The cover of the book Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.

Far From the Tree is one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read. I think anyone could draw something profound from this book, but as advocates for social justice, we should pay particular attention to Andrew Solomon’s message.

Before we continue, please be advised that this book contains frank and detailed discussion of rape, child abuse, stalking, domestic violence, and murder. Most of the violence in the book is directed toward people with disabilities. This review will deal with these topics.

Everyone has expectations and dreams for their children. Some people struggle their way out of poverty in the hope that their children will be able to go to college. Some people, when they find out their child will be female (as our medical establishment defines “female”), imagine all the dolls their daughter will play with, the nice man she’ll one day marry, the children she’ll have. Conversely, some mothers expect their children to turn out badly, because their husbands were cruel to them, and they can’t imagine the apple falling far from the tree.

It’s human nature to project one’s own hopes and fears on one’s children. But children, ultimately, are beings distinct from their parents, and if there’s one thing that human beings have in common, it’s that they always defy expectations. Parents shape their children. Circumstances and accidents shape children. And most unpredictably of all, children shape themselves. That is what this book is about: the ways in which children defy their parents’ expectations and forge their own identities.

In the introduction to the book, Solomon introduces us to a concept that I think will prove a powerful tool of analysis: vertical vs. horizontal identities. Vertical identities, such as race and religion, are (usually) passed on from parents to children, which means that people with vertical identities can find community within their families. Horizontal identities, such as disability and queerness, are (usually) not passed on from parents to children, which means that people with horizontal identities must find community among unrelated peers. Solomon doesn’t claim that either type of identity is easier to negotiate, but the differences he notes between them are important ones. Far From the Tree, of course, is all about horizontal identities and how families come to terms with them.

I found this book spoke to my experience because I am queer and my younger brother has autism and other disabilities – both horizontal identities. My parents expected me to marry someone of the other sex, live in a nuclear family setting, and have biological children, just like they did. My queer, poly, childfree self doesn’t fit into that model, and my parents had to learn to accept that (though they still haven’t, entirely, even lo these many years on.) My parents expected my brother to go to college, have a career, and live in a nuclear family. His disabilities mean that he can’t go to college, can’t work, must live in a facilitated care setting, and finds social interaction with peers too daunting to ever have a romantic relationship. That’s not to say that his life is less valuable because he can’t have those experiences, but my parents have had to learn to accept that too.

Solomon examines the experiences of children who fall far from the tree through the lenses of specific types of children who don’t fit their parents’ expectations: schizophrenics, prodigies, and children of rape, to name a few. Many of these identities are controversial, with debates over their causes, what they mean for parents and children, whether they can be fixed, or whether they should be fixed. I feel that Solomon is very even-handed, just-hearted, and fair when he presents these controversies. He tries to present every point of view, even when some of these are deplorable, and implicitly gives the lie to the deplorable viewpoints using skillful combinations of anecdotes and statistics.

That said, different chapters will seem more or less even-handed depending on your perspective. I felt that the chapter on autism gave too much consideration to the people who think that autism can and should be fixed, and not enough credit to neurodiversity advocates who believe that their autism should be embraced and supported instead of erased.

To be fair, he started writing the book ten years ago, and neurodiversity advocates have only recently become a strong public voice in the discourse on disability. However, the reason I feel he gave too much consideration to people who seek a cure is that he spent a great deal of ink on the genetics of autism. The genetics of autism is a preoccupation of people who care more about curing autism than they do about autistic people. Learning about the genetics of autism does virtually nothing to improve the welfare of autistic people. Those of us who care about autistic people are far more interested in therapies and technologies that improve the lives of autistic people, such as early intervention and sign language education. To be truly even-handed, Solomon should have written less about research into the genetics of autism and more about research on assistive technology.

Autism is an issue that is close to my heart, but the chapters that dealt with horizontal identities that are not so intimately familiar to me also stirred my heart and made me think. The chapter on deafness does a great job presenting the controversy over cochlear implants for deaf children, an assistive technology that gives deaf children much of the auditory functionality of hearing children. He points out that the reason why it’s so difficult for parents to make an informed decision about whether to implant their children is that hearing parents don’t know what it’s like to be deaf. He suggests that the best way to fix this problem is to make sure parents meet adults from the Deaf community so they can make a better-informed decision about the lives their children might lead – and the experiences they might lose out on if they’re raised as hearing.

I think all feminists face a problem similar to this one. Some of my younger cousins hold beliefs about gender and sexuality that I think are harmful to them and to women in general. I’ve thought about suggesting to their parents, my aunts and uncles, that they teach my cousins different ideas about gender and sexuality. The problem is that they grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. They don’t know what it’s like to be raised with modern feminist views of sex and gender. They don’t know any parents their age who are trying to raise their children this way. Their imagination for their children doesn’t include these ideas. All parents are limited by what they believe is possible for their children. That’s true whether their children have a horizontal identity or not.

This book was also very emotionally affecting. There were two parts of the book that made me cry and cry until I felt wrung out inside. The first was a page in which Solomon lists parents who killed their autistic children, with details on how and at what age they murdered them. All of this was bad enough, but what really tore me apart was the case of Charles-Antoine Blais, who in 1996 was killed by his mother at age six. Not only did his mother evade jail time, she was praised by other parents of autistic children and appointed public representative by Montreal’s Société de l’autisme.

The chapter on transgender identity related the tale of Lateisha Green and her family. A transgender woman of color, Lateisha was murdered in 2008 by a former classmate. This story, as well as the filicidal murders in the autism chapter, is devastating but necessary. We need to be aware of how high the stakes are when it comes to negotiating horizontal identity. The parents from the autism chapter were so unable to come to terms with who their children were, and so bereft of any support networks for families with autistic children, that they murdered their own sons and daughters. Lateisha’s family embraced her identity and loved her dearly, but their love couldn’t stop the bullets aimed at her heart. This book is about parents and children, but it is also about matters of life and death.

I’d like to close this review with a close analysis of one of my favorite quotes from this book, from the chapter on violent criminals and their families. This chapter is an important part of this book because hardly anyone dreams of having a child who hurts other people; violent criminals, too, are children who don’t live the lives their parents imagined for them. I think Solomon makes too many facile comparisons between violent criminals and the other types of children discussed in this book; after all, none of the other identities here are inherently harmful or bad, while violent criminals by definition have hurt other people. Still, I think this chapter is excellent, and some of what we learn here we can apply to other families who struggle with horizontal identity. This quote is from Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the mass murderers at Columbine High School.

When it first happened, I used to wish that I had never had children, that I had never married. If Tom and I hadn’t crossed paths at Ohio State, Dylan wouldn’t have existed and this terrible thing wouldn’t have happened. But over time, I’ve come to feel that, for myself, I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life. When I say that, I am speaking of my own pain, and not of the pain of other people. But I accept my own pain; life is full of suffering, and this is mine. I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.

Of course, when we’re talking about children with horizontal identities who are not murderers, we have no grounds to say that it would have been better for the world if they had not been born. But I think that the sentiments expressed by Sue Klebold are ones that many parents feel during the process of learning to accept their children’s horizontal identities. I think my parents went through this as they learned to accept my brother and me. At first, my father could see nothing redeemable in my queerness. It caused him pain, and as far as he was concerned, my queerness could bring about nothing good or beautiful in the world. Yet he decided that even if he could find nothing good in me being queer, he still loved me, and his life would be darker without me. My father still doesn’t view my queerness as something positive, but he still loves me and cares for me, which is more than a lot of children who come out can say about their fathers.

We are constantly assailed with the message that people with disabilities who can’t work, who can’t “contribute to society,” are worthless. By the standards of capitalism, my brother is worthless. The state spends millions of dollars to care for and educate him, and he gives nothing back that can be measured in currency. The Protestant work ethic brought to the American colonies by the Calvinists gives us the idea that work is an inherently moral activity, and that idleness is evil. From this point of view, it would have been better for the world if my brother had never been born. My family struggled with that idea for a long time, but because we love him, we refused to let that poisonous message rule our hearts and minds. We told the world that whatever they thought of him, our world was better with him in it.

Society tells parents of deaf children, of children with Down syndrome, of queer and trans* children, that their children are worthless – or less than worthless, a stain upon the earth that should never have existed. What I find so moving about this book is that it tells the story of parents loving their children, even when they’re told time and again that their children are undeserving of love.

If you’ve stuck with me all the way to the end of this review, I’d love to hear what you think. How do you think the concepts of vertical and horizontal identity could help us navigate intersectionality? What is the role of parenting and family in shaping horizontal identities and communities? How should parents change their expectations for their children, and how can children come to terms with the limitations of their parents?

Further Reading

The murder of Charles-Antoine Blais and the subsequent lionization of his mother

The murder of Lateisha Green and the trial of her murderer

An essay by Jim Sinclair, an autism rights advocate, articulating the “anti-cure” perspective