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In Solomon’s account, parental love is tinged with anxiety. Photo: Thinkstock
In Solomon’s account, parental love is tinged with anxiety. Photo: Thinkstock

Q&A | Andrew Solomon

The journalist and academic on how people with differences make for a richer and better society

Difficult loves

Dressed in a white shirt and a pair of cherry-red jeans, Andrew Solomon was quite a star at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. Solomon’s latest book, Far From the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love, explores some unusual stories of parenthood. We met right after a panel discussion on queer literature where about 700 people had crammed in. Every couple of minutes or so during our chat, we were interrupted by people who sought him out for advice. Our friend is gay and he doesn’t know how to tell his parents, a couple of college-going girls asked him. They were followed by an elderly lady who said she had recently received a call from her son in Australia telling her he was homosexual. “Will he ever be happy?" she sobbed. Then came a man with an autistic son, trailed by a lady whose sister was blind. They trooped in baring these private traumas in a very public place. Solomon responded patiently, in a tone more suited to a therapist than a journalist. And in the brief interludes when he was left alone, he answered some questions. Edited excerpts:

The people you have profiled in ‘Far From the Tree’ have powerful stories to tell. How did you find them?

The process of finding people was an enormous job. I had to do it a different way in each case. Autism, Down’s Syndrome was easy to find, since they had national societies that were well-established advocacies. I went there and asked for introductions. For women who were raped, I approached Web masters of various online support groups and asked for permission to post advertisements. I took up a job in a prison facility and met children who were criminals. Also, in most areas I discovered that if you met one person they put you in touch with others. What was actually the most difficult part of the book was in deciding which stories I wanted to include, since I had met about 300 families. When a story was too similar to others, I discarded them. Eventually, we kept about 50% of the stories.

How much more difficult is it to be different in the developing world compared to the developed?

I have spent a lot of time in the developing world and written about artists in South Africa and China and the emergence of artistic cultures in these places. I do think it is more difficult to be different in these parts of the world. The pace of social acceptance is lower. In the US, UK, and to some degree in Scandinavia, there is still some debate about whether we need to “fix" people with differences or allow for the fact that they make for a richer and better society. I hope that’s all in the process of changing. Having said that, on the one hand, in the developing world there aren’t these political rights movements, but in a lot of places where there is institutional prejudice, at the societal level there is a great deal of acceptance. I have been to villages and seen gay and disabled people. Now, even though they don’t have the right to marry, for example, or handicapped access to areas, they have achieved quite a lot of acceptance within their families and the society. The issue of the larger society is better resolved in the West but the miniature issue–like acceptance within the family—is often resolved in the developing world too.

Which is more crucial?

One is not more important than the other. If you live in a society where the president has endorsed gay marriage–like in the US–parents will find it easier to accept homosexual children. But he got to the point of making that endorsement because there was more social acceptance of gayness and people have a positive self-image. That positive self-image has come from the micro level. The most important thing is to be loved and accepted at home, that gives you the strength and courage to fight for social acceptance. But sometimes the way to get accepted at home is to live in a society that is accepting.

Why did you include children born of rape in the book? It isn’t a “typical" disability like the others.

Of all the people who told me their stories, the ones who struggled the most in recounting their stories were the rape victims. I was very aware that even to talk about what happened was to open it again. Parents of children with Down’s Syndrome would say, “I was traumatized when I found out my son had this." But they were not re-traumatized in the telling of it. Rape victims were very damaged and injured. I asked a lot of them why they told me their story and they would say, “After what happened to me I felt so alone. And I hope by telling the story some other victims might feel less alone when they are dealing with similar things." They talked to me not because they were activists but because they suffered so enormously and they wanted to find some worth in that suffering.

You featured the parents of the Columbine killer (a 1999 school tragedy in the US) in the book and now you have become somewhat of a spokesperson for the parents of young perpetrators of gun violence. You wrote a lot after the Sandy Hook tragedy (the 2012 elementary school shooting in the US).

I found the experience of interviewing these people very humanizing. I found some people headed in this direction because they had faced unspeakable trauma and some people seemed to feel that something was broken in them. They don’t have an understanding of what’s wrong. I don’t mean that criminals shouldn’t be punished. I did feel, following Sandy Hook, that there is a lot of anger and a lot of people wanted to pin the blame on someone. In the Sandy Hook case, he killed his own mother. I felt it was important to introduce some nuance into these conversations and say repeatedly and insistently that what we should do is come up with strategies that will prevent further crime instead of strategies to punish people without any rehabilitation. Also, don’t assume you know the whole story the minute you see something in the news.

What are you writing now?

While I was writing this book, I was also doing my doctoral dissertation. It is about the way women develop their identities as mothers and what is maternal identity. I have 24 women who interviewed once before the birth of their first child, one immediately after, then six months later, and so on. I will take that body of work to write my next book.

What is maternal identity?

My theory is that there are two shifts when women get confused or, well, two kinds of relationships that can get established. You can be the kind of mother who deeply loves her child, but is uncomfortable with all the social expectations of being a mother, and uncomfortable with the way the structure of your life has changed and uncomfortable with what it means to be a mother in the world. There are also women who love being a mother and who feel as though they finally have the social position that they wanted and who are able to articulate all manner of things but are not really interested in the child. I look at these two conflicts.

For a review of Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love, visit www.livemint.com/Leisure/VR4SFw7RRZZJavbwD7R2oL/Book-Review--Far-From-the-Tree-A-Dozen-Kinds-of-Love.html

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