NEW YORK – Gay, dyslexic and the survivor of near-death depression, writer Andrew Solomon has been acutely aware of his differences for most of his 49 years.
Palpable discomfort from his wealthy, Upper East Side parents over his sexuality, relentless bullying on the bus of his fancy private school – he never realized exactly how his differences connected him to a constellation of others who fall outside the mainstream.
That is, until he delved into deaf culture for a magazine story 15 years ago, leading him to dwell during a decade’s worth of research in the space between disability and identity for a new book, “Far from the Tree.”
Following up his National Book Award-winning work of nonfiction on depression, “The Noonday Demon,” Solomon amassed hours and hours of interviews with more than 300 families dealing with profound differences in their children, from deafness and dwarfism to prodigies and criminality.
His interviews include villagers in Bali where deafness is prevalent because of a recessive gene, women in Rwanda who raise children of rape amid genocide, and the first substantive interview with Tom and Sue Klebold, the parents of Dylan, one of the teen killers at Columbine.
All the while, Solomon relies on his own story, beginning the book as a damaged son and finishing it with a chapter on fatherhood, having decided to become one while making the book.
This is a 10-year undertaking for you. Why did you take this on?
I had felt very lonely, in some ways, in dealing with being gay, and then all of a sudden I discovered I had something in common with all of these other people. And I felt all of them seemed to be lonely in their particular identities, and I thought, I wonder whether I can possibly describe what it was like to have to go through my experience and what our experiences have in common. And that, I think, was really my objective. It was to show that the differences that feel so isolating actually connect us to one another, and to try help people to feel less alone in their life experience.
Journalistically speaking, was this fresh ground?
It was. Each of the individual areas I was investigating had been written about extensively. There are hundreds of thousands of books on autism and a great many on Down syndrome and quite a lot on crime, but there was nobody who had actually looked at this particular commonality, of how do families who perceive themselves to be essentially normal respond to having a child whom they initially, at least, perceive to be aberrant, and how do they wrap their minds around the difficulty of dealing with that child, and in what way does the experience of parents who are dealing with that, with children who fit into all of the categories that I’ve listed in the book, how does that relate to the experience of all parenthood?
What surprised you about what you found?
I think I went into this project thinking, OK, I’m going to look at these terribly difficult situations and see how people have struggled with them and look at the nobility of their suffering, so I wanted to write about, you know, the grandeur of this experience. But what I didn’t really anticipate was how much genuine joy I would encounter, how many of these people talked about a deep and meaningful connection to their children and how many of them said that having had children who had any of these qualities had actually made them better, stronger, wiser, kinder people than they otherwise would have been. In the end I felt many of these parents ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.
How does that compare and contrast to your own parents and their reaction to you?
My parents took a little while to come through to acceptance. What I discovered in researching the book is love and acceptance are two different things, that you can love your child even before you’ve managed to accept your child. I found I had mistaken, as people do over and over again, some deficit or hesitancy in acceptance for a deficit of love. It took them a little while to accept having a child who is different. It takes everyone a little while, and my family actually did it reasonably quickly and reasonably well.
The feeling I used to have, that they loved me and they still weren’t nicer about this, is actually the way it works. That’s the structure of it, and I wished there had been someone at the time to say to me – I mean I knew it at some level – of course they love you and they can’t yet accept this because it’s new to them, and you have to help them get to the point of acceptance, and once you do the depth of their love will be more obvious.
This book was a journey to parenthood for you. How did this project lead you to embrace the role?
A lot of people have said to me, surely writing a book about all of the things that can go horribly wrong in parenting would have been enough to put anyone off the idea of becoming a parent. And I said actually, what I think the book is really about is the fact that people do manage to love the children they have, whoever those children are, and it made me think, gee, if I have a child who presents some challenges, or I can say now when my children grow up some challenges, whatever they are, I think I’ll be better equipped to respond to those challenges in a positive and constructive way and I’ll be more certain those challenges aren’t going to undermine feelings of love. So it made me feel more confident in the extraordinary and embracing quality of parental love.
You interviewed the Klebolds. This was a rare interview for them. How do you think the experience of telling their story has changed them?
It was clear soon after we met a) that they were good and decent people, which is what I had already gathered, and I think they were full of this story, which for so long they had been unable to tell, and this was the chance for some voice to be given to it. I really do like them. I think of them as friends. In the period immediately after the massacre, there was this endless press which said those parents should have known and those parents should have been able to control the situation. It was all those parents, those parents, those parents. I hope that they will have the feeling now that we’re on the far side of the process that in telling their story to me, there’s a public declaration they actually are good people and it wasn’t their fault, and I think it makes it easier to live in the world if you don’t think that all the people who don’t know you think you’re awful.