Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon (click for official book trailer)
How often do you find a book that gives voice to so many of your challenges as a parent without trying to be a self-help strategy to fix things? Andrew Solomon has written a book that helps parents with challenging or unusual parenting situations to rest in the broad community of fellow-journeyers who have found love and meaning in some of the most stretching life-situations imaginable.
Far From the Tree is a carefully researched book about the experiences of families who have children with various “horizontal differences”. Solomon offers this broad categorization, “horizontal differences”, to describe the challenge people face that have any kind of distinction that sets them apart from their peers. He relates the term to himself, as a gay man, and to all the people he writes about in this book, which is a massive and impressive undertaking, as Solomon dives deeply into the experiences of families living with members who have a wide variety of horizontal differences. His research dives into the experiences of families with kids who have dwarfism, deafness, autism, down syndrome, schizophrenia, and who are navigating the paths of prodigies, disabilities, transgender, being/conceiving children of rape, and children who commit crimes. Each chapter is dedicated to one of these topics and has a mix of anecdotal experiences of parents and families mixed in with information about the treatments, politics, and even cultures of the different communities.
Solomon takes his research another step by including the experiences of the parents of children with horizontal differences and this is what made me pick up the book. Having felt very hurt by the way his own parents navigated their love for him mixed in with deep ambivalence about his homosexuality, Solomon undertook to explore, with great sensitivity, the experiences of parents who are trying to hold tensions with their own horizontally challenged children. I know for my own experience as a parent and for so many other parents with horizontally challenged kids, what Solomon offers is a wealth of raw and truthful reflections of what most would consider incredibly demanding parenting challenges. Solomon does not offer a specific spiritual path, per se. He is not writing from that perspective. His own conclusions from his journey have led him to a picture of love and family that presses the boundaries of almost anyone’s conception of a traditional family. This may press some readers beyond their comfort zone and yet his undertaking has immense value for the way he opens up the idea that as parents, love truly is elastic and able to stretch around any child with any challenge. That’s the way God created us!
Solomon tackles important issues for those in these situations. Things like the paradigms of illness vs. difference and acceptance vs. recovery/repair. He says boldly that there is no contradiction between loving someone and feeling burdened by that person. He also suggests that resiliency with parents means developing the ability to rewrite the future and that disability is not predictive of happiness of either the parent or the child (location 496). All of this along with Solomon’s beautiful writing style makes the book a challenging, provocative, informative, and soul-stretching book to read. I highly, highly recommend it for all, but especially for parents with horizontally challenged children.