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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 3)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.