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Our children, our strangers: A conversation with Andrew Solomon

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | December 3, 2012

All parents love their children, or so we believe. Parents who reject their children seem unnatural, morally reprehensible.

Yet there is a gray area in between total parental rejection and the absolute, all-consuming love that we consider normal. In that gray area there are the children whom parents must struggle to love. They are children with disabilities so profound that the parents are denied any possibility of a normal life. They are the children of rape. They are children who grow up to commit heinous criminal acts. They are also children whose identities make them outcasts, such as boys who wish they had been born girls and girls who come to identify as male.

According to author and psychologist Andrew Solomon, these extreme cases reveal something fundamental about the parental condition. “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity,” he writes in his new book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. How can parents see the world through the eyes of these strangers — and in doing so, love them for who they are, not who we wish them to be?

Solomon won the 2001 National Book Award for The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, and is a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University and Special Advisor on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered affairs to the Yale School of Medicine. For Far From the Tree, Solomon interviewed 250 families facing issues that range from schizophrenia and deafness to rape and transgendered identity. The book is about how parents can bridge differences with their children — but it’s also about how groups of people who seem very different from each other can use their own experiences to develop empathic connection and find common ground.

I sat down to interview Solomon at Berkeley’s Hillside Club, shortly before he gave a talk co-sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Here I present an excerpt; you can read the whole interview at Greater Good’s website.

Jeremy Adam Smith: Why did you write this book?

Andrew Solomon: Twenty years ago my editors at the New York Times asked me to write about the deaf on the grounds that I had done a lot of reporting about foreign cultures and this was a foreign culture in our midst.

I immediately saw parallels between the experiences of deaf people, with their claim on culture that was questioned by the outside world, and gay people, who had made a similar claim. And I found that most deaf children are born to hearing parents, and that most gay children are of course born to straight parents. I wrote a lot about the ways in which in exploring the deaf experience I found this resonance with my own experience as a gay man.

Then a few years later a friend of a friend of mine had a daughter who was a dwarf, and I heard her asking all the same kinds of questions that hearing parents of deaf children asked themselves: “Do I bring her up to be friends with other dwarfs? Do I tell her she just like everyone else, only she’s shorter? What is the approach supposed to be here?”

As I listened to that experience, I suddenly saw this recurring theme: this idea of parents who perceive themselves to be normal and children who perceive themselves to be different — and parents who don’t know how to deal with these children who are different. If it’s true in these categories, I thought, then it must be true in a lot of others, too. That’s the state of being I explore in Far from the Tree.

JAS: The research is staggering. You ultimately had 40,000 pages of interview transcripts, and you did background research into each of the issues the families faced, including autism, dwarfism, prodigial intelligence, and criminality. Why was it necessary to cast such a wide net? What were you trying to accomplish?

AS: I really felt like I had insights into each of the individual syndromes I wrote about, but my primary insight was the way they’re all the same.

But you can’t argue that difference is the one thing that unites us — that people dealing with schizophrenia, criminality, and genius are all going through similar experiences — unless you really establish yourself as an authority in each of those areas. You can’t just skate over the surface and say, “I met one family that had a child with schizophrenia and one family who had a transgendered child—and I decided their experiences were the same.” You have to be able to say, “I’ve really looked at these communities.” I needed all that research in order to make the argument that I wanted to make.

And in some measure, I needed all that research in order to discover the arguments I ultimately made. It seemed to me at the start that there were some similarities, but I didn’t know right away what the similarities were. I had to discover them through the research.

JAS: Even the unlucky reader will be affected by at most one of the issues you touch upon. What do they stand to gain from reading about all these other issues?

AS: Dealing with any one of these situations can be a lonely experience. There aren’t all that many families dealing with schizophrenia, there are not that many families dealing with autism, or criminality, or Downs Syndrome.

But if you look at the experiences that are common to families dealing with all of these kinds of difference — if you search for what all these experiences have in common—then you find yourself not in a weird, marginalized, lonely little group, but part of something that constitutes perhaps the majority of humanity: families that have a child who is strikingly different from the parents in some way.

But I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t at some point looked at their child and said, “Where did you come from?” Parenthood can be very lonely. I’d like to think that if you find common cause with these people, you’d feel less alone. I would sometimes ask the people I interviewed: “Why did you agree to sit down and talk to me?” And they would answer: “I really felt like I had been so alone, and I thought that if I could tell my story, I would help people not feel as lonely as I did.”

JAS: What did you find were the qualities of parents who were able to survive and thrive in the face of their children’s difference?

AS: The most resilient people sought meaning in these experiences. They made a deliberate decision to construct meaning. At the beginning, people would say to me: “I found it so meaningful having a child with severe disabilities, I’m so glad I had this experience.” And I thought that it sounded artificial and foolish to me.

But as time went on and I spent more time with these families, I changed my mind. All of us have children who are in some measure flawed, and we love with our flawed children with their flaws. We might want to help them to be less flawed, but we certainly don’t want to exchange them for other children.

I also realized that one has to make a choice. You can look at an experience like this and say, “I wish I had had a different life” — and spend the rest of your existence regretting the life that you had. Or you can decide that you’re going to find what is meaningful in your life. I think the construction of meaning takes a while. Parents have to have both love and acceptance — two things that don’t always go hand in hand. The construction of meaning is something that can be undertaken quite consciously and quite deliberately. Some people say that God had a greater purpose for them. Some people say it has nothing to do with God, but I’m going to find a greater purpose.

And there’s no question that while this may not be the way in which you would have chosen to grow, that these experiences cause people to grow. Many people said, “I now feel much more deeply about life, about love, about myself, about others — than I ever would have if I didn’t face these challenges.” If they didn’t do that, it made it much harder for them to parent their children. Having an embittered relationship to your own life — even if it’s fully justified, and the completely reasonable, rational response—is toxic. It makes it hard to live your own life and it makes it hard to take care of your child, which you need to do.

So, in the end, I thought: Even if you don’t see much meaning in it, if you dig up just a little bit of meaning, then it will soften your experience. I’m not saying that everyone should turn their lemons into lemonade, or try to cast a rosy glow over painful and difficult experiences. I don’t think you should say, “Oh, it’s not so painful and difficult, it’s all wonderful.” Instead, you need to be able to say, “It’s extremely painful and difficult, and yet there are some notes of meaning to found in it.”

Read the rest of the Q&A on Greater Good’s website