Cece Burns was three years old before a doctor thought to call her autistic. She has spoken four times in her now-teenaged life, always appropriately. She uttered her first words at 3, when her mother, Betsy, a novelist, offered her a cookie, and Cece said, “You eat it, Mommy.” She didn’t talk again for a year, until Betsy turned off the television and Cece said, “I want my TV.” Her parents still don’t know how much she understands, or if, as her mother puts it, “her soul is trapped.”
A lot of the rest of the time Cece behaves like a hellion, twining ribbons in her hands and screaming and spreading her feces and chaos and then laughing everywhere she goes, a poster child for defiance and unrelenting non-conformity. Her exhausted parents finally placed her in a home, but they keep the lock on their refrigerator as a memorial to their primal daughter.
“She forces the intellect to let go,” Betsy explains, loving but broken. “You retreat to an intuitive level because that’s the only way to read her.”
Cece is one of the more harrowing people in Andrew Solomon’s vast new book, Far From the Tree. But she is only one of the human outliers Mr. Solomon met over the past 10 years, interviewing 300 families of children whose lives lie galaxies beyond the boundaries of the normal.
Mr. Solomon comes honestly by his interest in difference, and its role in a world that looks askance: He is gay, and dyslexic. But wherever he aimed his attention – into the lives of dwarfs or the deaf, at families beset by Down syndrome or autism, through the darkness of schizophrenics or children with multiple severe disabilities, at prodigies or the transgendered or the children of rape victims or even families that have produced criminals – he found the same paradox: the unlikely spectacle of the children we figure must be hardest to love, being loved beyond measure.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity is a book about how that happens (and occasionally doesn’t). At more than 900 pages, it promises to recharge the debate over what, if anything, makes up a normal family. But the book will also fuel a conversation we keep trying but are afraid to have, the argument about whether, in an age of light-speed medical and genetic advances, people with significant disabilities should be born at all; be repaired and cured; or simply be allowed to stay as they are.
It is a book about the amorality of chance in human conception, and what it teaches us – about the children that parents never imagine they will have, that no one ever hopes for, that very few can care for on their own. It’s about love, and how it manages to weather hurricanes.
I have a severely disabled son of my own, one who can’t talk or think or care for himself. Figuring out what worth he has as a human being, if his broken self has any value, has been an ongoing adventure, one I have also written about. Mr. Solomon made the journey in the opposite direction: He began to write about people who were different, and has ended up fathering a son. Somehow, along the way, like Cece’s mother, we both learned a language of the instincts.
So when Mr. Solomon was coming to Toronto a few weeks ago, we made a date to have coffee.
Andrew Solomon speaks in an upper-class Manhattanite’s half-drawl, in complete and fully punctuated sentences and paragraphs, as you might expect of a tall, dark, well-dressed Yale graduate in his early 40s. (He recently finished a PhD in psychology, on maternal attachment.)
He grew up in a well-heeled family connected to the pharmaceutical industry. He was already visiting gay bars in high school, slipping out while he walked the family’s Kerry blue terrier, at least when he wasn’t enrolling in hair-raising “cures” for his gayness (complete with prostitutes).
His sexual identity “appalled my mother and concerned my father,” though the latter accepted it more easily. He was called “Percy” and “faggot” at school, steadily bullied: one complication was paralyzing depression, for which he still reluctantly takes prescription drugs (his 2001 book The Noonday Demon is a widely admired memoir of depression).