Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

13547504Raising a child is a profound and terrifying experience even when her development is totally standard. The depth of parental devotion is a cliche but it’s true — when parents say that there is no pain they wouldn’t suffer for their child, they really mean it. But the vast majority of parents aren’t put to the test. For most of us, our anxiety is vastly out of proportion to reality. Our kids will turn out fine; if anything, we could stand to be less neurotic about their well-being.

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is about the parents who really are forced to confront the question of how far they’ll go for their babies — and the children who are the involuntary beneficiaries or victims of that choice. The book covers a wide range of afflictions, including deafness, schizophrenia, autism, Down’s syndrome, and more. Solomon spent years talking to different families and digging into the experience of raising and being raised with these conditions.

The families’ own words are staggeringly powerful. Again and again, Far From the Tree forces you to confront the harsh reality of parents making terrible choices in extremis. For example, I didn’t know before reading this book that many autistic children are incapable of expressing (or perhaps even feeling) anything like love — even as their parents go to extraordinary lengths to address their symptoms, which can include seizures, violence, and self-harm. Raising the most severely autistic children, this book makes clear, requires a parent to be something close to a saint: abnegating self-interest out of a pure sense of duty, and nothing else.

Multiple severe disabilities represent, in a sense, the other side of this dilemma. The children are often affectionate, sometimes lucid, but their lives are bleak and full of pain. That’s bad enough, but the real agony for parents is knowing that their child has no future — a thought that mixes both relief and heartbreak. (On a related note, I suggest checking out this article and related video if you want a good cry. My wife was obsessed about this for days.)

Reading this book as a parent is really hard. It’s impossible not to put yourself in the parents’ shoes and wonder what you would or would not do if faced with the same set of circumstances. What would you do during pregnancy if you knew that your child would be born with Down’s syndrome — a condition that is neither fatal nor crippling, but that will require you to care for your child for her entire life? Would you put in the extraordinary effort necessary to ensure that your deaf child receives all the education that she needs? How long could you withstand the delusions of your paranoid schizophrenic daughter until you finally commit her to a psychiatric institution?

For the most part, Solomon’s reporting errs on the side of optimism — this book is filled with parents heroically sacrificing their careers, their personal interests, and even their own families (marriages and siblings are particularly vulnerable) to give their children the best lives possible. It’s very uplifting! But then there are passages like this, in the chapter on autism:

In 1996, Charles-Antoine Blais, age six, was killed by his mother, who did no jail time but served one year in a halfway house and then was appointed as a public representative by Montreal’s Société de l’autisme. In 1997, Casey Albury, age seventeen, was strangled by her mother with a bathrobe cord, after refusing to jump off a bridge. Her mother said to the police, “She was a misfit. People were scared of her because she was different. I wish it could have been quicker. I’d wanted to kill her for a long time.” She received a sentence of eighteen months for manslaughter. In 1998, Pierre Pasquiou was drowned by his mother, who was given a three-year suspended sentence. In 1999, James Joseph Cummings Jr., at the age of forty-six, was stabbed to death by his father inside the residential facility where he lived. Cummings Sr. was sentenced to five years in prison. That same year, Daniel Leubner, age thirteen, was burned alive by his mother, who was sentenced to six years in prison.

In 2001, Gabriel Britt, age six, was suffocated by his father, who dumped his body in a lake and then received a four-year sentence for pleading guilty to a lesser crime. Also in 2001, Jadwiga Miskiewicz strangled her thirteen-year-old son, Johnny Churchi, and was sentenced to time in a psychiatric hospital; a medical examiner said that she had “‘a rigorous standard of excellence’ she couldn’t live up to anymore.” In 2003, Angelica Auriemma, age twenty, was drowned by her mother, Ioanna, who had first attempted to electrocute her. Angelica’s mother said, “I worried obsessively”; she served three years. Also that year, Terrance Cottrell died of asphyxiation when his mother and other churchgoers submitted him to an exorcism. A neighbor described the mother as explaining how “they held him down for almost two hours. He couldn’t hardly breathe. Then she said the devil started to speak through Junior, though he can’t really speak, saying, ‘Kill me, take me.’ She said the church told her it was the only way to heal him.” She was not prosecuted; the minister who had led the exorcism was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and fined $1,200.

In 2003, Daniela Dawes strangled her ten-year-old son, Jason, and was given five years of probation. Her grief-stricken husband testified, “Until that day she was the best mother anyone could want.” In 2005, Patrick Markcrow, age thirty-six, was suffocated by his mother, who received a two-year suspended sentence; that same year, Jan Naylor shot her twenty-seven-year-old autistic daughter, Sarah, then set the house on fire, killing herself as well; the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that they both “died of hopelessness.”

In 2006, Christopher DeGroot was burned to death when his parents locked him in the house and set it on fire. Each of them was sentenced to six months in jail. In 2006, Jose Stable slit the throat of his son, Ulysses. He called the police and said, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.” Jose Stable served a three-and-a-half-year sentence. In 2007, Diane Marsh killed her son, Brandon Williams, age five; the autopsy said he had died of multiple skull fractures and an overdose of Tylenol PM tablets; his legs were covered in burn scars because his mother used to discipline him by dipping him into scalding water. She was sentenced to ten years. In 2008, Jacob Grabe was shot by his father, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

And here’s another harrowing paragraph, in the chapter on the children produced by rape:

One woman I met outside Gitarama explained that a man killed her family, including her husband and three children, took her in sexual slavery for the duration of the genocide, and then fled. She gave birth to a son, then developed AIDS; the son remained healthy. Knowing she would soon die, she worried that he would have no relatives to care for him. So she tracked down his father in jail — this man who had killed her husband and children — and decided to build a relationship with him. Every day she brought him homemade meals in prison. She could not speak of what she was doing without staring fixedly at the floor.

* * * * *

Unfortunately, Solomon’s reporting is only half of this book. As the subtitle makes clear, Solomon also wants to comment on these children’s “Search for Identity.” But boy does his discussion of this topic go awry.

I actually have no fundamental disagreement with his analysis. The core of his argument is a distinction he draws between vertical and horizontal identities. A vertical identity is one you share with your parents, such as race, culture, family continuity, etc. Solomon argues persuasively that vertical identity is the default template for parents’ interactions with their children — hence the widespread assumption that parents will “pass on” their lives to their kids. Horizontal identity, by contrast, is a child’s self-conception based on traits that her parents don’t share.

Obviously people experience both forms of identity as a matter of course (e.g., everybody has school friends or work colleagues that don’t overlap with their family ties). What is special about the parents and children Solomon writes about is that vertical identity is wholly shattered — leaving behind bewildered parents who often just do not understand their children on a basic level — and horizontal identity is often the only source of community available. The level of that availability varies widely. Deaf children and dwarfs, for example, can rely on well-organized groups that host conventions and tailor curricula and social events to their needs. Children of rape, by contrast, live in a shadow world of shame. The overwhelming theme of Far From the Tree is that “different” children (and to some extent their parents) truly need these horizontal identities, even when they are difficult to construct — and particularly when parents reject the children who are strangers to them.

So far so good. The problem that I have (and I am deliberately leaving this for the end because of how much I appreciated the book overall) is that Solomon presents all of these thoughts in just about the most annoying way possible. The man is in love with the sound of his own writing, filling page after page after page with flowery but meaningless prose — for example, the ghastly phrase “shimmering humanity,” which Solomon loves so much that he later repeats it as “shimmering personhood.” Solomon regularly mistakes pretension for profundity — the only explanation for a sentence such as “Zhenya plays as though it were a moral act that could redeem the world.” And Solomon has an unhealthy obsession with cute turns of phrase. To wit:

As Aiden Key, a trans activist, put it, “My gender is who I am; my sexuality is who I bounce it off of.”

William Saletan, national correspondent at Slate, wrote, “Old fear: designer babies. New fear: deformer babies.”

The worst part is that Solomon interjects these twee thoughts everywhere — between every individual story, at the end of every chapter, at the beginning and end of the book, etc. It got to the point where I began skipping his ruminations and going straight to his reporting, which to Solomon’s credit remains outstanding throughout. I recommend you do the same.