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Identity is a fluid concept, and it is not always clear whose identity is at stake, the child’s or the parent’s. For some of the conditions examined — deafness, dwarfism and transgenderism — there are vibrant communities that reinforce and embrace horizontal identity. The question of what constitutes identity and what constitutes illness underlies many of the situations represented in “Far From the Tree.”
If the psychological sine qua non of identity is self-awareness with both cognitive and emotional constituents, what can be said about the identity of schizophrenics, whose sense of self and reality is often deluded, or severely cognitively disabled people, whose discrimination is rudimentary? Another complication is the evidence that many higher functioning Down syndrome and autistic people who were exposed to early and intensive intervention may ultimately come to feel less content than their lower-functioning peers; as their development is stimulated, their awareness of their deficits and differences compared with “typical” people also becomes sharper.
In Solomon’s investigation of varying examples of horizontal identity, the impairment of children with severe disabilities would appear to preclude the possibility of their achieving an organizing identity, and then it becomes clear that it is the identity of the parents of such children that is the real subject. The same is true in a different way for children conceived in rape (who may actually never know their origin) and children who commit crimes, whose parents are agonizingly tested in their parental identity.
Solomon’s inclusion of prodigies in his compendium of exceptional parent-child situations seems counterintuitive, despite the author’s rationale. Certainly, these near-genius children can present outsized challenges, but it is difficult to view them in terms of adversity, a characteristic of all the other conditions studied. In addition, the pleasure component — the recognition and celebrity that such children often achieve, and the gratification that affords the parents — seems too obvious. This leads back again to the conundrum of parental love, the fundamental imbrication of narcissistic or self-love and love for the other, the interweaving of sameness and difference.
The mother of one of the two Columbine perpetrators, interviewed for the crime chapter, reflects, “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.” Here, we are faced with the essential intertwining, in identity formation as well as other aspects, of the parent-child relationship: Parents shape the identity of their children, but their own experience and identity as parents are defined in turn by their particular children.
Dinah M. Mendes is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City.