Yesterday, with all the grief that attends just completing reading a great book, and with all the joy-in-anticipation of beginning a new one, I began reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. This deeply personal and somewhat cathartic book is about the forming and reforming of identities, those attributes and values which are passed down from parent to child across generations not only through strands of DNA but also through shared cultural norms (vertical identities), and those traits that are foreign to one’s parents ‘and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’ (horizontal identities), identities which ‘may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors’.
Through a series of reflections on deafness, dwarfism, autism, Down syndrome, disability, prodigies, schizophrenia, rape, crime, and transgender sexuality, Solomon is concerned to challenge notions of ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’, to examine the value judgements we carry, create, project and/or dismiss about such, and to ward off temptations to play down the ambiguities and ambivalences that surround notions of extra/ordinary.
In lieu of the likely event that I do not get around to writing a review of the book, and because I wanted to share something of my interest so far in reading this book – and for the consideration of fellow parents – here’s the (scene-setting) opening two paragraphs:
‘There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.
Yet blood, in modern as in ancient societies, is thicker than water. Little is more gratifying than successful and devoted children, and few situations are worse than filial failure or rejection. Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once said, “There is no such thing as a baby—meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship.” Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life’s most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us’.