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Far From the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love | Andrew Solomon

Family romances

If there is one notion that is least disputed, it is the idea that the overwhelming emotion of parenting is a warm and fuzzy love. Unconditional love, it is called, usually with a further clarifier that it is the only example of such a love. But it is my experience that beyond the banner and the tireless image of a calm Madonna and a beatific infant, parental love is actually an anxious love. So much so, that first comes the anxiety and much later, the love.

Through glucose-tolerance tests for gestational diabetes and nuchal fold tests for Down’s syndrome, the triple marker and the CVs, the medical process of handling expectant parents centres around allaying their anxiety and feeding the optimism that their child, when born, will be “normal". It isn’t love that makes you count the fingers and toes when the baby is born, it is anxiety, and this carries on—is she walking when she ought to walk, is she talking now that her peers are and is she staying with the class when she goes to school? Parenting is a competitive sport in achieving the “normal". Those who do not do well in this, we are taught, are deserving of our sympathy.

Far From The Tree—A Dozen Kinds of Love: Chatto & Windus, 962 pages, ₹ 899
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Far From The Tree—A Dozen Kinds of Love: Chatto & Windus, 962 pages, ₹ 899

Solomon calls the traits that we don’t inherit from our parents, such as criminality and homosexuality, horizontal identities. In Far From the Tree, he studies 10 of these horizontal identities, including deafness, dwarfism, Down’s syndrome, prodigy and children born out of rape.

“This book’s conundrum," Solomon writes, “is that most of the families described here have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid." These are not simplistic “love triumphs all" stories, but nuanced studies of challenges, heartbreak and, in a lot of cases, eventual reconciliation, sometimes even triumph. Yet, within the disabilities that Solomon describes, there are often hierarchies. “Almost everyone I interviewed was to some degree put off by the chapters in this book, other than his or her own. Deaf people didn’t want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs; criminals couldn’t abide the idea that they had anything in common with transgender people," Solomon writes.

Yet each of these parents struggled with enormous challenges that people outside the circle of the disability could barely comprehend. Dwarfism, for example, according to a leading obstetrician and gynaecologist, is the most difficult diagnosis to communicate to expectant mothers. “We would rather have had a child that was deaf or blind," Mary Boggs, the mother of a dwarf, tells Solomon. “Just anything besides a dwarf would have been better."

Some parents chose to keep their different children, others did not know they would turn out different. Most parents of children with Down’s syndrome whom Solomon speaks to did not take the amniocentesis test (that determines the possibility of the syndrome) while pregnant, for various reasons.

Solomon writes about Deirdre Featherstone, who didn’t want children and was delighted to hear that she was infertile. Yet, she became pregnant, felt she was stuck with it, but decided to let things unfold. Her husband wanted her to take the test, but was opposed to abortion. She thought that if she knew there was something wrong with the child, she wouldn’t want to keep it. So they skipped the test. Her daughter Catherine was born with the syndrome but Featherstone fell so instantly in love with her that she shudders to think that she might not have kept the baby had she got the test done. “You can’t assess what you don’t know," she says.

In fact, the question that the book struggles with is not the dilemma of whether to bring a differently-abled child into the world. What confounds most parents is the answer to care versus acceptance. Should they (and society) celebrate these differences or should they force everyone to aspire as much as possible to conform to the normal?

The most difficult section of the book, to my mind, is the one dealing with mothers who conceived during rape. “Rape," Solomon writes, “is not a scar. It is an open wound." Most of these mothers did not have abortions because of religious beliefs or pressure from parents or partners. Yet they live each day seeing in their child the face or traits of the rapist. “Why can’t I hug my daughter?" Emily, mother of a 10-year-old daughter born of rape, asks. “I love her, but when she touches me it feels like hundreds of razor blades scraping across my skin, like I’m going to die. I understand that I have to let her because she’s a child, and so I do, but in my mind, I go someplace else, and I know that she knows it," she says.

Of all the people he interviewed, Solomon found the greatest connection with Tom and Susan Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the two shooters in the Columbine school tragedy of 1999 in Colorado, US, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed. In the aftermath of the shootout, the townspeople, furiously looking for someone to blame, placed the guilt at the doorsteps of the parents of the two assailants. They were outcasts and the fact that they too lost a child in that tragedy was lost on others.

Before he went to meet the Klebolds, a friend asked Solomon if he was afraid of the Klebolds, as if he might succumb to some contagious evil in their house. What he found hard to deal with, in fact, was their underlying normalcy. “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born," Susan tells him, “but I believe it would not have been better for me."

Solomon writes with a wry wit and reading him, you find yourself swinging from heartbreak to hope to humour. It is not the manufactured fun of a roller-coaster ride, but the leap of faith that is required of a bungee jump. Far From the Tree is one of those rare books which is truly transformative, when you turn the last page you know you are not the same person who started reading it. Solomon does not preach to us to accept the different, he merely tells us stories that illustrate the foolishness of not doing so.

“There is joy," the mother of a Down’s syndrome baby is told by another, “and there is also heartbreak." If you distil it down, isn’t that what all parenting entails—joy and heartbreak?

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