Andrew Solomon on his book Far From the Tree

First aired on The Sunday Edition (25/11/12)

In 2001, Andrew Solomon published The Noonday Demon, which was both a history of depression and an affecting chronicle of his personal struggle with the illness. It won a National Book Award. Now the celebrated journalist is back with Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, which explores the idea of difference through families whose children are disabled — or what we call disabled — whether it's schizophrenia, deafness, dwarfism, autism or Down syndrome. He also deals with child prodigies, who are different in their own way. The New York Times called it a "lionhearted book" that "shoots arrow after arrow into your heart."


Recently, Solomon was interviewed by The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright before a large crowd at the Toronto Reference Library.

Solomon took his title for the book from the popular saying that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. "The idea is that the apple and the tree represent the parents and the child, and that in general we say that parents very much resemble their children, people expect to have children who resemble them," Solomon explained. "I wanted to write about the experiences of people who are really dramatically different from their parents, and the experiences of parents who have children who are dramatically different from them."

When asked why we often fear difference, Solomon responded: "I think there's somehow the idea that if we tolerate difference, that the people who seem safe and solid, and like the ones who are running the show, will be undermined." But he believes that if we tolerate difference, "what we're doing is opening and expanding our idea of humanity, rather than somehow limiting it."

Solomon also believes that we can get over that fear through exposure, which was his own experience. When he started working on the book, "I was actually somewhere between afraid of and uncomfortable with people in most of the categories I was looking at," he admitted. "And then I got to know people, and I got to hear the stories of these people...and with that exposure I felt the sort of glowing humanity and the embrace of these people, and that was a very transformative experience and it's the one I tried to recreate in the book."

The book has its roots in a 1994 assignment for the New York Times magazine, in which Solomon wrote about deafness. Before he started working on the piece, he didn't know anything about deafness. But he came to realize "there is a whole deaf culture," he said, adding that "many of the deaf people I met didn't experience themselves primarily as lacking hearing, but rather as having as membership in a culture that was a very good and valid culture in their view."

As a result of this experience, Solomon became interested in the tension between the ideas of illness and identity. He pointed out that years ago, homosexuality was viewed as "a pernicious sickness," as Time magazine put it. Solomon, who is gay, says he now lives with a husband and children, and sees gayness as having moved from being seen as an illness to an identity model. It made him wonder where else that switch was possible. He came to the conclusion that "you can experience almost any characteristic as an illness or an identity."

In his book, Solomon distinguishes between vertical identity — which is passed down generationally and involves characteristics such as ethnicity — and horizontal identity, which occurs "when your parents are suddenly confronted with a child who is effectively a member of a culture with which they have no previous experience." In this situation, you learn your identity from your peer group, Solomon said, citing homosexuals and the deaf as examples.

In the course of writing Far From the Tree, Solomon encountered a variety of experiences, but he found overwhelmingly that parents did not wish that their child was different, or hadn't been born. He emphasized that he's not trying to sentimentalize the experience of raising a child who's different. But he added: "Here, as, in a way, in looking at's possible to look deep into difficulty and find meaning in it, and it's possible to grow from it. I was interested in the way that people have grown."

Listen to the entire conversation, which includes a Q&A session with the audience, in the audio player below.

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