Monday, June 16, 2014

Joyce Kornblatt applauds Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree

Novelist and writing teacher Joyce Kornblatt reviews and applauds Andrew Solomon's latest book, Far from the Tree, an extraordinary testimony to "passionate resourcefulness".  She adds:"You will be changed by it, and for the good."

In his address to the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival, Andrew Solomon described himself as "a student of adversity". Hidden like seeds inside that phrase, Solomon’s humanity and courage emerge in powerful detail from each page of his masterpiece, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. In twelve memorable chapters, each as realized as a book in its own right, he renders the experiences of parents of  different children, and of the children themselves.  He explodes the myth of  normal  and asks us to consider that  “all offspring are startling to their parents," some more dramatically so than others. This is not a romantic book—the suffering is named and spoken, unforgettably—but it is an inspiring one. "Sometimes people end up thankful for what they mourned," he tells us, and these narratives are revelations of that transformation.

     After a decade of interviewing 300 families, and immersing himself in research, Solomon narrows his epic down to eleven categories of personhood, of which he is one: the tormented young gay man who grows into the fulfilled gay father and husband. Although his table of contents names each chapter by condition, it is the genius of this book that the often-stigmatizing label gives way to the rendering of real people, fully realized, complex, beyond the reach of any stereotype or cliché. The voice is intimate and epic, scientific and lyrical,  sociological and spiritual. Oliver Sacks comes to mind, the neurologist who writes with such compassionate depth about his patients and their illnesses, and about the mythic significance of their lives.

     "The children I describe have conditions that are alien to their parents,” Solomon writes, "they are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down’s syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people who are conceived in rape or commit crimes; they are transgender."  He re-names these kinds of difference horizontal identities. These children rupture the continuity of the family’s experience, challenge generational assumptions the parents were ready to impart to their child, and ask for a radically-openhearted responsiveness to the unknown. Both children and parents enter a  medical, legal and societal wilderness that only love can navigate. For some, resources are available. For others, the beaureaucratic tangles of insurers and government assistance only serve to further the Herculean determination to find for their children the support they need: medical, educational, therapeutic, material. 

Andrew Solomon
     Again and again, I was moved by the utter doggedness of devotion, when circumstances seem so daunting. Talking to Michelle, the mother of Down’s syndrome child who counsels and supports other such mothers, Solomon  “…asked her about people who didn’t share her dynamism, spirituality and sense of purpose.  ‘They all do,’ she said. ‘That’s the wild thing with special-needs parents.  This comes raging out of you.  I feel such strength and courage in these women.’” And men, too. Bill is the father of two profoundly disabled children who die young. He writes to Solomon:“ I think most people I know, if a child had been given to them  who was profoundly disabled, would have risen to the occasion.  I need to believe that.  It’s how I construct a good world….How could I trade the love I experienced with these two human beings?”   

Andrew Solomon, his husband John Habich, and their son
     What emerges in Far From the Tree is the discovery by these parents of capacities they would not have thought they possessed, until the birth of their children called them forth. Do these mothers and fathers struggle and falter and face despair?  They do. Of course, they do. But such suffering is surprisingly secondary to their passionate  resourcefulness, that "wild thing", Michelle calls it, that great love.

     And the children themselves, through Solomon’s empathy and respect—there is no "othering" in this book, no patronizing solicitude—often reveal to us their creative and valiant determination to live a full life. A full life is a life lived fully, whatever one’s illness or orientation or social situation might be. It is not reserved, Solomon argues, for those who fit a so-called "normal" mold, which he suggests does not even exist. A full life is the birthright of each being born into a body, whatever the details of that body turn out to be. And from that bodily reality may grow an identity forged out of meaningfulness, value and peer community, rather than one that languishes in the territory of  stigma. It is only schizophrenia, for Solomon, which cries out for a cure.  The ordeal of this illness is so great, he says, that one can’t make a case of it as a "difference" to be protected but rather as an affliction that needs a remedy.  

        But it is in the chapter called "Crime" that I found the most heartbreaking and humbling of all of Solomon’s portraits. He interviews the parents of  Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenage boys who carried out an attack on their own U.S. high school, Columbine, in Littleton, Colorado. They killed thirteen, and themselves, using guns and bombs to terrorize and annihilate. Solomon finds himself  "deeply mystified" that these  conscientous and caring parents, whom he comes to like and respect enormously, had raised a son capable of mass murder.  The parents are no less stunned, though as they read Dylan’s journals, returned to them by the police a year after the massacre, they discover a depth of pain in their son they had not realized existed, attuned to him as they believed themselves to have been.  As a young boy, “ ‘he was a wonderful, marvelous, near-to-perfect child,'" Sue Klebold says, and even as teen-ager, in a school where he was bullied and shows some worrying impulsiveness, nothing prepares these loving parents for the act in which their son will participate.   After years of unutterable grief, guilt, trauma and becoming marginalized in the community where they continue to live, Sue Klebold realizes that “ ‘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.’” In the aftermath of  his inconceivable deed, which includes his suicide, his parents discover that the one thing unshaken in them is their love for their son.

     Far from the Tree is not an easy book to read. For some, its sheer length—960 pages—will be daunting. And the varieties of pain the book brings to life on these pages is sometimes terrible to learn about, in such unflinching particularity.  But the thread that grows and strengthens as the book progresses, that holds together all the people for whom Andrew Solomon is witness and friend, is three-ply: indestructible love, insistence on dignity and the capacity to be transformed for the good by what others might consider a curse. As many have already said in reviews, award-bestowing speeches, and to one another as they read this remarkable book: You will be changed by it, and for the good. Andrew Solomon has undertaken a pilgrimage, a quest, an odyssey of the heart. What a great privilege he has given us, allowing us to accompany him.


Far from the Tree is available postage free from this LINK. You may also want to read Andrew Solomon's earlier acclaimed non-fiction book, The Noonday Demon, available via this LINK; or his novel, A Stone Boat, from this LINK.  (All postage free.) For your general book buying, we hope you will choose to use our bookstore links above right. That's a small but significant help to our volunteer-run Book Club! And, as always, we welcome your comments below!  For details of reviewer Joyce Kornblatt's magnificent writing courses, please visit her webpage.

1 comment:

  1. This book is astonishing. I was somewhat daunted in a very busy reading life by the length; please don't be. Every page I have read so far has pushed me to think in all sorts of rewarding ways about issues close to every life. I will post again as I read. This truly is a voyage worth taking.