“Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” Andrew Solomon states on the first page of his compassionate, generous and immensely wise book Far From The Tree.
So begins a book that explores the families of exceptional children with so-called “horizontal identities”. As Solomon puts it, “there is no such thing as reproduction, only acts of production”. Never is this more obvious than with children whose identities are profoundly different from their parents, those children affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences. “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” There is no mention of stuttering, and yet so much of the book feels germane to my experience.
A lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell, an insightful journalist and an award-winning author, Solomon spent over 10 years interviewing more than 300 families to create this weighty tome. We can imagine that he spoke to these people with the curious, non-judgemental and frank tone that he uses to guide us as his readers. We can imagine that his profound intelligence and evident compassion lead to the emotionally resonate, and often shocking, stories that he recounts over the book’s 700 pages (1000 if you count the notes, bibliography etc). We know that he is a man not outside of the people he interviews, but very much a part of them.
The book is book-ended by intimate accounts of his own upbringing (as a gay man born to straight parents) and his awed transformation into a father. It is a book that welcomes conversation and today’s post will explore the subject of parenting through Solomon’s lens (later this month I’ll similarly explore the notions of community and identity).
Children with marked difference from the rest of their family demand knowledge, competence and action that typical parents are often, initially, unqualified to supply. So how do you nurture a child who is alien to you and unlike anything you have ever experienced? As Solomon puts it, “parenting is no sport for perfectionists”, and yet “the parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.” We learn about a mother who loves the child she conceived in rape but can not bare to be touched by her; the Klebolds who love their son and struggle to comprehend the mass tragedy he inflicted in Columbine; and the parents who feel unable to fully understand the complexities of sign and their son’s Deaf identity.
In my own research I heard stories of both awful and extraordinary parents and could imagine the truth behind Solomon’s argument that “having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies.” When I think about my own parents I imagine all the ways they they must have come to terms with a child whose condition was so strange and unexplored for them.
I can imagine how elusive and out of reach the answers must have seemed; whether they should push me into speech therapy and how far they should hold firm against my ferocious insistence against it. And yet there was never any doubt that they accepted me without reservation, that they loved me with all my imperfections intact and on display. I always felt as if my stuttering was somehow secondary to them. That I was first and foremost their child, and one they were zealously attached to. I never felt apart from them, rather my identity began with the fact that I was a “fully recognised citizen of the tiny nation that is family.”
And yet I continue to ask myself what happens moving forward? What happens to the child that I may one day conceive?
In Out With It I explore my own feelings toward parenthood, how my interview with Michael Palin made me wonder if having a stuttering mother would make my putative fluent children vulnerable to ridicule or shame. In hearing stories of teenage years spent fending off bullies, I worried about foisting a version of those experiences on to any stuttering children I may have. I couldn’t decide if it would be better if I had a child who stuttered or one that was fluent.
As if I had that choice.
If nothing else, Far From The Tree teaches us how little control we have over the children that we create. And how strong our capacity to love remains.
Luckily the world is changing. Stuttering is no longer some unspoken strangeness. There are stuttering heroes in movies and protagonists in books. The conversation is evolving and my fears are, gradually, becoming less necessary and less relevant. As a society we are changing our perceptions of normality and learning that we all live on a spectrum of difference. As people we are realising that “we should not be reduced to our disabilities” and “we should not make assumptions about an unborn child’s ability to cope with the world.”
We can nurture our children to become most fully themselves. And we can be ready to meet them, to embrace them, whoever they may be.