“How do we decide what to cure and what to celebrate?” asked Andrew Solomon, rhetorically, during the New Yorker Festival. The lecturer and author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is referring to the transformation of the “illness” of homosexuality into the “identity” of gayness in a telling scene from Rachel Dretzin’s recent documentary adaptation.
Solomon, a once-closeted gay man who now happily lives with his husband, serves as both character in and producer on Dretzin’s film. His decade-long investigation into families with children born “far from the tree”—who are surviving and thriving with everything from autism to Down syndrome to dwarfism—is both a celebration of diversity under threat, and a call to society to reexamine our long-held assumptions of exactly who needs to be “fixed.”
I spoke with Solomon prior to the film’s theatrical release about serving as both a producer and a character, distinguishing what to cure from what to celebrate, and the difference between promoting books versus films.
The Rumpus: I think around thirty filmmakers approached you when the book came out. What convinced you that Rachel was “the one”?
Andrew Solomon: I was looking for two qualities: someone who understood the book deeply and truly, and someone who knew how to make a film, get funding, get it produced, and usher it out into the world. Rachel has been wonderful on both fronts.
She had an additional quality I didn’t know enough to look for when the film was first contemplated: she understands the difference of medium and can make a film that draws from the book but is in its own, separate language.
I have no regrets about my decision. The film contains many of the book’s moral conundrums, and ably represents its impassioned narrative of love and acceptance.
Rumpus: I read that you were conflicted about having your own story included in the film. What worried you specifically?
Solomon: I like control. And film represents a particular transparency, greater than that of books. I wrote about seeking sexual surrogacy therapy, but describing it felt like a means of distancing myself from it, and the film, with those images of prostitutes from the 1970s, obliterated that distance again. I feel like I can kick my own history but I don’t particularly want anyone else to do so. I can tell my story with precautions; others strip away my armor and expose a beating heart. It’s hard to endure, though also rewarding. I have asked so many people for complete honesty in both the book and the film, and wanted to rise to their generous standards.
Further, I’ve written a good bit about my own family and have found meaning in doing so, but I was worried about turning over their portrayal to others. My children are young, and vulnerable, and I didn’t want to see them misrepresented or exploited. Working with Rachel, I began to trust that she would deal with them with kindness and grace. I also had her permission to change anything she did that I found really upsetting. I changed nothing; she understood our story as profoundly and clearly as she understood so many others.
Rumpus: It seems that, deep down, every parent of a challenging child thinks that if they’d done something different their kid would have turned out “normal.” That said, the Reeses are the only family in the film who have to face that question from our judgmental society. Since the Reeses were not featured in the book, why did you think it so important to present their story?
Solomon: The primary insight of the book was not in the particulars of any given disability or difference, but in the synthetic notion that they were all the same kinds of stories, whatever the diagnosis. I wanted to include the story of a family whose child didn’t have an obviously biological difference, but instead a behavioral one. I thought it was crucial to push the viewers who might sympathize readily with Emily Kingsley and her son with Down syndrome, who might be inspired by the resilience shown by the dwarf couple Leah Smith and Joe Stramondo, to really look at how vastly one’s children can redefine the moral fiber of the family.
The Reeses are such good people, and their son did such a terrible thing, and I thought it was worth exposing that story of intense vulnerability and sadness. I didn’t want to do a feel-good film about how unequivocally wonderful all these families are. I didn’t want to trivialize the various kinds of regret they represent. I wanted to look honestly at how dangerous it can be to have children, at how many ways they can create anguish for you. And at how you go on loving them nonetheless.
Rumpus: I have to admit, as a biological female who’s always identified as a gay guy—and never wanted to transition (as I fought long and hard to make peace with my outsides not matching my insides, decades before there was even a term for my identity)—the film really struck a chord. I found myself identifying especially with Leah when she says, “I don’t think I need to be fixed.” In other words, I have quite a bit of skepticism when it comes to medical intervention in general. So as someone who grew up viewing your homosexuality as an “illness to be cured”—but also with a father who was an executive of a pharmaceutical company, who discovered a blockbuster antidepressant—are your views of the medical establishment somewhat conflicted?
Solomon: I’m interested in your story and am only sorry not to have met you while I was doing the book or the film—you’d have been great in either one. I think the medical establishment has brought about great progress and I am grateful to it; I live with depression and without the medications available today, I might have spent my life huddled in bed and dead to the world. I also think that the medical presumption that everything needs to be treated, cured, and fixed is a dangerous one.
I proposed in the book and implied in the film that every child has qualities that need to be changed; not changing your children is neglect. These same children have qualities that need to be accepted and even celebrated; not making your child feel good about who he or she is is abuse. Many qualities obviously need to be fixed; many obviously need to be celebrated; many fall in a foggy middle, and that foggy middle is the subject of the film. I am so sad that I felt my homosexuality seemed to me and to others to be a medical problem that could be treated. That nearly destroyed me. I am grateful for the antidepressants that have allowed me to have a rich and fulfilling adulthood. It’s a mixed bag.
Rumpus: You’re an old hand when it comes to book tours and speaking gigs. As a producer on this film, how has the promotional process differed? Are you hoping to reach different audiences than you did with the book?
Solomon: When you speak to people about your book, the presumption is that they haven’t yet read it, and the hope is that after hearing you talk about it they’ll go and get a copy. Much of what I am doing for the film is Q&As following screenings, and so the conversation is slightly different. It’s less of a sales job. In the media interviews, the questions are often about process: how did this film come to be? A book comes to be because you’re a writer and you want to write it, but a film is such a vast collaboration and everyone wants to know its dynamics. And of course people want to know what’s happened to the people who were in the film, how their lives have unfolded since.
I hope the film will reach people who haven’t read the book; there are many people who are up for a ninety-minute film but not for a seven-hundred-page book. Of course, I hope that some of those who see the film will then choose to read the book, but I am happy for book and film to be two freestanding works of art and reportage. The book is more substantial; it features interviews with three hundred families, as opposed to the film’s six. But film has an immediacy and intimacy that words alone could never achieve.
Photograph of Andrew Solomon © Annie Leibovitz. Photograph of Rachel Dretzin © 2014 IFC in Theaters LLC.