Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

Nursing Book Club

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

Fallen apples

By Andrew Solomon (Scribner, 2012)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

We all know that the old saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is used to point a finger at a parent whenever someone finds a less-than-desirable characteristic in a child. It’s the nature vs. nature argument, except that in either case, the parent loses: Either the child is genetically flawed or else they’ve been poorly raised.

A Question of Belonging

What if you just don’t seem to match the rest of your family? I come from a family of incredibly tidy people, but clutter just seems to find me and I’m powerless against it. Where did I come from and how do I fit in with the much neater people who raised me?

These are the sorts of questions that Andrew Solomon seeks to answer in his 2012 book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. The author introduces this issue from an interesting personal angle. Solomon is a gay man, so he’s already an “other” within his own family. He takes pains to understand his mother’s attitude towards him: She never expected to be the mother of a gay child and would prefer her son be more like the sons of her friends. However, to accomplish that, she would have to fix him, which impacts his positive self-identity by implying that his sexual orientation is something to fix.     

Sometimes, it seems that the destiny of all those who don’t quite fit in is to change or be changed, which leads some people in such circumstances to self-select a family of others like themselves, a process called horizontal identification.

Family Dynamics

After exploring his own relationship with his parents, Solomon spends the next 10 chapters talking about families of children who are deaf or have Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or other disabilities. This section is less personal. Instead of allowing us to meet and get to know one family, Solomon introduces countless variations of these families. The result is rather dizzying: There are so many children, so many parents and so many disabilities that it eventually becomes a little confusing.

What stands out are the many ways children can be different from their parents and how learning to love their children makes these parents both special and in some ways alike.

Disability and Identity

So, what is a disability, really, and how does it contribute to identity? Do deaf people long to hear or are they happy using sign language? Should they have cochlear implants? Who should be entitled to make that decision? Do little people just think of themselves as people with short legs and arms, and is that really a handicap? What about people who have distinct attributes that we don’t usually think of as disabilities, like musical prodigies? How we see ourselves and the groups we identify with are concepts significant to our happiness, but how do we really learn who we are?

Author Solomon is winner of 14 national awards and has previously written about depression in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. In this book, he seems surprised to find himself a father and ultimately happy within his own family.

At the end of the day, could it be diversity rather than similarity that lets us fit in? Maybe it’s the fact that we are all different that makes us so much the same. We’re all human, even if for some of us the flaws are more visible. Solomon seems to want us to know that for most of us, there is a home and the people who live there will always be our family.  

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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