Summary and book reviews of Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Far From the Tree

Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

By Andrew Solomon

Far From the Tree
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2012,
    976 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2013,
    976 pages.

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Book Summary

From the National Book Award-winning author of the "brave…deeply humane…open-minded, critically informed, and poetic" (The New York Times) The Noonday Demon, comes a book about the consequences of extreme personal and cultural differences between parents and children.

As a gay child of straight parents, Andrew Solomon was born with a condition that was considered an illness, but it became a cornerstone of his identity. While reporting on the explosion of Deaf pride in the 1990s, he began to consider illness and identity as a continuum with shifting boundaries. Spurred by the disability-rights movement and empowered by the Internet, communities with such "horizontal identities" are challenging expectations and norms.

Their stories begin in families coping with extreme difference: dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, multiple severe disabilities, or prodigious genius; children conceived in rape, or who identify as transgender; children who develop schizophrenia or commit serious crimes. The adage asserts that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but in Solomon's explorations, some apples fall on the other side of the world.

For ten years, interviewing more than 250 families, Solomon has observed not just how some families learn to deal with exceptional children, but also how they find profound meaning in doing so. An utterly original thinker, Solomon mines the eloquence of ordinary people who have somehow summoned hope and courage in the face of heartbreaking prejudice and almost unimaginable difficulty.

Far from the Tree is a masterpiece that will rattle our prejudices, question our policies, and inspire our understanding of the relationship between illness and identity. Above all, it will renew and deepen our gratitude for the herculean reach of parental love.

Chapter One: Son

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 ...

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Introduction

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 ...
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Reviews

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Far From the Tree felt, for this reader anyway, not only inspiring and compelling, but also personal because of its inclusive message. "Difference is what unites us," Andrew Solomon says. "While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state." Solomon is a champion of and for people with differences, and so, he's a champion for all of us.   (Reviewed by Morgan Macgregor).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb President Bill Clinton
In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon reminds us that nothing is more powerful in a child's development than the love of a parent. This remarkable new book introduces us to mothers and fathers across America - many in circumstances the rest of us can hardly imagine - who are making their children feel special, no matter what challenges come their way.

Author Blurb Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies
This is one of the most extraordinary books I have read in recent times - brave, compassionate and astonishingly humane. Solomon approaches one of the oldest questions - how much are we defined by nature versus nurture? - and crafts from it a gripping narrative. Through his stories, told with such masterful delicacy and lucidity, we learn how different we all are, and how achingly similar. I could not put this book down.

Author Blurb Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Far-reaching, original, fascinating - Andrew Solomon's investigation of many of the most intense challenges that parenthood can bring compels us all to reexamine how we understand human difference. Perhaps the greatest gift of this monumental book, full of facts and full of feelings, is that it constantly makes one think, and think again.

Author Blurb Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point
Andrew Solomon has written a brave and ambitious work, bringing together science, culture and a powerful empathy. Solomon tells us that we have more in common with each other - even with those who seem anything but normal - than we would ever have imagined.

Author Blurb Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
Far from the Tree is a landmark, revolutionary book. It frames an area of inquiry - difference between parents and children - that many of us have experienced in our own lives without ever considering it as a phenomenon. Andrew Solomon plumbs his topic thoroughly, humanely, and in a compulsively readable style that makes the book as entertaining as it is illuminating.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life, and the future of humanity.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A profoundly moving new work of research and narrative by National Book Award–winner Solomon (The Noonday Demon) explores the ways that parents of marginalized children...have been transformed and largely enriched by caring for their high-needs children.

Booklist

Starred Review. The truth Solomon writes about here is as poignant as it is implacable, and he leaves us with a reinvented notion of identity and individual value

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Ashley X

One of the stories Solomon tells in Far From The Tree is about Ashley X (the last name is to protect identity), a disabled girl whose story generated a lot of controversy about disability and its treatment.

Ashley X, born in 1997, was diagnosed in infancy with static encephalopathy, a brain disorder that is similar to cerebral palsy. Ashley was labeled "Permanently Unabled," which means that she would remain at infant level, mentally and physically, for the duration of her life. Ashley cannot walk, talk, feed herself, raise her head, or turn over. She can sleep, she can wake, she can breathe, and she can smile. Ashley's parents call her their "Pillow Angel," and dedicate the majority of their days to caring for her in every way - tube-...

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