He wishes he had not been abused for being gay, but, as he writes, “if you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes.” If Beethoven had been cured of what was likely his own autism, an expert in the book points out, he might have become a postal clerk. Which is easy to be grateful for, if you are not Beethoven.
Mr. Solomon’s sense of his own difference led him to write Far from the Tree. In the course of researching a magazine story about the deaf, “I thought it was very similar to my experience as the gay child of straight parents who had been mostly loving, but had their problems and issues with it,” he told me over a latte.
It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon, in the empty restaurant of a boutique hotel in downtown Toronto; someone seemed to be throwing plates in the kitchen. Still, I heard him add, “The experience I had paralleled the experience of the deaf.”
When a friend later gave birth to a dwarf, and led him to the proud identity politics of dwarfism, he realized he had stumbled on another colony of humanity that defined itself by difference.
“I thought: ‘It’s true of the deaf, and it’s true of the dwarfs, and it’s true of my experience of being gay – it must be true of a lot of other experiences too.’”
Try telling that to the mainstream – to us so-called normals, petrified as we are by the spectre of difference. The disabled frighten us because they remind us of how little control we have over our lives, how contingent and even undeserved our gifts are.
That fear frequently leads to a form of racism. Hitler killed 270,000 disabled people as “travesties of human form and spirit.” Chicago had a law that banned the deformed from being seen in public until 1973. As recently as 2006, the Royal College of Obstetricians in London proposed that doctors consider killing infants with extreme disabilities. Meanwhile, 15 per cent of North Americans and 550 million people worldwide are disabled.
The literature of disability – when anyone reads it – reflects our attitudes at any given moment in history. There are three main shelves in that vast library. One is filled with academic studies. The second is packed with memoirs. Some are good; most are sentimental accounts of disabled lives as “special” gifts from a “special” God for “special” parents. They tend to be the kind of book you want to throw across the room (possibly at your disabled child), but their intention is understandable: to plead that difference can be something other than an illness, and that the lives of the parents who write them are something more than a waste of life on a futile cause.
Far From the Tree wants to live on the third shelf, with the big books, the ones that aim to place disability and difference within the widest possible historical, social, medical and intellectual context. Sometimes these books change the world.
Philippe Pinel’s 1794 Memoir on Madness more or less invented institutional care, a radical new way to house the mentally disabled – prior to Pinel, they were left to live and die in the streets of Paris. Michel Foucault’s The History of Madness took issue with Western civilization’s willingness to demonize difference: the disabled might be mistakes, Foucault argued, but mistakes are how we change, how we become something new and better.
Darwin believed the most fragile human beings were essential to our ethical evolution, to the emergence of conscience and altruism in the species. And Jean Vanier, the great living philosopher of disability, made the case for equality in Becoming Human.
With its monumental thoroughness – it sometimes feels like a beautifully written Sears catalogue of weirdness – Far From the Tree aims to go further and present difference, whether in a piano prodigy such as Lang Lang or in a child who can’t move her limbs, as a valuable identity.
“The world is made more interesting by having every sort of person in it,” Mr. Solomon writes. “That is a social vision. We should alleviate the suffering of each individual to the outer limits of our abilities. That is a humanist vision with medical overtones.” He insists that they are not mutually exclusive.