Families and identity

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 12:31 PM

My children were on the edge of leaving home, my husband told me he wasn’t into traveling when they left, and my work crashed and burned. These events coincided just before I turned 50, scooting me into the depression I’d been skirting for a couple years.  A thick glass wall rose from some ugly inferno and slipped between me and the rest of the world. The wall magnified laughter and amplified the conversations of those on the other side. I moped, sulked and lurked invisible behind its glare. I stopped going to parties. Being around more than one other person made me so nervous I’d vanish behind the wall’s cold shield. 
I wasn’t suicidal, but could only see a long bleak life spreading before me. I sought comfort in all kinds of ways. I invited friends to ask me out on adventures. I decided that having nothing in mind meant that everything was possible and covered my wall in multi-colored post-it notes that posited different possibilities.
And I read Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” (Simon and Schuster Audio, approximately 22 hours), a book that won the National Book Award. I found courage, strength and identified with every word. His descriptions were exact, the studies illuminating, his anecdotal stories moving, and well, he made me feel better. I instantly became an Andrew Solomon fan, always on the lookout for more of his books. 
Recently I discovered why I haven’t seen a title of late. He’s been busy! For 10 years he researched and interviewed 300 families, producing 40,000 pages of transcribed notes which became “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” (Simon and Schuster, 40 hours, 41 minutes). These are families who don’t “fit” with each other — their children aligning horizontally not vertically into familial structures … at least at first. Solomon’s breadth and depth are amazing. He fully enters and deeply explores the homes and worlds of children and their families who have traditionally been marginalized, those who are deaf, gay, dwarf, severely disabled, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender, the children of rape, those with tendencies for criminal behavior and musical gifts. Each set of circumstances are different, and all are potentially isolating.  Still, many of the experiences Solomon describes are universal, such as the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter. The interviewed families often change—parents turn to activism, shift their perspectives, discover gifts, meaning and community, and many times celebrate the differences they once feared.
One can’t help but be moved by the diversity of those who have traveled difficult paths and been impacted so radically. In each chapter, Solomon focuses on a group and mingles studies, quotations, and touches of history, humor and haunting tales. He never shies away from hard truths, occasionally mentioning his own family’s difficult path to understanding his homosexuality.
Solomon’s views of families are in-depth and well-chosen. One might think there are too many, except each is incredibly powerful and collectively they complete a poignant picture. For example, he tells of a family with a deaf child that struggles with the issue of speaking, or not speaking, should they get their child cochlear implants or not. Unfamiliar with that culture, I first thought, of course they should follow these traditional paths. But as Solomon clued me into the strength of deaf pride, the sense of belonging it provides, and the reticence to be part of a hearing world, I reimagined the situation anew. This was only one of the times Solomon lifted my blinders.
At the end of every section comes an insightful overall analysis. Again Solomon uses parallels, images and unusual word choices to clarify. When comparing autism with deafness, for example, he describes how medicine and activism for deafness are “galloping” while autism’s improvements are “trudging.” There, for example, is no known institution for higher learning, like Gallaudet, for the autistic, and, here he lowers his voice, “unless you consider MIT.” This unexpected well-timed humor gives relief that balances the intensity of the subject. 
Solomon’s talents are many, but a dramatic reader wouldn’t be one of them. His voice is flat with little affect. Somehow that works for this book, achieving a neutral tone that his emotionally sensitive material almost requires. He gives emphasis where needed and that increases the potency of his writing.
Some bits of this audio are difficult listens, schizophrenia for example, but in this section, as in others, Solomon’s writing aids listeners’ understanding and compassion. He notes that while many conditions find strength in identity “the defining quality of schizophrenia is that it entails delusion which complicates its claims on identity.” Some of these children are dealing incredibly well with managing voices, Solomon writes, “but it doesn’t make them happy.” Satiric, non-sentimental editorial statements like these evoked strong responses in me.
All parents wonder to what extent they should accept, or attempt to change their children. These parents have to question how to change themselves. Audio listeners will find themselves transformed by listening to these journeys.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.