The Dilemmas of Andrew Solomon

Award-Winning Author Tackles Jewish and Gay Identity

Solomon-Like Pose: The author Andrew Solomon was born into a Jewish family that struggled to accept his sexual identity.
Annie Leibovitz
Solomon-Like Pose: The author Andrew Solomon was born into a Jewish family that struggled to accept his sexual identity.

By Dinah Mendes

Published January 21, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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The 10 chapters that follow — Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime and Transgender — are bookended by an opening chapter, “Son,” and a closing chapter, “Father,” which span Solomon’s personal journey that culminates in his decision to become a father.

“Far From the Tree” offers a breadth of ideas and a wealth of details. Each chapter is a self-contained and comprehensive survey of its subject, providing historical background and sociopolitical context that alternate with vivid and poignant excerpts from Solomon’s home visits and interviews, interlaced with the author’s reflections and observations.

Examples abound of parents’ dedication and determination to secure the best possible existence for their afflicted children, and the ferocity and power of parental love — the template for all other forms of love — are indisputable. Another of Solomon’s premises is the growth-enhancing potential of adversity that is confronted and dealt with.

He illustrates this in the life stories of children born with handicapping situations, but more particularly in the accounts of parents who raise children whom they never would have imagined or wished for but who come to enlarge their parents’ horizons in unanticipated ways. “It is not suffering that is precious,” Solomon writes, “but the concentric pearlescence with which we contain it” — a Solomonic nugget that captures the writer’s capacity to be simultaneously gnomic and expansive, literary and scientific.

The subject of identity, which informs the subtitle of “Far From the Tree,” is a much more complex topic than either the specific conditions included or the relatively straightforward and ennobling messages about parental love, and the transformative power of struggle with unimaginable and seemingly unendurable challenges. If I have a quibble with Solomon’s book, it is that the subject of identity remains too contextual and even amorphous at times.

Solomon does not provide a working definition of identity, nor does he demarcate it from the process of identification that seems to be an essential ingredient in parents’ alliance with children who are very different from them. Parental love, as Solomon notes, is a paradoxical amalgam of self-love and love for another who is different from oneself; related to this, although not equivalent, is the “close to the tree” child who reflects sameness with the parent at one end of the spectrum and all the possibilities and varieties of difference at the other end.


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