Book, Parenting

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity — Andrew Solomon

10/10

Summary

What’s the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance?

That is the question I constantly asked myself awhile reading the book. I don’t even know where to begin discussing it, though I could talk about for hours with my wife. I’d simply like everybody to read this book and learn the deepness of love.

The main theme of Far From the Tree is parenting children who are different from you. How do parents love their children who are so profoundly different from the children they thought they could love? The author so eloquently points out, there is no such thing as reproduction, when you have children you are creating something entirely new. And this new creature you’ll have to love and accept unconditionally.

In his exhaustive book, Andrew Solomon discusses in different chapters what it is like to raise children who are deaf, dwarfs, prodigies, criminals, transgendered, or are born of rape, have disabilities such as down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, or multiple disabilities. He shares his own story as a homosexual male growing up during a time period when it was believed that one could be “cured” of it, ultimately realizing that his parents loved him the best way that they could, with the knowledge and skills that they had at the time.

Very early on I was struck by this passage from the book, “Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.” That reminded me myself and my relationships with parents. Though now, having 1-year-old daughter, I find myself very similar to what my parent tried to be for me.

“To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality had been realized – how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.”

Solomon starts off with the issue of vertical identities vs. horizontal identities. This helped me see things in a new light: ethnicity is a vertical identity because it’s passed down from parent to child not only via DNA but also shared cultural norms. Other examples of vertical identities: skin color, language, nationality, and religion. Horizontal identities are when someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and therefore acquire identity from a group. Some examples of horizontal identities include, being gay, physical disability, genius, psychopathy, autism and intellectual disability or even geniuses. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.

To sum up the intro to the book, I’ like to share the quote regarding the main goal of the book, as I find it: “If you can figure out who you are, you can find other people who are the same.

Here’s the Andrew Solomon’s TED talks video on the book:

 

Key Takeaway #1

Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination

Key Takeaway #2

Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

Key Takeaway #3

Many parents experience their child’s horizontal identity as an affront. A child’s marked difference from the rest of the family demands knowledge, competence, and actions that a typical mother and father are unqualified to supply, at least initially. The child is expressly different from most of his or her peers as well, and therefore broadly less understood or accepted. Abusive fathers visit less abuse on children who resemble them physically; if you are born to a bully, pray that you bear his features.

Key Takeaway #4

Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.

Key Takeaway #5

Many vertical identities make people uncomfortable, and yet we do not attempt to homogenize them.

Key Takeaway #6

Anomalous bodies are usually more frightening to people who witness them than to people who have them, yet parents rush to normalize physical exceptionalism, often at great psychic cost to themselves and their children. Labeling a child’s mind as diseased—whether with autism, intellectual disabilities, or transgenderism—may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child. Much gets corrected that might better have been left alone.

Key Takeaway #7

Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other.

Key Takeaway #8

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “All I know is what I have words for.” The absence of words is the absence of intimacy; these experiences are starved for language.”

Key Takeaway #9

Those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary.

Key Takeaway #10

The unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways.

Key Takeaway #11

Parents’ early responses to and interactions with a child determine how that child comes to view himself. These parents are also profoundly changed by their experiences.

Key Takeaway #12

To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality has been realized—how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.

Key Takeaway #13

Schools mirror the world we live in. They can’t be perfect places. Not every teacher will be an emotionally balanced person. We can condemn these teachers. But this deals with a symptom only, not the original problem, which is that an intolerant society creates self-hating people who act out inappropriately.

Key Takeaway #14

Treating an identity as an illness invites real illness to make a braver stand.

Key Takeaway #15

Someday you can go to a therapist and tell him all about how your terrible mother ruined your life. But it will be your ruined life you’re talking about. So make a life for yourself in which you can feel happy, and in which you can love and be loved,

Key Takeaway #16

You cannot hate a horizontal identity much more explicitly than to wish unhappiness and likeness for your children over happiness and difference.

Key Takeaway #17

We are overextended in the travails of our own situation, and making common cause with other groups is an exhausting prospect.

Key Takeaway #18

Many gay people will react negatively to comparisons with the disabled, just as many African-Americans reject gay activists’ use of the language of civil rights. But comparing people with disabilities to people who are gay implies no negativity about gayness or disability. Everyone is flawed and strange; most people are valiant, too. The reasonable corollary to the queer experience is that everyone has a defect, that everyone has an identity, and that they are often one and the same.

Key Takeaway #19

There is no contradiction between loving someone and feeling burdened by that person; indeed, love tends to magnify the burden. These parents need space for their ambivalence, whether they can allow it for themselves or not. For those who love, there should be no shame in being exhausted—even in imagining another life.

Key Takeaway #20

“Life is what is capable of error” and error itself is “at the root of what makes human thought and its history,” then to prohibit error would be to end evolution. Error lifted us out of the primordial slime.

Key Takeaway #21

Most adults with horizontal identities do not want to be pitied or admired; they simply want to get on with their lives without being stared at.

Key Takeaway #22

A study that sought to determine whether money correlated with happiness revealed that poverty is connected to despair, but that once one gets out of poverty, wealth has little effect on happiness. What does correlate is how much money a person has compared to his social group. There is much scope to thrive on downward comparisons.

Key Takeaway #23

Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources.

Key Takeaway #24

Jim Sinclair, an intersex autistic person, wrote, “When parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’ Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”

Key Takeaway #25

Intersectionality is the theory that various kinds of oppression feed one another—that you cannot, for example, eliminate sexism without addressing racism.

Key Takeaway #26

Alan O. Ross writes in The Exceptional Child in the Family that parents’ expectations “invariably include that the child will be able to surpass, or at least attain, the parents’ level of socio-cultural accomplishment.” He continues, “When the child does not conform to this image, the parents often need help in adapting their behavior to the reality—they must learn to cope with the dissonance between their image of ‘a child’ and the reality of ‘their child.’”

Key Takeaway #27

Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of children beyond their comprehension.

Key Takeaway #28

Parents often confuse the anomaly of developing fast with the objective of developing profoundly. There is no clear delineation between supporting and pressuring a child, between believing in your child and forcing your child to conform to what you imagine for him. You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth, or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment. You can make them feel that your love is contingent on their dazzling success, or that you don’t care about their talent. Prodigies invite a sacrifice of the present to the putative future. If society’s expectations for most children with profound differences are too low, expectations for prodigies are often perilously high.

Key Takeaway #29

Genius is an abnormality, and abnormalities do not come one at a time. Many gifted kids have ADD or OCD or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are in denial over everything else

Key Takeaway #30

The parents of so many exceptional children must be educated to see the identity within a perceived illness; the parents of prodigies are confronted with an identity and must be educated to recognize the prospect of illness within it.

Key Takeaway #31

“Practice three hours a day if you are any good, four if you are a little stupid. If you need more than that—stop. You should try another profession.”

Key Takeaway #32

Correcting a bias against genius is a social responsibility in part because most accomplishments are contingent on a social context: in some ways, this is the ultimate horizontal identity. A man with a natural aptitude for skiing who is born into poverty in Guatemala will most likely never discover it; someone whose primary talent is as a computer programmer would not have gone far in the fifteenth century. How would Leonardo have busied himself if he’d been born an Inuit? Would Galileo have advanced string theory if he’d been around in the 1990s? Ideally, a genius should have not only the necessary tools and conditions to realize his gifts, but also a receptive society of peers and admirers.

Key Takeaway #33

The author Amy Bloom says, “Male is not gay or straight; it’s male. Neither the object of desire nor the drinking of beer nor the clenching of fists makes maleness. We don’t know what does, and neither do transsexual men, and neither do the people who treat them, psychologically and surgically.”

Key Takeaway #34

One can be gay despite never having had carnal relations with anyone of one’s own gender; and one can be trans and have presented only in the gender one was assigned at birth. Those who are ignorant about homosexuality and transgender culture tend to confuse and conflate them with reason: homophobia has always targeted gender nonconformity. Immeasurable differences exist between the outré gay guy who likes fashion and decorating magazines, and the school football hero who happens to prefer sex with men. While the footballer may encounter legal challenges if he tries to marry a man, and may hear slurs from his teammates if they find out, he will not encounter the same day-to-day abuse that will likely make his classmate’s life a living hell.

Key Takeaway #35

We all have multiple identities, and most of us regret some of them, but identity is who we are. The law of identity is among the first precepts of philosophy; it states that everything is the same as itself.

Key Takeaway #36

The problem is us and the way we demand certainty from them, the way we insist on conformation to a two-sex model as early as possible.

Key Takeaway #37

Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is that we give our children what we wanted, whether they want it or not. We heal our wounds with the love we wish we’d received, but are often blind to the wounds we inflict.


This is a valuable book because it makes us rethink questions we may think we have answered. Moreover, for those with children who are significantly different from their parents this book offers hope, inspiration and a reassessment of how we think about certain conditions.

Mind-shifting excellence.

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