Author of 'Far From the Tree' Not Always Close to the Truth

Andrew Solomon is the author of the positively-reviewed, quite popular, and award-winning book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. His book discusses diverse situations where children differ in crucial ways from their parents or their parents' expectations. Solomon has been widely promoting his book and comes across as an intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, empathic and energetic commentator on this and other topics related to mental illness and sources of social difference.

Nonetheless, early in the book (page 6), the author offers a highly problematic statement about the origin of unhappiness characterizing some families who have children with disability, illness, or other types of difference. Solomon states: "I take the anti-Tolstoyan view that the unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways."

This pithy and literate sentence is presumably in response to Leo Tolstoy's famous assertion, from the beginning of chapter 1 of Anna Karenina, that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Of course, just because a statement is pithy doesn't make it true. Neither of these oversimplified statements, based on dubious dichotomies, should be taken too seriously.

Solomon's statement manages to perpetrate exactly the sort of calumny on parents of "exceptional" children that elsewhere in his massive tome he strongly criticizes. Specifically, some readers might take Solomon to be claiming, whether intended or not, that if a family with a child who differs significantly from the parents is unhappy, then it is the parents' fault because they failed to "accept" the child and his or her differences from them.

Perhaps Solomon could not pass up the opportunity to exploit and display his literary knowledge, but it is unfortunate that his restraint failed him in this instance. Elsewhere in the book, Solomon provides a vast range of reasons for families to be unhappy (some of the time) that have nothing whatsoever to do with the parents' degree of acceptance of their child with differences. Of course, holding parents accountable for family unhappiness may be justified in some instances. However, in other cases, it is not merely wrong, it is actively cruel.

It is obvious to most parents of children affected by autism and other neuropsychiatric conditions, for example, that bullying peers, insight-deficient doctors, hostile or disapproving neighbors and acquaintances, ineffective therapists, untrained or unsympathetic law enforcement officers, overzealous prosecutors, unskilled or abusive caretakers, and/or overburdened or uncomprehending social service agency employees, can all lead to considerable unhappiness. (Note to reader: I am not claiming that all individuals in the above referenced professional capacities are deficient, but such deficiency is sufficiently common and can have substantial impact on families, as attested to in numerous writings by parents and others.)

The massive financial burdens and routine disruptions associated with caring for some children with autism or other conditions that affect behavior can also contribute to intense family stress, a point that Solomon directly addresses in Far from the Tree. These factors often totally dominate family members' lives irrespective of the extent to which the parents may or may not accept their children in Solomon's sense.

A related concern is that Solomon's perspective, as he honestly acknowledges, is heavily influenced by his experiences as the gay son of straight parents. For him, the disparity between what he terms his horizontal identity and the identity bequeathed to him by his parents (which Solomon calls a vertical identity), is the critical tension in his life. He projects this same framework onto all of the individuals with 'differences' he discusses in the book, without sufficiently scrutinizing the applicability to different groups. Every person with disability, mental illness, or some other differentiating characteristic is not necessarily as obsessed with issues of identity as is or was Solomon. For these individuals, issues of identity per se, even if meaningful, are not necessarily the primary concern or source of difficulty.

Another source of some disappointment with Solomon is that the balance and complexity found in his book is often missing-in-action in his in-person interviews. The interviewers are often not especially well informed and appear ready to serve as co-promoters of whatever a particular guest, such as Solomon, is hawking -- whether it is a book, a movie or an album. (Admittedly, this state of affairs is as much or more attributable to the agents and publishers, who create the media circus that leads to such interviews, as it is to the interviewees themselves.)

In this context, the incentive with a guest such as Andrew Solomon, who is addressing serious and potentially disturbing matters, is to wrap up the discussion on an upbeat note so that after the conclusion of the interview the audience members can all feel positive about the subject and maybe even themselves. What gets insufficient emphasis are the continuing serious problems that afflict many individuals with traits that set them apart, and the urgency in many locales of improving medical, social, and governmental services and systems for assisting these people and their families.

However brilliant Andrew Solomon may be, and however many families he has spoken to, a measure of humility should attach to his pronouncements on what it is like to be parents of children who differ markedly in one or another respect from the parents and perhaps also from societal norms. He has never spent a day in that position and carried the full weight of the pertinent burdens on his shoulders. If Dr. Solomon thinks his experience of a single day of uncertainty about his own son's health status soon after birth means he now knows what it is like to have a child with abnormal neurological development or a mental illness, he is both profoundly mistaken and much less perceptive than he would otherwise appear to be.