What book gives you nightmares, beefens your beef with anti-abortionists, forces you to rethink much of not only your academic training but your very sense of self (not the same thing, thanks), and makes you profoundly grateful for it all: the book, the life, the self, the questioning?
What book could also serve as a pretty good flak jacket?
What book made one of the all-time-best holiday gifts for a certain Thinker for Hire?
What book completely befuddles the casual book review blogger by out-booking every possible way to contain it?
Far From the Tree. It’s mighty mighty.
Short summary (harharharhar): Andrew Solomon, a career investigative journalist accomplished enough to have earned several academic appointments in mental health schools like Yale and such on the merits of his National Book Award winning tome on depression, spent a decade interviewing hundreds of families over several years each.
He proposes that identities can be vertical—what you share with your parents, like race, religion, geography, favorite team (my brother’s joke)—and horizontal—what you do not share with your parents.
What he calls horizontal identity can also be experienced as illness, and the shuttling between identity and illness dictates much of the positive and negative experiences of horizontal identity.
Many reviews of this book—as the book itself does—struggle with the temptation to universalize the experience of horizontal identity. We are all different from our parents, sometimes radically so, even if we don’t have a disability or impairment or social experience that threatens the norm.
Like, weren’t the 60s a mass experience of horizontal identity?
But no, Solomon would say (in an exceptionally smartypants way): you cannot analogize disability with conventional experience. Except when you can. And he does.
His book explores a variety of horizontal identities so wide it astonishes. Schizophrenia, Deafness, autism, crime, conception in rape, transgender identity, Down Syndrome, Multiple Severe Disability (MSD), and prodigiousness. And he magically transforms the lot into a paean to parental love.
This tension between universal and particular is not as fully realized as I’d want it to be. But don’t take that as a criticism. There’s very little to criticize in this book. For reals. And reviews of it tend to wax off into their own speculations on the nature of identity and family and such. I will try to curb this tension.
But I can’t! Because that’s what the damn book is about! About the nature of the self, revealed by these pressures on selfhood, the most radical of which is MSD. He interviews parents of children with complex configurations of severe disabilities. He reports that those parents find an essential selfness in their children, though they can barely express it.
This chapter is a fine example of one triumph of this book: Solomon’s empathy with all sides of volatile controversy. For example, one family of an MSD girl pseudonymed Ashley decided that to preserve her well-being, they’d give her growth-stunting surgery. They removed her uterus and breast buds and administered estrogen to stop her growth.
Ashley’s parents and the hospital ethics committee decided that Ashley would have a better life if she did not experience the pain of menstruation. In most cases of MSD, parents become unable to carry their children from bed to bath to car. They usually set up systems of pulleys to do so. Ashley’s parents believed that Ashley would be happier if her parents could continue to carry her themselves.
Anyone even a touch familiar with the intensity of disability activism could predict what would happen.
The disability rights community stormed in response to Ashley’s dramatic loss of personhood and autonomy. Unnecessary surgery that would have unknown effects on her ability to develop cognition, language, and who knows what other changes. Surgery she did not consent to and that therefore threatened her integrity. Medical mutilation of someone incapacitated and vulnerable.
Solomon treats all sides of this incident with respect. In my academic work in disability studies, I never read such an approach. Disability activism is endless, vehement side-taking. So here’s Solomon’s typically generous conclusion:
Disability activists often referred to Ashley’s loss of dignity, but having seen a number of similarly disabled people lifted up in pulleys with chains to be removed from bed, put in metal standers to preserve muscle tone, conveyed on rope systems into showers, I cannot see much dignity there.
Either both sides are right, or both sides are wrong. Or all of the above. I’m fine with that.
One of the reasons that disability incurs such vehemence, perhaps the main reason, is that many physical and cognitive impairments threaten our sense of the human, which, in our culture, is inseparable from an ideal of autonomy. Independence of thought and morality, freedom to exercise choice. Ideals I’d also associate with “Americanness.”
People with multiple severe disabilities are a clear example of the limits of this conventional definition of the human. People with hearing impairments or prodigiousness—prodigies, many of them famous in a chapter that felt oddly like the smartypants version of a celebrity rag—may not threaten our belief in human autonomy quite as deeply, but they do nonetheless.
In my academic work in disability studies, I came to believe in “the social model” of disability: that when society fully accommodates an impairment, it is no longer a disability. For example, if wheelchair ramps, wide doors with automatic openers, and the like were everywhere, with no exception, people in wheelchairs would be fully mobile. They would not be disabled.
But this book really tests the limit of the social model: even if our utopian, idealized full access were realized, some impairments would still impede on life. His chapter on MSD is a prime example of this. I find it very difficult to imagine a world in which people with MSD are not disabled.
Solomon’s chapters on rape and crime aren’t as often mentioned in reviews, perhaps because they are much, much darker. I couldn’t read the whole rape chapter, in fact. His basic structure of personal stories framed by brief analytical and informative research was too difficult there. I skipped the personal stories and read the analytical interstices. So consider that your warning.
Nonetheless, I found myself wanting anti-abortionists to read these up-close stories of women who kept their babies conceived in rape. Many of those children grew up to be victims themselves, traumatized by their mothers’ treatment of them. It’s one thing to decry the loss of human diversity wrought by routine abortion of embryos with Down Syndrome. As Solomon points out, people with Down Syndrome are more or less stable. Families know what to expect most of the time. But it’s another to attempt to persuade a rape survivor that having the baby will heal her. Read these stories and see how healed these women are. And how great the lives of those children are.
But perhaps reviewers don’t mention these chapters as much because they don’t really fit in to the book’s larger structure.
I found myself wanting a stronger structure of comparison, a better justification for putting all these different Frankenstein arms on the same body of a book. The crime and rape chapters did not teach me much about disability, prodigiousness, or transgender identity. Or vice versa. Rather, the book was like a series of crucial lessons about many different kinds of families. Some families struggle, some families don’t—even when facing significant challenges. That in itself is instructive, certainly.
But this book demands facing up to that tension between the universal and the particular. What can we learn about ourselves from all these distinct, radically different stories, compiled into one book? I’m not sure.
Solomon’s conclusions seem almost disappointing, though they ought to be powerful: that parental love is unimaginably expansive. This ought to reassure us.
But I longed for a deeper universal than that.
I want to tell myself, what’s more universal than a beautifully expansive parent’s love?
But I know better. Not all parents love expansively. As the rape and crime chapters show. And as we know from some parents in the book, scared out of their children’s stories by their fears of disability.
And while all children feel radically different from their parents, this book shows that difference is not universal. At all. My difference is not the same as yours.
I know that Solomon understands this. His empathy, nuance, and intelligence throughout the book are clear.
And perhaps his lack of a synthetic analytic structure is its own statement: this book is about difference. And just because these radically disparate chapters are in it, don’t think we can draw the same conclusions from every one.
That’s what life and self are: partial conclusions, temporary assumptions, contextual settlings.