Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Winner of a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, and Solomon documents triumphs of love over prejudice in every chapter. Life for the parents in this book turns on a crucial question: to what extent should they accept their children as they are, and to what extent should they help them become their best selves? When, then, is their child's condition an illness to be cured, and when is it an identity to be celebrated?
In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon tells the stories of dozens of parents raising children from across the spectrum of horizontal identities. Did any particular family remain etched in your memory?
Solomon describes how his reporting on deaf culture quickly challenged his assumption that deafness "was a deficit and nothing more." What did he discover? Were any of your own assumptions challenged by Far from the Tree?
Solomon writes about visiting the village of Bengkala, Bali, where a congenital form of deafness has affected generations of residents. What struck Solomon about the way this community treated its deaf residents? Can we draw any lessons from Bengkala about the way we treat deaf people or those with other kinds of illnesses/identities?
One of the book's recurring themes is the difficult decision parents face when a child could benefit from "corrective procedures" such as cochlear implants and limb-lengthening. At what stage in a person's life do you think such interventions are appropriate? Should parents of young children be allowed to authorize such surgeries?
How has the Internet built community for people with horizontal identities?
Solomon notes that some dwarf couples use pre-natal testing to "screen out average size fetuses and ensure a dwarf child," and that some deaf people prefer to have deaf children. In contrast, Solomon describes "ever-increasing options to choose against having children with horizontal identities" for society at large. He notes that most people who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to abort. What moral burdens come with the existence of these tests? What does it mean for any individual to seek out or to avoid prenatal testing?
Emily Perl Kingsley's son Jason became a public face for Down syndrome but went on to struggle with depression. "I'll admit that lower-functioning Down's kids are happier, less obsessed with how unfair it is," she tells Solomon. What do you think of Emily's quest to make Jason "the highest-functioning DS kid in history?". How would you approach parenting a Down syndrome child?
From your reading of the book, how do you think socioeconomic status affects the way parents cope with children with horizontal identities?
Imagine that you are the parent of a severely autistic child or a child with multiple disabilities. What strategies would you adopt from the parents profiled here? Any you would avoid? Is there a formula for maintaining mental, emotional, and financial health when one must be a constant caregiver?
What do you think of Andrew Solomon's decision to include chapters on the families of children conceived in rape, prodigies, and criminals alongside those chronicling people with disabilities?
Solomon is puzzled to find that among the schizophrenic people he meets "there was surprisingly little railing at the disease itself." How do people with this horizontal identity differ from many others in the book? Why is it "in a class by itself for unrewarding trauma?" Could society do more to alleviate this burden?
What do you think is the proper role for government in the realm of research and treatment for people struggling with horizontal illnesses or identities? Are some identities more deserving of public funds than others? Why or why not?
One of the book's most unforgettable stories involves the girl known as Ashley X, whose parents, controversially, asked doctors to perform procedures that would attenuate her growth, to preserve a childlike "body that more closely matched her state of mental development." Review Ashley X's story. Did her parents make the right decision?
In what context is the word "genocide" used in identity movements? Is it justified?
Solomon writes that, "more than any other parents coping with exceptional children, women with rape-conceived children are trying to quell the darkness within themselves in order to give their progeny light." Did you find it harder to read about the choices these parents make than about those made by other parents in this book?
In the "Crime" chapter, Solomon writes, "Love is not only an intuition but also a skill." What do you think he means here? What do you ultimately make of the theme of love that permeates the book?
"Most adults horizontal with identities do not want to be pitied or admired; they simply want to get on with their lives without being stared at." How do you treat people with a noticeable horizontal identity, such as Down syndrome. Do you shy away from contact? Do you find yourself curious? Give an honest assessment of yourself. Will you alter your behavior after reading Far from the Tree?
In his conclusion, Solomon writes that he used to see himself "as a historian of sadness," but he ends Far from the Tree on a decidedly hopeful note, writing about his newfound joy in parenthood. What was your state of mind as you finished the book? How do you ultimately view the parents in these pages, as "heroic" or "fools?"
Enhance Your Book Club
Write the names of each horizontal identity Solomon discusses in Far from the Tree onto a small piece of paper and place them in a bowl. Have each member of your book club draw one and invite them to imagine being the parent of a child who possesses the identity noted on the slip. Go around the room, asking each member to envision the challenges and rewards of parenting such a child.
Do any members of your book group know someone with a horizontal identity discussed in the book, or a parent who has raised a child who is different? If you feel comfortable doing so, invite this person to join your meeting to speak about his or her life.
Solomon primarily interviewed American parents in researching Far from the Tree. Before the book club meeting, assign each member a populous nation, such as China, Russia, Pakistan, or Brazil, and ask the group to conduct online research into a current issue facing that country tied to horizontal identities. Ask each member to present their issue to the group.
Visit FarFromtheTree.com to meet a few of the families profiled in the book, see Andrew Solomon discussing the subjects and themes he explored in his writing, share your personal stories, and connect with other readers.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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