Far from the Tree--I finally finished it

Far from the Tree is a challenging book.  It's grim.  The last chapter is about love, and Solomon has some beautiful things to say about love in the face of challenge, about the fact that challenges only make love stronger, more complex, more inexplicable.  But the book as a whole isn't an upper.  I guess this isn't surprising; as Solomon admits at the end, "For many years, my primary identity was as a historian of sadness.  Pictures of despair are widely admired, and perfect bleakness is generally thought to reflect the integrity of the author.  But when I've tried to write about happiness, I've had an inverse relation, which is that you cannot write about it without seeming shallow."

I've been reading the book during a challenging period in my own life, so that's affected what I've seen, of course.  And I've been reading through my own lens, the lens of a person for whom Down syndrome isn't a "disease" and certainly isn't a tragedy--it's simply one of many characteristics that helps make my daughter the person she is in the world.  So this is a book that's triggered a lot of tension in me as I've read.

Thinking about the book as a whole, it strikes me less as a book about love and more as a book about the terrible suffering that happens in so many families, for so many different reasons.  Every chapter documents all kinds of suffering--children who are neglected despite their mothers' best efforts because they were conceived when the mother was raped, families where the parents are exquisitely loving but that doesn't alter the destructive effects of schizophrenia on one of the children, school systems that refuse to allow a transgender child to be the person s/he is.  Every chapter has glimpses of happiness, of course, but just glimpses.  It's a book that leaves me feeling sad, feeling that there's a great deal of work still to be done.

And this may be Solomon's honest assessment of the world he's extensively researched.  I don't know that I can offer this as a critique of the book specifically.  Solomon has done his work:  he's made long-term relationships with the families he's interviewed.  The breadth of his conversations are impressive.  He mentions talking to a family when a child was young, and then again when the child was in high school, and then interviewing the child in college:  I've got nothing like this in my own research experience.  So I'm not suggesting that Solomon hasn't done his work.

I'd like more hope, though.  And this is related to my earlier thoughts on the book.  I have a friend who has a daughter who exhibits some characteristics that might be related to autism, and under no circumstances should this friend read the book.  This book should be kept far, far away from her.  I'm not kidding.  If you're a parent with potential anxieties about autism, this book will only trigger all your fear and misery.  You get a couple of pages of happiness about neurodiversity, and the rest of the chapter is about how miserable and difficult life is.

I get that it's important that we allow all parents to express the complexity of their emotions.  Expecting parents of kids with disabilities to adhere to a party line of "everything's great!" is oppressive, of course, and reductive.  But I feel that we get plenty of narratives in the world that portray the grief and difficulty of parenting a kid with a disability (most parents' memoirs, for instance, offer more of the grief than of the recognition that things are pretty good).

He portrays a world in which more social supports would be useful--and I agree with this.  He advocates for community, for the formation of the sorts of families and societies that will support each of us--and I agree with this, too.  He's also a big believer in reproductive rights.  So most of the premises of the book are premises I agree with.  And if you're a parent who is miserable, this book will probably be extremely comforting, because it's a book that will let you know that there are others struggling like you--others who aren't bad parents but who are human beings with a range of emotional reactions.

He also claims several times that diversity is a strength.  Near the end of the book he acknowledges that research shows that inclusion in society helps everybody:  "Building a compassionate society benefits not only those who are newly tolerated, but also those who who are newly tolerating."  And yet I didn't finish the book with this as my overarching take-away.  My somewhat snarky take-away is, "Wow, parents of kids with challenging identities are such heroes.  Their lives sure are hard."  Since I'm thinking a lot about the ways we encourage prenatal testing, and the ways in which we make termination of pregnancies the intuitively obvious "solution" to differences identified in utero, I found the book troubling.

This is a book I'll return to.  Solomon has enough solid ideas that I suspect I'll quote him.  But it's not a book I'm going to suggest my friends rush out to read.


George Estreich said...

Thanks for a great post. You do justice to Solomon's strengths and shortcomings at once. One problem of the book is that the structure of the book--set up by condition, medical or circumstantial-- inevitably reinforces the very differences we seek to overcome. Another is that since Solomon divides his book informally into "illnesses" (like schizophrenia) and circumstances (like being the child of rape), the illness aspects of Down syndrome and autism get even more emphasized by comparison. I've got lots more to say, but I've already put it in the review I sent in last week (it'll be out in The Oregonian on 12/30).

Judson Nichols said...

It seems to me, coming from my yoga-teachin' perspective, that the major difference between you and the 'tragic' families (and we'll call them 'tragic' here just as a shorthand for those families from whom you don't find as much hope as you'd like) is that while you all find challenges in life, you Piepmeier-Biffles aren't clinging to the expectation of what parenting would be like. You simply accept what is. And the 'tragic' families tend to cling to what they thought their kids' lives should be like. This may even be exacerbated if they have multiple children. Suffering tends to be caused by clinging to a reality that's just not there, by continually expecting the present circumstances to be what you thought they would be or should be.

The great thing about your campaign of awareness, if we can call it such, is that by changing expectations and broadening horizons, you're reducing suffering. You're saying that childhood isn't just This Thing Over Here. It's also this and this and that and that and whatever else you find out it is. And so when people find out that parenting isn't This, after all, it's okay, because it's still inside this much larger box that they and others can understand and have roadmapped out, even if only tentatively (because some people do like roadmaps).

Keep up the good work!

Elizabeth said...

For some reason, perhaps those that you've mentioned here, I have resisted reading this book. The thought of it, what I've read of it makes me feel weary (although I imagine those who read my writing often feel weary, too!).

Lisa Gleeson said...

I have also just finished reading Solomon's book. I found it very interesting and I also felt that he had done his research, but I came away from it feeling very depressed. I teach students with multiple disabilities and I saw very little mention of the joy these children can bring to a family. I, like you, would not encourage a new parent of a child with significant disabilities read this book, it would probably be very upsetting. However, I do think that it was a worthwhile book to read, overall.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful assessment of Solomon's book. It was one I had considered picking up, but now I think I'll pass... Kate

starrlife said...

I really agree with Judson's comment (not to say I don't others too :) and commend you for a very thoughtful and non-reactive review.I think that Solomon's perspective reflected around positivity seeming superficial is telling. Many people have trouble with the gray of life and polarize issues. That kind of perspective misses the beauty of life- the messiness, the paradoxes and the fact that with no sadness there is no joy AND vice versa. Joy in your children is the celebration of their beingness... that alone, just their sheer existence is a special thing to me (and I don't mean that in a right to life way) but in an existential way. I take the good with the bad with who I love and don't consider myself a martyr doing it ....