Beverly Sills, one of the great coloratura sopranos of her day, received ovations around the world, but she could not sing a lullaby to her daughter Muffy, who was profoundly deaf. Her second child was mentally retarded and autistic. The birth of these two children briefly halted her career, but she soon returned to singing, bringing greater artistic conviction to her work. “I felt that if I could survive my grief, I could survive anything,” she said, and became less inhibited on stage. Her tragedy did not diminish her identity .
Sills epitomizes the subject of Andrew Solomon’s study Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. What happens in families where a child displays traits the parents do not have, especially if they are undesirable ones? By reflecting on his own development as a gay, dyslexic child of straight parents without reading problems, plus researching 10 groups of anomalous children – the deaf, dwarfs, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disability (MSD), prodigies, rape-conceived children, criminals and transgendered kids – and their parents, Solomon tries to determine how their identities are formed or changed by such parent/child disparities.
Solomon, the National Book Award-winning author of The Noonday Demon, a study of depression, alternates between theoretical speculation, reportage and personal history. His theory is that when children display dramatically different traits – which he calls horizontal traits – from their parents, identity formation is complicated and painful for all concerned. The way this happens with each of these groups differs according to their particular condition, but Solomon thinks that because they share the common problem of identity formation under extreme stress, they ought to feel empathy toward each other. They are seeking the same things – acceptance, resources and integration into society – and dealing with the same problem, how to be functional with severe restrictions, and so have reason to see how alike they are. In other words, they should acknowledge a common identity as being anomalous apples that all fall far from the tree.
Yet the extensive profiles of each of these groups shows how unalike they are. The causes, treatments, cures, remedial interventions, prevalence and prognosis for each group are highly idiosyncratic, and many are in a rapid state of change because of technological advances (even to the point of eliminating conditions that can be diagnosed in utero and terminated before birth) and intense activism.
The possibility of hope for each group is vastly different. Their developmental potential determines the kind of identity they might achieve. For children with multiple severe disability, who cannot speak, feed themselves or walk, and will never live independently, identity isn’t even a possibility. The burden faced by the parents of these children also varies greatly. To have an autistic child means lifelong complicated interventions and arduous accommodations, and separation from the broader community of families. This is completely different from the life now faced by Sue and Tom Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the two perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, and who live with notoriety, remorse and grief.
Solomon puts little emphasis on what Beverly Sills’s example indicates – that by the time children are born, many parents have already formed an identity that is secure enough that the anomaly does not threaten it. Their lives may be irreversibly changed, but this doesn’t mean that their identity is different, only that their parental experience adds new dimensions to it. Though there are many quotes from parents who find their heroic parenting demands ennobling, and that their plight confers an unexpected blessing, this does not mean that they have lost their pre-parental notion of who they are.
But it is a radically different challenge for the disabled and anomalous child to arrive at a livable sense of self. In fact, the absence of a discussion of the origins and development of the self, which is central to forming an identity, limits Solomon’s project significantly.
Most of the profiles are unremittingly grim, described in gruesome detail and at great length so that it begins to seem as if the author wants the reader to experience a modicum of the suffering these children and parents endure. On a single page, Solomon lists 17 examples of parents who have murdered their autistic children and three who tried and failed. Such misfortune should be brought to our attention, but the overload eventually shuts down reader receptivity.
Solomon’s selection tends toward the more extreme and generally dark cases, with the exception of musical prodigies, and leaves out groups that are more common and possibly easier to consider for that reason. Surely, adopted people are the identity-crisis group par excellence, but they are not profiled. Learning-disabled children (apart from Solomon himself) face intense identity challenges daily because they are educated alongside their intellectually able peers. Even twins of singleton parents represent an interesting anomaly that could be more illuminating for being encountered by most readers.
As I read, I began to fortify myself by imagining other anomalous groups he left out. Why not people like me, with amblyopia, the absence of depth perception which made me unable to wield a dextrous needle like my knitting and needlepointing mother, or become a table tennis champion like my father? If Solomon had balanced his book with a few more accessible examples, less shock and more reflection on the part of the reader might have been the result.