The Big Idea: Andrew Solomon
The biggest surprise of parenthood is how surprising it is.
Ovulation predictor kits, amniocentesis, and endless childrearing manuals offer a brief illusion of control—even prophesy—but anyone who’s ever had kids knows that the whole project turns out to be more or less a crapshoot. The athletic give birth to the sedentary, Republicans beget Democrats, and offspring of the devout often become atheists. Sometimes, children differ so much from their parents that they have more in common with strangers than with their own families.
Andrew Solomon, winner of the 2001 National Book Award for The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, has written a new book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, profiling such families. Including chapters on the Deaf, dwarfs, children with Down syndrome, autism, and severe disabilities, as well as transgendered people, schizophrenics, prodigies, criminals, and children conceived through rape, this nearly 1,000-page book covers so many parent-child differences faced in so many different ways, that the reader begins to wonder if anyone’s family is “typical.”
That’s a reaction with which Solomon would likely be pleased. Certainly he counts himself among those whose “vertical identities” and “horizontal identities”—terms he coined to distinguish traits shared with one’s parents from those shared with unrelated peers—have not always aligned comfortably. As a child with dyslexia and as a young man suffering from depression and coming to terms with his sexual orientation, Solomon’s relationship with his parents was not smooth. His current unique family includes “two men, three women, four kids, and three states,” as he’s described it.
I recently spent a gray Saturday afternoon with Solomon at his father’s country house north of New York City. Solomon, his husband, John Habich Solomon, and their three year-old son retreat there on weekends from their home in Greenwich Village, when they’re not at their other home in London. We spoke about Solomon’s own family, and about several of the 300 families he interviewed for the book. We also talked about the process of writing such an ambitious work, which took Solomon eleven years and brought him to places as diverse as a Little People of America convention, a village in Rwanda, and the Colorado home of Tom and Sue Klebold, parents of Columbine killer, Dylan Klebold.
The Rumpus: This is a big, wide-ranging book, but its origins were very personal: you’ve said that you wrote it to forgive your parents. What did you need to forgive them for?
Andrew Solomon: You know, I think that when…before I started on the book, I hadn’t drawn the distinction—which has become important to me since—which is between love and acceptance. You know, I feel as though when I was in the process of coming out of the closet it was upsetting for my parents, especially for my mother, and they weren’t very accepting of it. And I experienced that as their not being very loving. And actually, what I recognized writing the book, is that parents of children who have some kind of difference almost always have to struggle with it, and often manage to come through, and it’s their love that motivates them to come to terms with the strangeness or difference or whatever it is that’s extraordinary in their children. And having looked at all these other families I was able to say: Okay, my family didn’t throw me out, they didn’t want nothing to do with me, they weren’t actively rejecting. It just took them a while to get used to it.
And it took me a while to get used to it, too. We were all going through a process of accepting who I was. And there had never really been a deficit in their love. The deficit was in their acceptance. These were two separate things. And the deficit in acceptance was no worse than anybody else’s deficit in acceptance. So I just felt that by trying to understand, How does a family deal with a child who has an identity they at least initially experience as aberrant?—I could fit my parents’ behavior into a larger framework, instead of feeling that I was dealing with it just as itself, and adding layers of meaning to it that it didn’t have.
Rumpus: So the forgiveness you ended up with wasn’t perhaps the one you thought you would find when you started out?
Solomon: Well, what did I think I was going to find when I started out? I’m always amused when people sell nonfiction based on a proposal, because if you know what you’re setting out to find out at the beginning and that’s what you find out at the end, then it probably wasn’t worth working on. So I have to cast my mind back to 2001 when I first proposed the idea. I think I’d had that experience of writing the piece for the [New York] Times Magazine about the Deaf [Solomon explains that “deaf” as a condition is spelled with a small “d,” and the “Deaf” as a group, with a capital “D”], and I was very startled to see how much Deaf culture and the Deaf experience had in common with gay culture and the gay experience. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents, similar to the experience of gay people who are mostly born to straight parents. That was a real revelation to me when I worked on it, whenever that was—almost twenty years ago.
And I think I then began to feel as though there was a larger community from which to obtain wisdom about these processes. That, interesting as the literature about gay people coming out was, it was only the tip of the iceberg. I really wanted to understand this phenomenon of how you negotiate your way from an illness into an identity, how you figure out who you are, how parents figure out how to relate to children, how children figure out how to relate to their parents. It was really startling to me. I mean, even then, twenty years ago, it was somehow reassuring to me to find out that the Deaf experience was like the gay experience. It made me feel less alone.
Rumpus: So in a sense you ended up expanding your own “horizontal” community through this process?
Solomon: Oh, absolutely. That’s kind of the centerpoint of the whole thing. It’s that any of the individual differences listed in the book can be very isolating. There are only so many families dealing with schizophrenia, or transgenderism, or even with crime. If you say that all of them have something in common, then sudddenly all those people are members of a larger community and that was the real revelation of the book, to say, “Look, we all have a lot in common, we’re all dealing with a lot of the same issues. What if we all held hands as we’re doing it?”
Rumpus: So in the broadest sense, this book is about the power and limitation of analogy. Did you fear that the Deaf might feel offended by being put next to a chapter about children who become criminals—or transgender, or children of rape, or prodigies, even? That these are, in some ways, very analogous and in some ways, very different? Were you fearful of overextending the analogy?
Solomon: One is always fearful of overextending. But some people have said to me, “Did you really have to go into so much detail about each of these conditions in each of these chapters?” And my response was that I wanted to describe what they all have in common, which I think is really substantial, and the ways in which they’re very different. If they were all the same, then reading ten of these chapters would be incredibly tedious. The point was to say, “Look, here are all the things that this group of people are confronting, that no one else in the group has to deal with. This is why, and this is who they are, and this is what they need.” Yet, nonetheless, all of these people, all throughout the entire book have something in common and there are parallels among their experiences. I know nuance is not popular, that some think your book should be arguing one thing. But I was really arguing that we have to recognize the specific dynamics in these specific situations, and also try to look at what they have in common.
Rumpus: I have to say that what makes me turn the book over and over in my mind is that it’s as hard to narrowly characterize as any of the individuals portrayed in it. The book, itself, recapitulates the stories, in this sense.
Now, back to your mom: you say that your parents, particularly your mom, were very supportive about your dyslexia, that your mom was just dogged in helping you move through that. And your parents were very supportive about your depression. Your mom sounds like she was a pretty loving, enlightened, and engaged lady. Why was accepting your sexuality so hard for her?
Solomon: Well, I think there are a couple of pieces to it. As I describe in the book, when I was a kid, homosexuality was generally accepted to be an illness. And a crime. And a sin. I don’t think she was particularly hung up on the “sin” piece, but it seemed like an illness, it seemed like a crime. I came of age in the age of AIDS. I think there was just a sense from her point of view, especially as someone who had grown up in the ’40s and ’50s, that I was consigning myself to the margins of society and that most of the people she knew, who had ended up so marginalized, hadn’t been very happy. I wrote in the book about how we had these gay surrogate “uncles.” So she wasn’t hideously homophobic. She was happy to have them with us for all of our holidays and so forth. But I think she thought that it just didn’t look like as happy a way forward. I also think that she was very…I’m lingering over the word “obsessed”…very deeply engaged with the idea that having children and a family was the meaning of life. And she thought that as a gay person, I wouldn’t have a family, and that that was tragic. So it contained both a critique and a compliment.
It was lovely that she thought that having children was the most important thing in life. That meant a lot to me. And I think she thought that I undervalued the conventional in some ways. She was very original in her thinking, but she had a relatively conservative way of interracting with the world. I think she felt as though I didn’t really understand the consequences of what I was signing myself up for. And I also think that she’d grown up in a time when mothers were blamed for their children being gay. So I think she somehow felt accused by it and that she felt ashamed of it.
Rumpus: Does the challenge of having a child who is different have more to do with your protectiveness of that child and your fear of the peril they may be facing, or—not that they’re mutually exclusive—the change it makes in your own identity? For example, in your mother’s case, that your being gay made her “the mother of a gay son.”
Solomon: They’re yin and yang. I think both are incredibly difficult. Some people struggle more with their child’s pain and some struggle more with their own pain. Some people are in pain even when their child isn’t, and some people are not in much pain even though their child is. It’s very hard to generalize. But I think you’re absolutely right to say that both things are there.
Back to my mother for a second: she found it difficult being the mother of a gay person and she was worried that I would be old and lonely. Those were two concerns. You can’t say there was seventy-two percent “this” and twenty-eight percent “that.” I always think of the anecdote in the “Crime” chapter, when I was talking with Sue Klebold and she was talking with someone on a train, and she said: “We had this lovely conversation and I could feel the questions were going to start, you know: ‘Are you married? Do you have kids?’” And she said, “I thought it would best to tell them who I am, and who I am forever is Dylan’s mother.”
I saw this with a lot of these parents, in terms of that whole acceptance thing. We’re in my dad’s house now. My dad actually had a fairly conservative take on things at one point, but he enthusiastically supported and voted for Obama, in part because he’s the parent of a gay child. My step-mother told me they were at some fancy dinner at which people were going on and on about how he should support Mitt Romney, and he said, “There’s no point discussing this any further. I have a gay son, and I’m supporting Obama.” And I think, therefore, he’s been changed. His attitude has been changed. Maybe he would have anyway. I think he always would have believed in these liberties. Maybe he would have made the shift anyway. But, in fact, he’s been changed. I mean, we are changed by our children. It’s inevitable that we will be. And I think he does have some ownership of that identity, to announce it at an event like that, at which perhaps he wouldn’t have been expected to some years ago.
Most of these parents end up accepting these new identities. But new identities are hard, they take a lot of adjusting. In a completely separate project—I have been working on a Ph.D.—and it deals with motherhood. And I think the women in the study I did for it, that I’ve been interviewing longitudinally…I mean, you aren’t a mother and then you are a mother. That’s a huge shift in identity. And you can love your child, and not actually love the identity of being a mother. Or you can really get off on the identity of being a mother, and not really connect very much with your child. They’re really sort of separate. So I feel like all these parents were cast into this new identity and some of them ended up finding community there, and a new focus in their life, and wonderful things out of it, and some of them ended up finding only pain and horror in the experience. But either way, they’re profoundly changed. But they want both: they want their child to be okay and they want to be okay.
Rumpus: I want to return to Sue Klebold for a moment. One thing I noticed—not one-hundred percent, but definitely a trend—is that the mothers seem to have a little easier time both facing the reality of the difference and crossing over to acceptance. You mention that Sue Klebold was more like [post-war] Germany, and her husband, Tom, was more like Japan—one more reflective and guilt-ridden, one more “let’s move on, it didn’t really happen.” Did you notice that trend at all? Am I imagining that?
Solomon: You know, again, there are variable experiences. I’ve seen families that split the difficulties in all kinds of ways. What I’d say, overall, is that I found that the women were more involved in—maybe a gross generalization—the first task of acceptance that takes place within the home. They were the ones who were more likely to say, “We’re not going to change or fix this child, and we’re going to celebrate this child for who he is here and now. We’ll make sure he feels loved and happy.” The men were better at expressing to the world—or letting the children express to the world—that point of view, and taking it outside and beyond the home. So you have a child in the book who is very severely disabled. You have the mother, Sarah, who said, “I want to baptize Jamie right away,” witnessing that he really is a person despite all these severe disabilities. And it was his father who sued the state of Connecticut and got them to build a different kind of group home, and who got Jamie’s picture on Hartford Courant Magazine and got the idea out there into the world—that the world should accept the child. That might be a good shorthand—I wish I’d thought of it before I wrote the book—that the mother helps the father to accept the child, and the father helps the world to accept the child.
Rumpus: I wonder to what extent that’s an accentuation or an exaggeration of stereotypical parental roles, even when the difference isn’t as dramatic. “The men solve the problems and the women supply the empathy.” That reminds me to ask: are there ways in which these parent-child relationships are not so different than more typical parent-child relationships? I was explaining your book to a woman in her seventies, who has two severely autistic sons in their forties. I told her the book is about children who are very different from their parents and she said, “Oh, but ‘Joe’ is exactly like my husband, and ‘Jim’ is just like me!” So I wondered, amidst all this difference, were you struck by how “normal” these families were?
Solomon: Yes, in a word. I think dealing with this kind of difficulty tends to exaggerate what would be there anyway. It makes loving parents more loving and probably makes abusive parents more abusive—though that’s not really my topic. It kind of intensifies things more than it changes them. I mean, it changes them, too, but I think that the intensification is very strong and I feel as though the basic questions of the book are applicable to children who have much less dramatic differences. You can have a child who doesn’t have any disease or anything that seems exceptional, and you can still sometimes look at your child and think, Where did you come from? They’re incomprehensible in some way. And the origin of character is endlessly bewildering. I think it’s just…
Rumpus: “Production” rather than “reproduction,” as you say in the book?
Rumpus: I was speaking to friends last week who are very liberal, whose eighteen-year-old son considered casting his first vote for Mitt Romney. It’s these lesser heartbreaks, so to speak—the musician whose kid can’t carry a tune—that aren’t quite the same, but I think have some of the same quality. The other analogy that occurred to me was children of immigrants. I routinely see patients who bring their children in to translate for them at medical visits. And it always strikes me that there is tremendous pride at the assimilation of their kids, but there must be some sense of loss, too. Did you think about immigrant families in terms of parent-child differences?
Solomon: Yes. I definitely have some feeling of loss. Not that I wish that I were living in poverty in the South Bronx where my father grew up. But I’m sad about that having vanished, and the disconnect I feel from it. I’m very aware, having lived in England for a long time…I have friends in England who are living in houses that their families have lived in for over a thousand years. I feel so disconnected from my past. Very connected to my father, and was to my mother, and my brother…but I feel very disconnected. If I think back one hundred years, I can’t even imagine it. What would it have been like if I had been born as me on a farm in Romania? What would I have done? How would it have worked? I can’t wrap my mind around it. So I feel a sense of dissociation, and I’m the one who’s had all the advantages. What was it like for people who are not the ones with all the advantages, to see their children leading other lives? No, I feel it’s very much like the experience of immigration, that feeling of entering into something somewhat incomprehensible.
Rumpus: It also brings up the tension that comes up so much in the book, the tension around assimilation versus identity. I want to get into some of this stuff, boy, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around…the idea that cochlear implants for the Deaf can be interpreted as a kind of genocide; that prenatal testing for Down syndrome is a form of genocide; that the Deaf, or dwarves, might deliberately conceive children who share their disabilities—so-called “deformer” [as opposed to “designer”] babies. Did you listen to that and think, “Yeah, I totally get that” or did you think, “that’s disingenuous”?
Solomon: On the “genocide” front: I think that I understand why someone would choose to give their child cochlear implants, and I suspect that I would choose to give my child cochlear implants if I had a deaf child, because I think the most important thing one can achieve with one’s child is good communication, and I’m not particularly good at languages and I would never gain real fluency in ASL [American Sign Language]. But having said that, which is about the individual decision and the individual good, I think that the Deaf culture enriches the world and if it were completely to vanish, we would lose a lot with it. The idea of that happening makes me sad. I feel that the social goal and the individual goal are not necessarily the same. I don’t think cochlear implants were invented because people hate deaf people. I don’t think it comes out of rage and hatred. I think the word “genocide” frequently gets used in a melodramatic fashion. It suggests that the wish is to get rid of something because of hatred for it. I think, here, the wish is to help people but the side effect is that we may see the Deaf culture vanishing. I think we should be awake to the fact that we are eliminating these things and not lose sight of that fact that, as you were saying earlier, in relation to immigration, whenever there is a positive change there is also a correlated loss. The correlated loss may be lesser than the gain, though we should recognize that both things are always taking place.
Rumpus: But there may be a slippery border between help and hate, as in therapy to “cure” people from being gay. I have no doubt that some people who are doing that are convinced that they’re doing something extraordinarily helpful, as misplaced as that is, and as rooted in prejudice and hate as it is.
Solomon: Right. And if the therapies worked, and they allowed the people who didn’t want to be gay to be not gay, I think they’d be quite popular. I think they would not have just been made illegal in California, I think they would not constitute cruelty and torture. You would then have an activist group saying, “You have all these parents sending their kids to therapy to make their kids not gay, and gay culture is really great and we should cherish gay culture, so that’s a bad thing to do”—which is an argument that can definitely be made and be supported. But the problem with the anti-gay therapies is that they’re traumatic, they create a lot of self-hatred in people, and those people remain gay. They may change some of their behavior, but they don’t change their underlying structure of desire. A lot of the question, I think, is the question of what can be cured, and what should be cured. It’s not always so easy to see the difference.
Rumpus: One statement you make at the end of the book was that when you were thinking about conceiving your son, you were more apprehensive about being a gay father than you were about your child inheriting dyslexia, or depression, or your relatives’ cancers. I’m not sure what you meant by that. Did you mean more apprehensive about being gay and being a father? Or about your child inheriting your sexual orientation?
Solomon: I’ll answer that a little bit obliquely: the PhD I’ve just done, which will be the basis for the next book I’ll do, is a study of motherhood. I think I had some concerns about having been attached to my own mother. What is it that mothers do and will we [Solomon and his husband] be able to do it all, as men? That was part of it. I’m not worried about it any more, but I was worried about it then. I think I went into the doctoral research to understand motherhood, in part so I could see what are the constituents of motherhood and what are the things that might be missing from our son’s life. But more profoundly than that, I think I worried that it might be a stigma for him to carry around with him, that kids might point and laugh—they certainly would have when I was in school if someone had two dads. They would have thought it was weird—they would have made jokes about it, and people would have been not very nice about it. They certainly weren’t very nice to me, and I just don’t think it was a very nice place… But in any event…I just had that sense that I didn’t want to have as my opening gambit something that would be traumatic and sad for our child. I had to be sure that it was not a selfish impulse, that we were having a child because we had love to lavish on our child and could give him a happy life, and not just out of some ego need of my own. That I wasn’t having a child in a situation that would be too uncomfortable for that child.
You know, and over time, I came to think—and much more strongly since having children—that children all come into families that have got their up sides and their down sides, that we’re not mean and we’re not stupid and we have lots of other areas in which we’re doing all right by him. But I think my anxiety was, Is he going to turn around at some point in adolescence and say, “I never wanted to be born into a family like this”? I don’t think so anymore. I think he’ll say obnoxious things like all adolescents say…
Rumpus: I think you can count on that.
Solomon: But I don’t think that will be it. I mean, it’s all turned out to be great. But I thought: Are we qualified to do this? Or are we consigning this putative child to…you know.
Rumpus: Of course the world will change that much more between now and then. In fact, you worked on this book for eleven years and the world changed a lot in that time in terms of attitudes towards disability and marriage equality. So the world was changing and you were actually watching some of your subjects grow up. You got married. You had children. Did you ever feel like you were trying to write this book on a moving sidewalk?
Solomon: That’s very well said, writing it “on a moving sidewalk.” Yes, I had that feeling all the time. I feel that way even now. There was just some data published on a drug that’s being tested to be given to young children with achondroplasia [a type of dwarfism] that will turn off the mechanism that’s overactive—a gene that sends the signal to stop growth prematurely. There’s now a pharmaceutical agent they think may reverse that. It’s still in a very early stage of testing, and it’s still vague. But I look at it and I think, I have to have that in! My chapter on dwarves is totally out of date without that! And I feel it as I hear the Supreme Court decided yesterday to hear the gay marriage cases, how that might have been part of what I was writing about. But when I read about Deaf culture back in the ’90s, it was such a far-fetched idea that that really was a culture at al,l and I guess that means, of the zeitgeist of these communities and of this changing reality…that on the one hand, if I were writing about John Adams, he’d presumably…
Rumpus: …stay dead?
Solomon: Yes, he’d stay where he is. There’d be some papers that might turn up, but it wouldn’t be an absolutely moving system. But the fact that it’s a moving system also means that it has leeway to be shifted in a more positive or a less positive direction. So the book has a kind of vitality insofar as it contains ideas on how to keep the change positive.
Rumpus: In fact, more of your stories are positive and upbeat than depressing. More of the stories are about overcoming obstacles and finding love and acceptance. Yet, you also mention that it’s harder to write a happy story than a sad story, comparing this book to your book on depression, for example. Did you find yourself, as you were writing it, thinking, Nah, too happy, too sappy…these parents can’t love this kid this much…?
Solomon: I tried to honor what I found, and to be true to what I found. I have had people who have said, “There are so many depressing stories here!” And I’ve had people who’ve said, “A lot of parents would have had these children and hated them, and you found only loving parents and that’s not the whole story.” I found myself at the end of those accusations—which is a healthy position to be in; essentially we all know that there are some parents who can’t deal with their children who don’t have problems. The news piece of it for me as I went deeper into it was how many parents, confronted with children who weren’t what they wanted, ended up saying, “But I love my child for who he is,” and have made some kind of peace with it—found some means of celebrating it, even. That seemed to me more interesting than a book that was full of: “And these parents were miserable having this child and stayed miserable.”
Rumpus: The one I keep coming back to, the ones who crossed the biggest Rubicon, were the Klebolds. There’s one thing you mention, just in passing, that shocked me: that you slept in the guest room that used to be Dylan Klebold’s bedroom. I wondered, was that weird? Was that creepy? Or, at that point, had he been “normalized” for you, no longer a monster, but simply the dead child of these lovely people? Were you seeing him through their eyes at that point?
Solomon: I’m sorry to keep answering in this equivocal way, but I think both. On one level, I could see him through their eyes by spending time with them. And then, when The Today Show did their interview with me, and they showed a little bit of the footage of Dylan, screaming hysterically into the camera in preparation for this terrible thing…
Rumpus: With the guns and the black trench coats.
Solomon: Yes. I thought: that is not an okay person. That’s a monstrous vision. But I ended up thinking—and I think Sue said it the best—I ended up thinking, can we really sort people by saying: these people are terrific, these people are okay but made some mistakes, and these people are monstrous? It’s just not a very good system. Everyone does wonderful things and terrible things. What Dylan did was much more terrible than what most people do, but I don’t think that it therefore is the only fact about him. So my feeling in terms of seeing him through Tom’s and Sue’s eyes is that I think he did something shocking and awful, and if any of us could go back in time and reverse it, we would…
Rumpus: Most of all, them.
Solomon: Yes. But I don’t feel that in the end I can say he’s a monster and nothing but a monster. He’s a monster who also brought Sue an umbrella when he picked her up in the rain, and worked the extra shift in the pizza parlor for Eric; who grew up in this essentially loving household, who was broken in some profound way. I’m sorry, deeply sorry that he was broken. I see how much pain he caused his own family, and I know how unbelieveably much pain he caused all these other families, and to some degree, the whole nation that was shocked and horrified by that whole thing. But even though I know all that, I can’t think of it as being the only fact about him. I just don’t think there’s an “only fact” about anyone.
Rumpus: It struck me as such a sad irony that Sue Klebold said that Columbine gave her termendous compassion for the world, at the very same time that it made her a pariah. That, I thought, could be said of a lot of people whose different children make them isolated, but also in some ways make them more expansive and more compassionate. I know a woman who advertised for a tutor for her autistic son and was delighted when a dwarf applied for the job. It seemed natural that one person with a challenge would be empathic with someone with a different challenge. Did you see in children with differences, or parents of these children, more compassion, or more hunkering down—like, “I can’t worry about you, buddy, my plate’s already too full”?
Solomon: With individuals, I found a certain amount of hunkering down. But the central argument of the book is that if everyone dealing with difference would recognize the commonalities, the next wave of civil rights would be accomplished. The next wave of civil rights has to do with people with all of these diffuse conditions, all of whom are essentially arguing the same thing. Which is not to say that having lower urinals for adult dwarf males is the same as better education practices for Down syndrome or a better rehabilitative prison system. I’m not suggesting at all that it’s the exact same acts, but it’s the exact same ethos. If we could get this ethos into broader circulation we’d be doing a terrific thing. I had the book party, and about a week afterwards I got a message from a couple of people who’d been at the book party who were a dwarf, the father of someone with autism, and a woman with schizophrenia, who mentioned that they’d all gone out to dinner together, having met each other at the party. And I loved that. I loved that they were stepping out into the world.
Rumpus: There’s an incredible moment in the chapter, “Rape,” when a woman you met in Rwanda asks you if you can tell her how to love her daughter—conceived through rape—”better.” What did you tell her? And did you find yourself, in the course of writing the book, offering advice to your subjects, who were often in such difficult situations?
Solomon: I don’t really believe in the idea that disengagement constitutes neutrality, that cherished idea in journalism. In the same way, I think there can be a lot of hostility in the silence of a psychoanalyst hearing someone describe great pain. In the same way, I think there can be brutality in showing art on white walls with bright light and nothing else around it. So I think that if you go in as a journalist and you ask people to let you in very deeply into their lives, and you then refuse to be kind or engaged or helpful to them, I think what you’re doing is… It works very well for some people in some circumstances, but I don’t think it should be the universal rule. I often found myself being asked for advice, and if there were situations in which I felt I had good advice to give, I shared the advice. And if it helped a family in terrible pain, when they had opened up and told me their whole story, and there was a way I could perhaps take their pain and make it less, I was completely open to doing it. I didn’t try to shape what they were doing to make a better narrative for my book, which is a kind of cheating. I tried to validate some of the experiences they were having. The thing people most often asked me was, “I’m having experience X. Have you heard anyone else describe an experience like that?” And I was always open to saying, “It’s interesting you say that. Yes, here are three other people”—not necessarily with their names—”three other people that are a little bit similar, and here’s what they had to say.” So that was the general position.
The woman who asked me how to love her daughter more was in Rwanda, in the middle of no-place, and when she asked me, I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. Afterwards, as I wrote in the book, I saw that there was a lot of love in that question, and if she had been someone I could contact again, instead of in a hut in some unspecified area of Rwanda, I would have wanted to write her and say, “I’ve thought about what you said and here’s what I wanted to say back.”
Rumpus: The transgender chapter seemed a particularly acute example of the tension between medical condition and identity. The controversy over including transgenderism in DSM V, for example. As you may know, in Massachusetts now there’s a case in which a transgendered prisoner, who murdered his wife, is petitioning the state to pay for gender reassignment surgery, on the grounds that transgenderism is a medical condition warranting treatment. So what happens when you’re straddling those two concerns? If you have a medical problem, then your distress is appreciated in a certain way, and it has practical implications for insurance, and treatment in prison, etc. If it’s not medical, then it’s at least partially de-stigmatized…
Solomon: So how do you remove the stigma but maintain the services?
Solomon: That’s one of the issues throughout this book: that people want to be accepted, but they also want to be accommodated. If you say that dwarfism is as good a way of being as any other way of being, why do we have to go through the expense of having cash machines that are lower? If you say that deafness is a culture, then why are we paying for sign language interpreters in hospitals? There’s a constant question about that. I think it’s a very tricky one. And I think transgender is an area in which it’s been particularly so. Is it a physical illness or is it a mental illness? If you classify it as a mental illness, you can get treatment for the psychological component of it, but no payment for surgery. If you classify it as a medical illness, then you can maybe get payment for surgery, but have you given up on the psychological aspect of it? The way in which these things are administrated makes it very difficult to figure out the right answers. It would be nice if we had a society which could be accepting of people and help them with whatever their medical needs are.
Rumpus: So that they wouldn’t be mutually exclusive?
Rumpus: Because it gets to the issue of labeling. So how about the even bigger picture, of individuality and assimilation as the parallel and sometimes conflicting American themes? One statement made in the chapter “Prodigy,” by the mother of piano prodigy Marc Yu, who said that there’s this American thing, where all kids have to do nine activities, and not stand out in any one of them. She said all Americans seem to need to be the same. Yet that runs counter to the American ideal of rugged individualism. Do you think that people who are born with differences and challenges are trying to be more individual, or trying to be more assimilated? And does our embrace of these seemingly contrary ideals in the American culture contribute to our inability to move forward on these issues? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Republicans’ rejection of the U.N. Treaty on Disabilities isn’t pure spite—is there an attitude of “You need to be an individual and succeed on your own—but you need to be not too different”? Do you think our confusion about these two, sometimes-conflicting strands in American culture contribute to our confusion about how to accept people with difference? And when you look at different cultures, is it different? How much does American culture inform our view of difference?
Solomon: One thing I’ve observed and that interestingly came up a couple of times in the course of my book tour is that a number of people who’ve shown up who have disabled children, have come from Europe to live in the United States, and therefore were commenting on this split. And I think I’d sum it up by saying that in Europe the legislation is way ahead of what there is here, but here, the social acceptance is way ahead of what there is there. Not always social acceptance, not everywhere, not every condition—again, not to make generalities. But I think that there is a belief that the law should protect these various forms of difference.
But I think there is a European model in which difference is more stigmatized. I think they’re more purebred societies in which they’ve had less immigration, and therefore in which difference is more noticeable than it is societies in which you see more difference. But I really noticed, looking at the last election, on election night when I was sitting there, anxiously staring at the TV, as they were cutting between those two rooms…the room full of Romney supporters looked like a room full of people who looked like they were doing their best all to look the same. You almost felt that if they all could have got their plaid kilts and things at the same place, they would have, because it was an army of sameness. And the Obama room seemed to have obese people and skinny people and old people and young people and black people and white people and people with ethnicities you couldn’t even figure out. There were people with their hair done and with their hair not done. There was just this fiesta of difference. The country seems to have very narrowly sided with the fiesta of difference. But I think that the split that you’re identifying, that I encountered in looking at these families and their experiences is, in fact, the split that the whole society is confronting: do we want to be a conformist society? How much do we want to just let everyone be whoever they are, themselves, and celebrate it? I think we’re headed more in that direction. But there’s always a strong undertow.
Rumpus: Our very diversity may, in fact, inform our fear of diversity.
Rumpus: Garrison Keillor was married to a Danish woman, and he once said something like, “In Denmark, they can have so many different political parties because they only have one way to eat lunch.” When you say that in Europe there is better support and less acceptance, maybe it’s because they only have one way to “eat lunch.”
Solomon: I think that’s true. And I think that there is a real sense, intellectually and everywhere else, that the capacity for a shift in the social order here seems so huge because of that incredible diversity. But the fact that the diversity is so huge is part of what makes people defensive. And part of why I think, for example, that Evangelical Christianity makes it so readily into the realm of politics. It’s because there is the sense of how all of this difference is very threatening. In societies where there isn’t so much difference, it isn’t so threatening. But here, someone has to come out on top. And there are people who generalize from the specific… You’ve heard all of that hateful rhetoric about how we’ve voted in this black president and now we’re going to have a black country, and whites are going to be in this little minority, and all this demographic hysteria. Difference is frightening to everyone. Whether you’re German or Russian or American. It’s daunting.
I think my motive in writing the book was partly counter-phobic. These were all things that made me uncomfortable, so I decided I should really look at them and try to stop being uncomfortable with them, which has largely succeeded. I feel like I am more comfortable with dealing with all these kinds of differences. I’m sure I’ve still got a very, very long way to go to be fully comfortable with all the difference there is in the world.
Rumpus: When you finish a book like this, a changed person—you’ve been on a very extensive tour and talked about this a lot—will it be hard for you to move on? Will it feel like moving on, or will it be like having had another child, like something that remains a part of you? You’re now writing a book about motherhood; will Far From The Tree be, by necessity, an organic part of your approach to writing the new book?
Solomon: This book changed who I am, and I’m not going to change back to who I was before it. My evolution as a person is an ongoing process—I like to think mostly moving forward. I feel that eleven years was long enough to work on this exact book. I’ve already had people say, “Oh, do you think you might do a second volume?” But I really feel like I’ve done this. When I finished my book about Soviet artists, people kept saying to me, “But, wow! Look at what else is happening in contemporary Russian art!”—which it was, by the time the book was published. I was interested and those artists are still good friends of mine, but I said what I had to say about Soviet artists, and I was ready to move on to the next thing. I’m constantly getting letters from people saying, “Why don’t you write another book about depression?” The issue of depression materialized in this book and it surely will materialize in the next book about motherhood, where post-partum is so central. It’s in everything that I write and think. I’d be a different person if I hadn’t gone through depression. A completely different person. But I don’t want to write another book about it. And I feel as though I’ve done what I set out to do as well as I’m able to do it. It will always be in my mind. These people have become friends. I have a sense of connectedness to this material. I’ll lecture about it and talk about it. But I’m ready for my next book. That being said, there’s always a kind of post-partum with something like this. I feel like it was the project that occupied my forties. I’m forty-nine now. I’m getting close to fifty…
Rumpus: It doesn’t hurt a bit.
Solomon: Oh good!
“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.
Photograph of Andrew Solomon and John Habich Solomon © 2007 by John Player.
Photograph of Andrew Solomon and family © 2012 by Gabrielle Stabile.
Photograph of Andrew Solomon at The Moth © 2012 by Sarah Stacke.
Photograph of Andrew Solomon © 2012 by Annie Leibovitz.