A happy mom becomes distraught when learning her baby does not respond to stimuli as other newborns do. Another notices her child plays the piano perfectly and can even compose his own tunes. Another wakes up one morning to the news that her son has shot several classmates and teachers at his school, then took his own life.
Every family has a story, but in some cases, the story goes hand in hand with the struggle to accept one simple fact: offspring can be very different from their parents.
Andrew Solomon’s new book, Far From The Tree, examines 300 stories of families who are facing difficult circumstances; either through physical or psychological issues, or other situations society deems ‘abnormal’ – like raising a child conceived through rape.
As he examines these stories, Solomon encounters deep-lying prejudices, faulty legislation, and intolerance. However, what stands out above all this is the manner in which love can bring happiness in even the most desperate situations.
Known to Romanian readers through the bestselling book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon took the time to tell us about his new book where he talks about the transforming power of love.
Some of his stories are particularly poignant as they refer to his own family – a family that, like all others, had a secret to hide…
– Emma Brockes has written in The Guardian about “Far From The Tree”: The book starts out as a study of parents raising “difficult” children and ends up as an affirmation of what it is to be human. What is it that makes us human, in your opinion, and how come we talk so rarely about this?
Andrew Solomon: This is a grand and sweeping question; thousands of things make us human. I think, though, that what Emma Brockes referred to, and what I tried to convey in my book, is that we are all highly imperfect and that people who cannot tolerate imperfection are incapable of love.
My book is about how parents end up loving children who are not the children they hoped or expected to have. It’s about the fact that people whom most of us would view as sadly disabled are in fact often experiencing their condition not as illness, but as identity. Many of them have lives that are rich and rewarding. Each human being has his or her joys and sorrows and the trick of life is to figure out a joyful approach to the sorrows.
In telling the tales of people who have done just that, I have tried to demonstrate the complexity of our inner lives, the peculiar joys that we achieve when we are accepting of our fellow human beings, when we cease to judge them and find them wanting.
– What’s your best advice for a family or parent who has just found out their child is mentally or physically challenged?
Andrew Solomon: First and foremost, I would suggest these parents recognize that they know very little about what their child’s inner life is or will be. They should avoid making assumptions about the pain and tragedy of the situation. Yes, their experience will be different from what they had imagined, but it will have its quiet pleasures, too.
The first thing to do is to find other parents of a child with the same disability, and to find an adult who has that disability. These provide a point of reference, and the parents can decide to do things just as these other people represent, or, perhaps, to do things very differently.
Parents should look at what treatments have proved helpful to others and initiate these immediately. Most treatments for most disabilities are most effective when initiated early.
Finally, they should look at why their child’s condition is treated as a challenge. Some of the problem will be real and medical: their child experiences pain, lacks mobility, etc. Some of it is social: people will stare at this child, will not include this child in games at school, will assume the child is incapable of many things of which the child is in fact capable. The medical part of the problem requires a medical solution, but the social part requires a social solution. Don’t presume that you have to cure everything; often, acceptance matters more than medicine, and acceptance is a social process and a cornerstone of love with such children.
– Is there such thing as failure for parents rising “difficult” children?
Andrew Solomon: If there is such a thing as failure in raising children at all, then there is such a thing with “difficult” children. Some parents fail to love their children; many disabled children are put up for adoption. More profoundly, many parents fail to accept their children.
Parents must avoid making a child feel that they wish he were someone else. They must avoid making their child experience himself as disappointing. They ought not to be angry, destructive, or disengaged. They must seek appropriate medical care. Most of all, they must enter into the world of people like their child, must understand what success means for people like their child, rather than cleaving to notions of success that are familiar to them.
They must also teach their child whatever independence he can achieve. They should be always present, always attentive, yet not smothering. It takes some considerable skill to balance all these requirements.
– Suppose you have a child prodigy. How do you approach his talent?
Andrew Solomon: Having a child who is a prodigy is less sad than having a child who is disabled, but it is not necessarily easier. These children are often asynchronous. This means that their intellectual age may be very advanced while their emotional age remains age-typical or even delayed. Such children have no peers. Other children can’t understand what they are talking about; most adults don’t want to make friends with a six-year-old.
The first thing to find for such a child is a context in which he is accepted. So one should look for other, similar children, just as when you are dealing with a disability, and for adults who are sympathetic. Understand the gap between your child’s emotional and intellectual age and try to accommodate what sometimes feels like a bewildering difference.
Then you must understand that developing early does not predict developing profoundly. A child’s talent seems to come out of nowhere, but it must be developed, and that takes time and care. Genius by itself does not accomplish anything.
Finally, you must strike a balance in how much you expose your child to public scrutiny. Having a child too much in the public eye too young is a mistake; it becomes stressful and established expectations that many prodigies are ultimately unable to meet.
On the other hand, taking a child who has remarkable skill and who longs to be a performer and keeping him shuttered away from the world can be very discouraging; for some children, it is almost like denying them oxygen. So you must see what level of exposure most helps your child. Like so much of life, it is a question of balance.
– Many girls or women dream of a perfect family. What comes in your mind when you say “perfect family”?
Andrew Solomon: What comes to mind is the fact that no family is perfect. We all have that notion, that somehow we will make everything work beautifully, but no one can do it.
In adulthood, most people can complain about some aspect of their parents. But often when we imagine having children, we want them to be beautiful, intelligent, athletic, socially graceful, successful, and so on. Some children can provide those satisfactions, but others cannot do so.
A happy family is one in which parents have come to celebrate the children they have rather than imagining children they don’t have, a family in which parents have been changed by their children as surely as those children will be changed by their parents.
Of course, a perfect family in the end is one in which all the people love one another. It is not important whether the picture of the family will somehow look perfect to people on the outside. What is important is whether it is happy from within. A perfect family contains a great deal of respect: parents who respect their children and children who respect their parents.
– What is the most important thing a parent can do in order to help his child discover his identity and be happy?
Andrew Solomon: It’s best to start by being open to all possibilities. You child may be very different from you, and you may experience that difference as a strange and ugly thing. But your child may not experience his difference in that way.
Try to leave your child space to be happy in his own reality, whatever that reality may be. Also, try to become informed about any identity group with which he may ultimately affiliate himself. Your child is gay? Try to learn about gay lives. Your child has dwarfism? Learn about the lives of dwarfs. Don’t let your child grow up thinking he’s the only one like that.
If there are political questions around an identity, find out what they are. If your child will have to communicate in sign language, then learn sign language. Make sure your child has a feeling of great security at home; that knowledge that he is loved will inform the courage his identity may demand of him.
– Family is, in most cases described in your book, the source of happiness and salvation. What are, in your opinion, the struggles a family goes through on the road to mutual understanding and love? Should modern society value family ties more?
Andrew Solomon: We should value human ties more than we do. So many people now relate primarily through a screen, rather than face-to-face. We all long for intimacy, and too often now we have familiarity instead. But one very important thing is to understand the distinction between love and acceptance.
Most parents love their children; most parents struggle to accept their children. These things are true even when children don’t have the striking differences I’ve chronicled in Far from the Tree. Be patient as a parent with the struggle you go through to achieve acceptance, and don’t blame yourself because it is hard. Be patient as a child with the fact that your parents may not know how to accept you. It does not mean that you are unloved.
Most parents have imagined their children will be very much like them, and they have to struggle to understand that their children are separate and different. Most children would like to have more control than is generally associated with being a child. Everyone goes through a struggle to form or accept an independent identity.
Of course, some families are poisonous and loveless. But more often, they are confused, frustrated, angry, and exhausted. It’s hard to teach love to people who don’t ordinarily feel it, but these other emotions can all be dealt with—and they can all exist simultaneously with love. The fact that you are angry at a situation does not mean that you do not love the person who made you angry.
– Many stories of your book describe a kind of love we hardly ever talk about – patient, hard and sometimes needing to surpass years of suffering. How would you describe love?
Andrew Solomon: Well—love has been a hard thing to define, for essayists, for poets, for all of us. Love entails putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own. It involves trying to solve problems rather than becoming enraged by them.
It draws on worrying about someone, being afraid for someone, being happy for his happiness and unafraid of his sadness. It requires empathy, the wish to understand what goes on inside someone else.
It entails having the courage to be severe sometimes, to press someone to become his best self; it requires the careful knowledge that lets you know what is possible and what is impossible for someone. It involves kindness, patience, and as much wisdom as possible.
– What would you tell a person who believes being normal or normality are one of society’s social success conditions?
Andrew Solomon: There are as many definitions of success as there are people in the world. And there are as many understandings of normality as there are people in the world. Normal is overrated. There is no evidence to suggest that “normal” people are particularly happy.
Normal is really the belief that the way most people are is better than the way some people are, and of course people who believe themselves to be normal are often both bored and boring. Success is not a determination made from outside, but a standard set from within. We all yearn to fit in, and wish things were easier.
People sometimes ask me whether I wish I weren’t gay, and I always say that if I weren’t gay, I wouldn’t be me. Perhaps I’d be some other person who would be happy. I hated being gay when I was a kid; I wanted to be normal, like everyone else. But now in adulthood, with a husband and children, I have found a great deal of joy, and I suspect that the struggles I had when I was younger were part of what made me myself.
My experience as an outsider of sorts has allowed me to sympathize with other outsiders. That in turn has driven me toward adventure. A normal life would have been easier, but for me, it would not have been better. And I would say to people who think that normal is the only viable possibility that there are joys specific to not being normal, and that sometimes it is abnormality that drives us toward success. Would I have achieved the successes I have if I had been normal? I would not. Other successes, perhaps, but not these.
– The case of Dylan Klebold’s mother, who suffers because she didn’t realize her son was going to kill, makes us wonder – Do we ever get to know others, or do we mostly know layers, parts of them?
Andrew Solomon: The tragic revelation of much of my research, and of that chapter in particular, is that we never fully know anyone else. Sue Klebold thought her son would be much like her; indeed, she presumed that he was. In fact, he was very profoundly different from her. She worked with disabled people and tried to make a better world; he shot people at his school who had done him no wrong and caused nearly unimaginable and totally unnecessary suffering.
I would like to know my own children, but I don’t assume that I do. If someone as appealing and intelligent as Sue Klebold can be so completely in the dark about her son, then it must be the case that people can hide from their parents.
I hid my life as a gay person from my parents for some time, so I know all about hiding things. It’s not so hard to do. Some people have very little they feel they need to hide; most of us hide a bit; and some people are hiding so much that the person we see is unrelated to reality.
We can’t know how much we don’t know; we can only operate from the certainty that our knowledge is imperfect. And that it is possible to love someone you do not entirely understand. If you could love only people you know fully, you’d have a very lonely life.