The first reference I saw to Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far From The Tree’ was an excerpt on the ABC news app ‘The Brief’; Solomon was opening up the 2014 Sydney Writer’s Festival and speaking widely on this 2013 release on children, parents and the search for identity. After reading that small excerpt, I listened to Richard Fidler’s interview with Solomon (can be found here http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2014/05/20/4008150.htm) and I was so fascinated that I immediately went to buy a copy at my local Berkelouw store. Turns out I wasn’t the only one desperate to get a copy: apparently all copies were sold out at the Writers’ Festival and the shop assistant told me that a thousand copies were already on order Australia wide. This is worth mentioning as ‘Far From The Tree’ is about difficult topics, is six hundred pages long, and has a fair amount of academic research within the anecdotal material – not exactly a book you would expect to sell out in Australia. Let me explain why this has won awards, was a New York Times bestseller, and captured the attention of the Writers’ Festival folk.
Solomon spent ten years writing and researching this text, face to face interviewing hundreds of families across the ten years, and often becoming very close to parents and children alike. A lecturer in Psychiatry, a journalist and an author, Solomon started with a keen interest in the deaf community after writing a long form New Yorker article, and then moved on to exploring other cultures of challenged individuals to find commonalities in struggle for identity. Solomon’s scope was wide and he immersed himself in many cultures but ten groups became the focus of this text: the deaf, dwarfs, people with Down Syndrome, people on the Autism spectrum, people with schizophrenia, those affected by multiple disability, prodigies, children born from rape, children who commit serious crime, and transgender people. Solomon maintains pace throughout the chapters by using psychological and medical information to give background to a condition, and then interspersing interviews with parents and children to give voice to the reality of living with these conditions. The effect is both educative in providing a great deal of information about complex genetic and medical history, but also deeply affecting by highlighting the poignant daily struggles that accompany being different to the ‘mainstream’.
This is an easy book to read in that Solomon is an engaging writer combining a journalistic style with an academic mind; he is also an empathetic observer and interviewer. It is palpably clear in this warm collection of interviews that he cares for his subjects. At the same time, it is not an easy read for the content: I struggled with two chapters, Disability and Rape, as I found some early sections too difficult to read for the girief presented. The Schizophrenia and Autism chapters are also immensely heart wrenching. In summary, reflecting on all the chapters: some people are almost given too much pain to bear, and the resilience they show in going on every day is awe inspiring. I was particularly riveted by the answers to the hard hitting questions asked of the interviewees: Solomon would ask parents if they would terminate if they knew then what they knew after caring for their child now, and whether if they could magically ‘cure’ their child or change the context in which they were born, they would. Answers varied, and answers were very honest. That’s what makes this such a compelling and important book: the voices are telling a truth that is often not allowed to be heard.
However, ‘Far From the Tree’ also offers so many moments of hope. I found this quote from Angelica (mother to Erica who has Down Syndrome), among similar quotes from others, profoundly moving: ‘Angelica had been deeply committed from the first to finding meaning in her experience, and she came to see Erica’s disability as an occasion for her own moral growth. When Erica was nine, Angelica developed breast cancer. “Having Erica made me stronger to deal with that” Angelica said. “I became a stronger person because of her.” Trinity Church is only a few blocks from Ground Zero, and Angelica was there on 9/11. She kept her cool in the midst of the chaos, and for that too, she thanks Erica. “God makes these things happen to us sooner rather than later, because maybe our role will be to help others and to grow from this experience” … “I couldn’t stop the planes from coming. I couldn’t stop my illness or her condition. You can’t stop the future”.
And this from Cheryl, mother to Clinton, when asked why her son had made such a successful transition from suffering from complications with dwarfism as a child to enjoying a full social and professional life: ‘"What did I do? I loved him. That’s all… Clinton just always had that light in him, and we were lucky enough to be the first to see it there’”.
And most profound of all, Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold: ‘"But over time, I’ve come to feel that, for myself, I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life. When I say that, I am speaking of my own pain, and not the pain of other people. But I accept my own pain; life is full of suffering, and this is mine. I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me”’.
These are important stories to hear; a study like this should be mandatory for those currently in power in Australia who have been ruthless and despairingly short-sighted in cutting funding to the NDIS, mental health assistance, educational funding and medical research. If only those people would listen and observe like Andrew Solomon, we might be moving to an even more caring Australia.