I’m ripping through “Far from the Tree,” a giant (700+ page) non-fiction book that you may have already heard about (ETA: here’s the trailer). I don’t usually use my Tumblr for recommendations, but daaaaaamn this is an excellent read. It covers “horizontal identities” (cultural traits that aren’t necessarily inherited from parents) like Deafness, Autism and Dwarfism — with a chapter dedicated to each, and more — and features what must have been years of really personal interviews with parents, children and advocates. I’ve read some criticism of the author, Andrew Solomon, for placing all of these topics under one giant parasol (and relating them to his own sexuality), but that’s part of what makes the book so fascinating. If you’ve ever identified yourself as different (from your parents or from the general population), you can allow yourself to feel cozy in this book: in the chapter on Down Syndrome, a kid named Jason asks his mom to take him to the store to buy a new face because he hates his. Without condescending to Jason’s reasons for wanting a new face, I remembered feeling the same way when I was eleven or so and hated my own for different reasons.
It’s sort of shocking to read about the way cultures of difference were treated (in The Atlantic! Time magazine!) as recently as the ‘70’s (oh, you thought you knew? Parents of children with Down Syndrome were informed that “Downs aren’t people” in one article from, I think, 1973), and so fascinating to peek into debates you never knew existed (oral versus ASL education for the Deaf, cochlear implantation, disability status for Little People), but reading this book never feels like gawking (its scope is so wide, at times you might feel as though you were gawking at yourself). Before the internet and its facility of finding discourse communities, horizontal identities were undoubtedly much more difficult to forge, and it’s interesting to consider how adolescence may have been easier during moments of intense ostracization if those of us who are old were able to find similarly weird and lonely people during those moments (of course, I couldn’t get slammed on Facebook when I was thirteen, so there’s that); everyone has a horizontal identity — well, other than the really boring people. The way the medical community handles atypical births is also a O__O-er, and figures like Dr. Steven Kopits, a doctor whose empathy toward and understanding of Little People was so profound (and profoundly rare) that one patient’s parent cried harder at his funeral than at her own father’s, are discussed like heroes for treating their patients like actual human beings. I know that this all sounds like kind of a downer of a tome, but it’s actually the opposite. At some points it feels as though you’re being included in intimate conversations for which you usually lack a passport — maybe that’s part of what makes us collectively stare at people who are different from ourselves, a sense of exclusion.
If you have children or sometimes consider what it would be like to have one, Solomon also exploits (in a benevolent way!) the fear that your children won’t resemble you in some way (if you’re hearing, but your child is not; if you have no entry in the DSM, but your child has several; if you were born with the gender you prefer, but your child was not) and finds a “family” elsewhere. So far, this has been most evocative in the Deaf chapter, in which some people advocate that hearing parents place their Deaf children up for adoption to be raised by Deaf parents instead. Noooo! cries your womb. The responsibility of child-rearing is most often used to refer to the sleeplessness, the emptying of the diaper bin, the New Year’s parties you can’t attend and the tuition, but rarely deals with the onus of trying to breach the chasm between yourself and the human whose personality and body are so discrete from your own. Reproduction, writes Solomon, is basically a myth: having children produces people who may be nothing like you at all (Can you tell how lazy I am that I’m not going citing this, I’m just going to paraphrase? My parents are not this lazy). I bought this book, and a copy as a gift, for like $38 at Barnes and Noble instead of on Amazon, where it’s a good $15 cheaper. It was worth it. I’d lend out my copy, but it’s been in the bathtub too many times and I’m ashamed. Go buy it if you think you might like it, because I don’t think you’ll regret it.