Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
(2012), a psychology book by Andrew Solomon, examines how parents cope with children who are nothing like them, and how differences can unite us. The book won numerous awards, including the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Solomon primarily writes nonfiction concerning health, politics, and culture. He is a Lecturer in Psychiatry at the Cornell Medical School. In 2008, he received the Humanitarian Award of the Society of Biological Psychiatry for his contributions to mental health research and awareness.
In Far from the Tree
, Solomon considers families in which the children are unusual, or very different from their parents. Solomon’s central thesis is that being special, or being exceptional, is central to human nature. While there are many ways to be different, simply being different is normal, and part of the reproductive process.
Solomon suggests that the biggest dilemma parents face is the choice between acceptance and nurture. Parents want to love their children for who they are. However, parents also want their children to fulfill their potential and become the best version of themselves. Trying to accept the people we love is a problem that all families can relate to, whatever their individual circumstances. Solomon uses his own upbringing as an example—his family struggled to accept his sexual orientation, and it made him wonder how others react when the apple lands very far away from the tree.Far from the Tree
tells us that, for most parents, children represent their immortality. Children, for many of us, mean that our genes haven’t died, living on in future generations. If our children, by their nature, go against this expectation, many parents find it difficult to accept them. As Solomon explains, having a child is rather like binding ourselves to a stranger forever. It’s easier for us to accept the stranger who resembles us and acts like us.
Solomon covers the difference between vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identities, such as skin pigmentation, are passed down from one generation to the next. Horizontal identities, such as sexuality and IQ, are traits that we don’t share with our parents. Solomon gives examples such as mentally disabled children born of parents with average IQ’s, and gay children born of straight parents. Most psychopaths, as another example, don’t come from psychopathic parents.
There is a difference, Solomon argues, between changing our children and letting them make their own decisions. Parents are generally responsible for giving a child its education and teaching it morals. Most parents teach children societal conventions such as manners. Some behavior, such as self-destructive patterns, should be corrected. Most parents understand this.
The problem, Solomon says, is the grey area between what parents should change about their children, and what they should celebrate as unique about their child. Parents should not attempt to change a child’s sexuality, because it is unique to that child. Many families struggle with what they should change about their child, and what they must leave alone. This struggle unites all of us.
Solomon explains that, even if we don’t have obvious characteristics marking us out as different by society’s standards, we all deviate from our parents. Many of us will make vastly different career choices, convert to a different religion, or choose different lifestyles. In this sense, being different is fundamental to the human condition. Parents will never have children who are just like them, however much they hope for it.
Towards the end of the book, Solomon discusses his own story in more detail. He explains that his parents thought they could fix his homosexuality the way they fixed his dyslexia, which caused him unnecessary distress as a teenager. He recalls what it’s like being teased for hobbies and interests because they’re unusual, and how parents perceive differences as flaws instead of attributes.
Solomon is as honest as his subjects in Far from the Tree
. He sympathizes with the parents he speaks to who have disabled children, because he knows how difficult life can be for them. He is also honest about how relieved he was when he had a child who has no physical or mental disabilities. Just as Solomon expects honesty from the people he interviews, he offers it in return.
The stories Solomon includes in Far from the Tree
are both distressing and uplifting. He interviews parents of serial killers who’ve lost all their friends and family, and parents of children born of rape who relive the trauma every day they see their child. What makes some families more successful than others, Solomon explains, is their ability to see the positive in their ordeal, and to accept their children as individuals with human strengths and flaws.