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Thu November 8, 2012
Author Interviews

What Happens When Kids Fall 'Far From The Tree'

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 6:02 pm

As the old saying goes, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In other words, the child takes after the parent; the son is a chip off the old block.

Of course, that's often not the case. Straight parents have gay children and vice versa; autistic children are born to parents who don't have autism; and transgender kids are born to parents who are perfectly comfortable with their gender.

That's the kind of family Andrew Solomon has written about in his new book, Far From the Tree. In it, Solomon chronicles the lives of families in which the kids are, in one way or another, different from their parents. He explores how some of those differences come to be viewed as disabilities, while others are seen as part of that child's identity.

He joins NPR's Robert Siegel to discuss how differences can sometimes serve to unite families, rather than isolate them.


Interview Highlights

On vertical and horizontal identities

"I've divided identities into two categories. There are vertical identities, which are passed down generationally — so, ethnicity is hugely a vertical identity, nationality usually is, language is, often religion is. These are things a child has in common with his parents. But there are many other ways of being that tend to occur for parents who don't anticipate them. ... You have parents who perceive themselves to be 'normal,' whatever that means, and they have a child who has a condition which they often perceive to be 'abnormal.' And those children often grow up with the sense that the way they are is really a tragedy, and it would be great if they could change and fix that. And then in adolescence, frequently — sometimes earlier, sometimes later — they discover other people who are like them in their peer group. And so I've called [that] a horizontal identity because of the way it reaches out across, sort of sideways."

On whether it's fair to compare the experiences of families whose kids are deaf with families whose kids are, say, dwarfs or prodigies

"I found as I did the research that each of these individual differences felt very isolating to the people who were experiencing [them]. But then, in fact, there was an enormous amount that the parents dealing with these things all had in common. And ultimately it seemed to me as though difference was not something that isolates people, but rather something that unites people. And I thought, if the people who were dealing with autism could understand how similar this situation is to the parents of people with remarkable gifts who are prodigies — or to gay people, or to transgender people, or to dwarfs — if they could understand how much they all have in common, a lot of the isolation of those conditions would be mitigated."

On the difference between disability and identity

"I think it's important for us to recognize that the idea of disability, and really the idea of illness, is an idea that's really very much in flux. When I was born, the wisdom was that homosexuality was an illness, that it was caused largely by somebody's mother and a distorted relationship with the mother, and that people who had it should be treated for it. And now, as I live my life — married to a husband with kids — it's an identity, for me at least. I know there are some people who are still experiencing it as an illness. Having had that experience, I recognize the fluidity of these categories. So do I think that deafness is an identity in which I would be comfortable? No, I'm very fond of my hearing. Here I am on [the] radio. But do I think there are people for whom it is primarily an identity? Yes, absolutely."

On the story of Solomon's own post-nuclear family, which begins and bookends Far From the Tree

"When I met John, who is now my husband, he told me that he had had some friends, Tammy and Laura, for whom he had been a sperm donor, and that they had a son named Oliver, of whom he was the biological father. A few years later, they asked him to be a sperm donor again, and they produced a daughter, Lucy. A good friend of mine from college had gone through a divorce and said that she really longed to be a mother, and I said how much I would love to be the father of her child. And so we decided to produce a child through an IVF process. John and I then wanted to have a child who would live with us all the time, and we decided to use an egg donor, and Laura, the lesbian who had carried Oliver and Lucy, offered to be our surrogate as a way of thanking John for providing her with a family. So the shorthand is: five parents of four children in three states. ...

"I'll tell you that we recently had a friend to dinner who said to me after dinner, 'I'm sure there should be a name for this relationship, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed talking to the daughter of the partner of the mother of your daughter.' And I said, 'We've had a lot of relationships for which there are no words.' "

On whether he believes his own children will fall far from the tree when it comes to their sexual orientation

"My assumption is that they will be heterosexual. I've certainly seen no evidence to the contrary, and there's no evidence that children of gay parents are more likely to be gay. And I don't particularly want them to be gay, though I certainly wouldn't mind if they turned out to be gay. A lot of people said to me, 'Gosh, you decided to have children in the middle of writing this book about all of these terrible situations?' And I really felt that I was looking at these terrible situations and thinking, here are all of these parents, they're dealing with so many challenges and so much difficulty, and yet they love their children, and almost none of them regret having had children — very few of them anyway do. And I thought if all of these people could love all of these children, then I think I'll be able to love mine whoever they are."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. According to an old saying, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree - meaning, the child takes after the parent. The son is a chip off the old block. Of course, that's often not the case. Straight parents have gay children, and vice versa. Autistic children are born to parents with no autism. Transgender kids are born to parents who are perfectly comfortable with their gender.

Andrew Solomon has written a book about families like that. It's about parents whose kids fall far from the tree. That's the title, "Far from the Tree." And Andrew Solomon, welcome to the program.

ANDREW SOLOMON: A pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: I want you to begin by defining what you describe as horizontal identities.

SOLOMON: I've divided identities into two categories. There are vertical identities, which are passed down generationally. So ethnicity is, hugely, a vertical identity. Language is; often, religion is. These are things a child has in common with his parents. But there are many other ways of being that tend to occur, for parents who don't anticipate them. As you said in your introduction, you have parents who perceive themselves to be normal - whatever that means - and they have a child who has a condition which they often perceive to be abnormal. And those children often grow up with a sense that the way they are, is really a tragedy; and it would be great if they could change and fix it. And then in adolescence, frequently, they discover other people who are like them, in their peer group. And so I've called that a horizontal identity because of the way it reaches out across, sort of sideways.

SIEGEL: So the families that you write about, are families where there are kids who are deaf; kids who are dwarfs; kids who are autistic, more seriously disabled than that; also, musical prodigies; and kids who are criminals, which raises an obvious question here. Are you comparing apples, oranges, motorcycles, magazines - and whatever else; conditions and burdens of parenting that are much more different than they are similar? What do you say?

SOLOMON: I found that each of these individual differences felt very isolating to the people who were experiencing it. But then, in fact, there was an enormous amount that the parents dealing with these things, all had in common. And ultimately, it seemed to me as though difference was not something that isolates people but rather, something that unites people. And I thought, if the people who were dealing with autism, could understand how similar their situation is to the parents of people with remarkable gifts, who are prodigies - or to gay people, or to transgender people - a lot of the isolation of those conditions would be mitigated.

SIEGEL: There are some issues of science and technology that recur, in several different chapters of "Far from the Tree." And one is that conditions of birth can often be - I'll say corrected; you might say changed, these days. Kids born deaf can get cochlear implants, kids who are born dwarfs can have limb lengthening. In both real and in more hypothetical cases, the question arises: Is it fair to let a disability go untreated, in deference to the culture of the horizontal identity that's grown up around that condition?

SOLOMON: I think it's important for us to recognize that the idea of disability - and really, the idea of illness - is an idea that's very much in flux. When I was born, the wisdom was that homosexuality was an illness; that it was caused largely by somebody's mother, and a distorted relationship with the mother. And now, as I live my life - married to a husband, with kids - it's an identity. For me, at least - I know there are some people who are still experiencing it as an illness. So do I think that deafness is an identity in which I would be comfortable? No, I'm very fond of my hearing. But do I think there are people for whom it is primarily an identity? Yes, absolutely.

SIEGEL: But let's talk about the identity of deafness, for a moment, because while there is a deaf culture that has grown up and that is, say, averse to cochlear implants because it would imply that there's something fundamentally wrong with being deaf; there also are important disability benefits that accrue to people who are deaf, and the condition of being disabled is something that is quite - we wouldn't have the center of deaf culture that Gallaudet University is, let's say, if it weren't for the definition of deafness as a disability.

SOLOMON: Right. The danger of keeping the disability label, is stigma. And the danger of dropping the disability label, is the loss of services. And every one of the conditions I looked at - has to address that difficult dichotomy.

SIEGEL: Another issue is abortion. I've met very few parents, in my life, who would say of their children - however different, disabled or difficult their children were - "we should have terminated the pregnancy." But to weigh the experiences that you're writing about, wouldn't you really have to talk with lots more people who have seen some genetic tests, and have had an abortion; and then gone on later to have kids who didn't have a severe disability? Aren't they also part of the story?

SOLOMON: They're certainly part of the story. And I did, in fact, talk to many such people. I think that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a private decision, and I don't question the decision that anyone made. My purpose was not - by any means - to suggest that abortions are wrong, and people shouldn't have them if they have children who will be disabled. It was only to say that for some people who have those children, there's a lot of meaning in the experience. It was to provide more information, for people then to make the choice that's right for them.

SIEGEL: "Far from the Tree" - it's a very long book that describes hundreds of families. But there's also a lot about you. I want you just to describe your post-nuclear family.

SOLOMON: (LAUGHTER) I've never heard that term, for it, before; but I will be using it again. So when I met John, who is now my husband, he told me that he had some friends - Tammy and Laura - for whom he had been a sperm donor; and that they had a son named Oliver, of whom he was the biological father. A few years later, they asked him to be a sperm donor again, and they produced a daughter, Lucy. A good friend of mine, from college, had gone through a divorce, and said that she really longed to be a mother; and I said how much I would love to be the father of her child. And so we decided to produce a child through an IVF process.

John and I then wanted to have a child who would live with us all the time, and we decided to use an egg donor. And Laura, the lesbian who had carried Oliver and Lucy, offered to be our surrogate, as a way of thanking John for providing her with a family. So the shorthand is five parents of four children, in three states.

SIEGEL: We could ask Jackson Pollock to chart...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...the relationships in your immediate family but...

SOLOMON: I'll tell you that we recently had a friend to dinner; who said to me after dinner: I'm sure there should be a name for this relationship, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed talking to the daughter of the partner of the mother of your daughter. And I said: We've had a lot of relationships for which there are no words.

SIEGEL: Do you assume, by the way, that your children are just as likely to fall far from the tree, and be heterosexual children - in their adult lives? Do you care, and what's your assumption?

SOLOMON: My assumption is that they will be heterosexual. I certainly see no evidence to the contrary, and there's no evidence that children of gay parents are more likely to be gay. And I don't particularly want them to be gay, though I certainly wouldn't mind if they turned out to be gay. A lot of people said to me gosh, you decided to have children, in the middle of writing this book about all of these terrible situations? And I really felt - is, it was looking at these terrible situations and thinking, here are all of these parents; they're dealing with so many challenges, and so much difficulty, and yet they love their children. And almost none of them regret having had children - very few of them, anyway, do. And I thought, if all of these people could love all of these children, then I think I'll be able to love mine - whoever they are.

SIEGEL: Andrew Solomon, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SOLOMON: Thank you. What a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Andrew Solomon's new book is called "Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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