while I know and love parents of children who are deaf, have Down Syndrome, have autism, have dwarfism, etc., at this point, none of my peer group has children who’ve committed crimes…So maybe that is actually why I was less interested in this chapter?).
The chapter that was the most horrifying, for me, was “Transgender.” Reading the anecdotes shared by many families with transgender children, it struck me that a lot of the children showed signs of being transgender, or at least gender non-conforming, at about the same age that children began to show signs of having autism–as toddlers. The families struggled with or accepted their children’s horizontal identities on various timelines and to various extents; that wasn’t what was striking. What absolutely floored me, in the context of the book, is that so many of the families profiled were on the receiving end of shocking violence. Of course, that people who are trans are targets of hate and violence isn’t news, but reading these families narratives, which start so similarly to the narratives of other families in this book, and then realizing that these families’ trajectories are the only ones that incite fervent hatred, is arresting. One child was murdered, a dog was disemboweled as a warning, a family literally had to flee the state and live in hiding. Whatever one might think about the biological/societal/sociological issues surrounding trans identities, there is obviously no excuse for such appalling violence. Reading about these families who loved and supported their trans children and were met with unimaginable hate, only a few hundred pages after reading about families who loved and supported their children with multiple disabilities, or Down Syndrome, or autism and weren’t, was powerful.
The book ends with Solomon’s reflections on becoming a father. He makes the point that a family like the one he and his male partner, another couple who are lesbians, and a fifth woman, who has a male partner, built would have been unimaginable at almost any other point in history. He describes the ways that his research for Far from the Tree affected his thinking, and feeling, about his own children. Throughout the book, I couldn’t stop myself from playing a disturbing game where I ranked the different situations presented in terms of what I’d be most to least willing to encounter in my own hypothetical future child. This is an appalling way to think, but based on what Solomon writes in his concluding chapter, I’m probably not the only person to fall into that trap.
I’ve already mentioned what an unbelievable accomplishment this book is in terms of research, scope and craft–fitting all of this information together into a cohesive book with a smooth, logical arc, is just incredible. I haven’t mentioned how beautiful the writing is at times. Especially in the final chapter, in which Solomon writes poignantly about love, the sentences verge on transcendent. If that kind of writing had come any earlier in the book, or in any other kind of book, I might have not been willing to abide the sentimentality, but concluding this book, which explores some of the most painful circumstances families could ever face, it was perfect. I’ll end with a particularly uplifting thought, from page 700.
I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. My journeys toward a family and this book have taught me that love strengthens all the other love in the world, that much as loving one’s family can be a means of love God, so the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families. I espouse reproductive libertarianism, because when everyone has the broadest choice, love itself expands. The affection my family have found in one another is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness. The road less traveled by, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place.