Andrew Solomon on finding identity and joy in families defined by difference in ‘Far From the Tree’

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Paul Holdengräber speaks with Andrew Solomon. (Jori Klein for The New York Public Library)
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Grace Bello

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"There's so much in each of these conditions that's beautiful, and there's so much in each of these conditions that's horrifying,” said author Andrew Solomon last night, speaking at the New York Public Library. “And I think it's a very difficult personal struggle to figure out which, you think, comes out heavier."

Solomon was discussing his new book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, with the director of the LIVE from the NYPL series, Paul Holdengräber. The new work, out today, explores how families are sometimes brought closer together despite extraordinary medical, psychological, and intellectual disparities including deafness, Down syndrome, and autism. It's a book on maturity—that of parents as well as their children.

"The question is,” Solomon said at one point, “are you going to celebrate what's different about your child, or fix what's different about your child?"

Solomon is also the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a National Book Award-winning work inspired by his own battle with depression. Far From the Tree arose both from an article the author had written about Deaf culture as well as his own struggle for acceptance within his family as the gay son of straight parents.

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For this work, the author said, he wanted to unpack ten conditions that "formed a constellation." As such, the first half addresses biological illnesses including deafness, dwarfism, and Down syndrome. The second half deals with identities: prodigies (a subject he wrote about for The New York Times Magazine), children conceived during rape, criminals, and the transgendered.

Solomon spoke of his research process, interviewing more than 300 families impacted with these unique challenges.

“It was easier to do in some ways, because the parents had already gone on a quest to understand their children. In some cases, the children had already gone on a quest to understand their parents,” he said humbly.

Solomon told the story of the Robardses, whose son David has Down syndrome. Though the parents initially mourned David’s condition, they eventually came to accept it. Solomon had asked David’s mother Karen whether she wished her son didn’t have Down syndrome.

"’For David,’” Solomon said, paraphrasing Karen Robards’s reply, “’I wish I could make it go away because it is a difficult way of being in the world, and I would like to make his life easier. But speaking for myself—though I would never have believed 30 years ago that I would come to the point of saying such a thing—it has made my life so much richer, so much more meaningful, and so much more profound than it ever otherwise would have been. Speaking for myself, I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world.’"

Holdengräber wondered whether Far From the Tree was, in particular, a tribute to mothers. Solomon said that these stories examined the relationship between the child and the primary parent, who was often the mother.

"I don’t want to diminish the role of fathers," said Holdengräber, who acknowledged that Solomon’s father was in the audience. At this point, Solomon smiled and waved warmly from the dais at his dad.

Holdengräber asked if writing the book allowed the author to heal a deep childhood wound as the gay son of straight parents.

“I mistook some lag [in acceptance] on my parents’ part as a failure for them to love me for who I was,” he said. In his book, he said, “I think their primary experience was of having a child who spoke a language they'd never thought of studying.” However, later in life, when Solomon was deep in his depression, he said that his father was “generous during that period, and the range of things with which he’s comfortable changed over the course of our lives.” Ultimately, Solomon said, “You enter the worlds into which [your children] lead you.”

Solomon’s Far From the Tree, a journey through the spectrum of difference among parents and their children, highlights not just the gulf that can exist within families but the gulf between people who accept, even celebrate, their condition and people who rail against it. That said, would Solomon, given the choice, want his children to be gay like him? To share the identity that he has embraced, but also the adversity that comes with it?

"I don't know what I'd decide,” Solomon said. “I think that [being gay] has been a harder life for me, and that I went through some very difficult periods. And I love the life I have now: the husband I have, the children we have, the mothers of the children we have, the life that we lead. It has turned out to be a glorious one. And I think to myself, if I had some completely other life and I had not gone to these particular difficulties, would I be as happy now? Would I be happier? It's difficult to contemplate. I actually do think that, while I'm not particularly keen on having any more pain, I think it's difficult to experience joy in the fullest sense unless you've experienced anguish."