Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (New York: Scribner, 2012). 976 pp. £15.99. ISBN: 9781476773063. Also available on Amazon Audible.
Attending on Zoom the Pastors’ Academy Study Day Caring for Parents with Transgender and/or Gay Children (25th May 2023), I was reminded of a book that I read a few months ago. Andrew Solomon is a New York psychiatrist who spent ten years interviewing more than three hundred families where children had some form of disability. In Far from the Tree, he devotes a chapter each to the deaf, dwarfs, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability (varieties of physical disability), prodigies, children born of rape, children who get involved in crime, and transgender children (the longest chapter – though each chapter is virtually a small book). His first and last chapters open the window on his Jewish boyhood and later ‘married’ life as a homosexual.
Solomon distinguishes between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ identity. Vertical identity is what we get from our parents—attributes, values, ethnicity, skin colour, nationality, usually religion. Horizontal identity is something to which our parents are usually alien—maybe due to recessive genes, or perhaps to traits and values a child does not share with parents. Being gay could be one. So would most physical disabilities, psychopathy, autism (despite the inherited element in some such conditions, children generally differ from their parents in these things). Horizontal values develop among peer groups.
Solomon then follows through the disabilities mentioned above, interweaving medical facts and theories with life stories of the families he gets to know. Recurring through the book are variations on the question, ‘When does an illness become an identity?’ Do we need to redefine how we view ‘difference’? To what extent do people in these groups build a horizontal identity around their disability? How does that mesh with their vertical identity? How does one reconcile the desire not to be considered abnormal with enjoying the social benefits (often financial and opening access to facilities) that it entails?
He reflects on the intense suffering involved for some. ‘Life is enriched by difficulty’, writes Solomon; ‘love is made more acute when it requires exertion…It is not suffering that is precious, but the concentric pearlescence with which we contain it. The raw grit of anguish will never be in short supply.’ On the other hand, ‘We say that our struggles have ennobled us, but we don’t know who we would have been without them. We might have been equally wonderful…This book’s conundrum is that most of the families described here have ended up being grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid’ (pp. 43, 46).
This is the paradox faced by those who want to make an identity out of illness, to avoid stigmatising any condition as ‘abnormal’—they generally wouldn’t want their children to have it. It is also a lot easier for deaf people, for example, to celebrate their culture than it is for schizophrenic people or their families. As Solomon says, ‘The loss of diversity is terrible, but diversity for the sake of diversity is a lie…A Deaf culture kept pure when hearing is available to all [through medical advances] would be the equivalent of those historical towns where everyone still lives as though it were the eighteenth century’ (p. 114).
Solomon interacts with Christian teaching and with Christians, but he is not a Christian, indeed not apparently an adherent of any religion. He writes sympathetically but not uncritically of the transgender movement. Some transgender activists want gender to be as legally irrelevant as race—not mentioned on birth certificates, for example. His dream regarding gender is for a sci-fi future where people could change their genders at will. Sounding like a prophet of and for our age, he concludes this chapter thus: ‘In modern America, choice is the aspirational currency, and even knowing the weariness selection entails, I like to imagine a future in which we would be able to choose everything. I’d quite possibly choose what I have now—and would love it even more for having done so’ (p. 676).
You will not read this book for light entertainment, but it is a fascinating insight into how people live and think and respond to sometimes quite horrific situations, how we struggle to accept people while fighting against what we see as wrong. One is lost in admiration for how some people with no articulated faith respond to tragedies in their families. Solomon is a sensitive and insightful guide. The book is a multiple award winner and one can see why.
But it raises questions Christianity answers. And, in an age that idolises freedom of choice, we must keep declaring those answers. Freedom and diversity are not goods in themselves. God has created us, male and female, as persons, in his image. He has woven into his world a wonderful diversity, which is being lost as people demand to choose for themselves—as did Adam and Eve. But diversity has its limits—limits imposed by the created order and by God’s moral law. By rejecting those limits, which actually protect true diversity, we experience not freedom but the most horrible slavery. Far from the Tree opens the mind to the wonder of being human, the multiple and appalling ravages of sin, and the tragedy of humanity explained by a lie.