‘Read it slowly – this book will change you’ – Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

ffttasFar From the Tree is Andrew Solomon’s magnum opus, a meditation on difference – or exceptionalisms – that can shatter the bond of familiarity between parent and child, casting each into a separate space. As the back cover blurb explains, ‘…sometimes your child – the most familiar person of all – is radically different from you. The saying goes that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But what happens when it does?’

The premise is spellbinding, especially for a parent. Solomon’s perspective is based upon concepts of ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ identities, with the latter being the “…attributes and values passed down … across the generations, not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms.”

Horizontal identity, on the other hand, is explained as:

“…an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. Such identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.”

And thus a physical or intellectual disability is likely to be a horizontal identity, as are autism and genius, psychopathy, as well as being gay or transgender.

The author’s thesis is that these horizontal identities – all of them – cannot simply be viewed as ‘illnesses’; that is, something to eliminate or at least ameliorate, to reduce the dissonance that the bearer feels in relation to the majority, non-horizontal world. Rather, he sets up a paradigm of Identity and Illness, wherein a sense of self – in terms of one’s exceptionalism – firstly gets ratified, and then any treatment takes place within the framework of that Identity model. The body of the book is then given to illustrating – and validating – the same paradigm shift, through the testimony of parents and children who have lived through the eye of the storm, and come out on the other side, to enjoy happier, sunnier days.

Regardless of whether one ultimately agrees with the author, the potency of the message, and the skill with which it is carried, are unimpeachable. There is a constant interweaving of academic insight with personal testimony, including, significantly, the author’s own story as a gay man. It’s a perfectly calibrated strategy, which, for those outside of these horizontal identities, challenges received wisdom in a way that is both efficient and brutally complete. For example, by explaining that “…if most people could sprout wings and fly, to not be able to do so would be a serious disadvantage”, the reader begins to understand how “…the cochlear implant, which can provide some facsimile of hearing … was (sic) initially deplored by the Deaf community as a genocidal attack on a vibrant community.”

The register throughout is friendly, yet authoritative. The author’s words, the power of his ‘voice’, are more than simply convincing – they are beguiling. It is no surprise to learn that Solomon holds a master’s degree in English from Jesus College, Cambridge, where he received the top first-class degree of his year. His personal narrative in particular – almost an Oprah-style confessional which could so easily have become kitsch or saccharine – somehow never manages to disintegrate. Commenting on research that suggests a particular drug, when administered in early pregnancy, could reduce the chance of babies growing up to be lesbians, he writes:

“…medical findings such as these will continue to have serious social implications. If we develop prenatal markers for homosexuality, many couples will abort their gay children… I would no more insist that parents who don’t want gay children must have them, than I would people who don’t want children at all, must have them. Nonetheless, I cannot think about (sic) this research without feeling like the last quagga. … I don’t wish for anyone in particular to be gay, but the idea of no one being gay makes me miss myself already.”

It is very difficult to not leave one’s preconceptions aside, and connect with the author as a human being. The mastery of his language coupled with the simple honesty of the message, gives this non-fictional work a poetic edge; indeed, the author becomes the Pied Piper, drawing everyone in with lilting notes.

But one, key question was insufficiently addressed: can all exceptions – all horizontal identities – be viewed through the Identity/Illness paradigm? Can one, even theoretically, place certain identities outside of the ‘family of exceptions’? If a criminal can plead horizontal exceptionalism, can a Nazi? Can a paedophile? And if not, then isn’t the whole paradigm just an elaborate smoke-screen for relativism? I.e. if I am a New Yorker in 2014, being gay is likely ‘in’, whilst anorexia and necrophilia are ‘out’. But what about a Ugandan in 2014? Or a New Yorker in 2064..?

Personally, I found the new framework being over-stretched, with transgenderism. Suddenly, the hardwired understanding of gender as a binary concept – male/female – was de-constructed and deprecated by a spectrum. And thus from this new vista, no-one was simply male or female, but say, 7.8 on the gender scale. I couldn’t swallow the re-dressing of something so basic, in order to re-invent the transgender, transsexual or intersex person as ‘non-exceptional’. This is not to disparage or discount the very real pain of a child – as young as two, three years old – becoming aware of being ‘in the wrong body.’ The author was convincing that this dissonance was no different to that of the person in a wheelchair, constantly coming up against a world designed for people with functioning arms and legs. But when we are told that “…to some extent, transgenderism has become a fad”, and that “…(sic) some people were defining themselves as genderqueer to express revolutionary feelings, or to communicate their individuality; they were gender fluid without being gender dysphoric”, it felt like being force-fed something that, in reality, does not exist. But maybe that’s just me.

Far From the Tree is not a book to pick up, read, and then put down, before moving onto something else. It is a compendium, a companion that one will revert to time and time again.

It is very rare for a book to smack the reader in the face, almost with every paragraph. That this reviewer had constantly to stop reading, in order to reflect and digest, is testament to a work of rare power.

Any Cop?: Read it slowly – this book will change you.

Tamim Sadikali

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