● Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
By Andrew Solomon
Scribner, 976 pages, $37.50
In his ambitious new study of the relationships between exceptional or unusually challenging children and their parents, Andrew Solomon confesses, informs and enlightens with the same capacious sweep that distinguished his last work, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” Solomon’s range encompasses politics, culture and psychology, and the intricate intersection of the three.
If the catalyst for “The Noonday Demon” was his personal struggle with incapacitating depression, the spur for “Far From the Tree” was his experience growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in an affluent and assimilated Jewish family, the gay son of parents who loved and cherished him but wanted him to be heterosexual like them.
At the outset of “Far From the Tree,” Solomon differentiates between the vertical identity that is passed down to children from parents via genetics and familial norms (ethnicity, language and shared physical, intellectual and emotional traits are examples) and horizontal identity, which refers to traits that are foreign to the family and unique to the child, and often propel identification with a community outside the family.
Solomon links his struggle to accept himself as gay with his mother’s resistance to the emerging signs of his homosexuality and her efforts to reorient him.
Over time he came to understand that she felt extreme shame about her vertical identity of Jewishness. Her father kept his religion secret to protect his high-level job in a company that didn’t hire Jews, and when she was a young woman, her fiancé broke off his engagement to her when his family threatened to disown him if he married a Jew.
Undoubtedly, manifest vertical identities present their own problems in families, but that is not the subject of this book. Instead, choosing some of the most extreme examples of horizontal identity, Solomon sets out “to explore the spectrum of difference… to show that a child’s traumatic origin (rape) or traumatic acts (crime) can have surprising parallels to the condition of his mind (autistic, schizophrenic, prodigious) or of his body (dwarfism, deafness).”