Finding Yourself ‘Far From the Tree’

Apr 22, 2013

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

By Andrew Soloman


Andrew Solomon has done it again.

In 2001, Soloman published The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which presented the medical, cultural and personal dimension of mental illness which has been a part of his own experience. It won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

His latest book, Far from the Free: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, published at the end of last year, was named one of the top 10 books of 2012 by The New York Times and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is a panoramic, provocative examination of families who must come to terms with their children’s physical, mental or social disabilities—including autism and schizophrenia.

“Disability” may be the wrong word. “Exceptional” is more applicable in the sense that a son or a daughter does not fit a family’s general pattern. When children mirror the traits of parents, the adage is that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” but in the categories covered in the book, they do.

Solomon introduces the reader to a new way of looking at children and families, framing them in terms of “vertical” and “horizontal” identities.

Vertical identities are “attributes and values passed down from parent to child across generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms.” They include ethnicity, skin color and religion. Horizontal identities may reflect genetic influences, but for the most part, involve traits acquired not from one’s parents, but through a peer group classification. Vertical identities are often celebrated, while horizontal ones often are stigmatized.

For parents, a child’s horizontal identity may transform the entire family, requiring exceptional knowledge, understanding and sacrifices. A frequent tension in the book, which Solomon acknowledges, is the distinction between identity and illness—or at least exceptionalism.

Chapter by chapter, Solomon examines horizontal conditions or experiences. Besides autism and schizophrenia, there are chapters on children with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, or who are prodigies, become criminals or are conceived in rape, or who are transgender children.

The text totals about 700 pages, not including 200 pages of endnotes— but readers should not be intimidated. Each chapter is self-contained. Progress in reading the book can be pursued steadily or occasionally Readers can pick and choose among chapters or put the book down and pick it up at their leisure.

My primary interest in reading the book was the chapters on autism and schizophrenia, but I was quickly drawn into—and fascinated —by others, especially that on deaf culture. There were many things I did not know and many that I had never thought much about; e.g., that means of communication can involve the exercise of power by one person over another and many deaf people “experience deafness not as an absence but as a presence.” 

Solomon brings keen insights to his discussion of schizophrenia, including some that seem counter-intuitive. Like Alzheimer’s disease, the shock of the illness is one of “replacement and deletion” that to some degree tragically “eliminates” the person whom family members knew before onset. Some “continuities” may exist, such as a sense of humor or love of flowers, but schizophrenia “can take away the ability to connect to or love or trust another person, the full use of rational intelligence, the capacity to function in any professional context, the basic faculty of physical self-care, large areas of self-awareness and analytic clarity.”

At the same time, Solomon found that individuals in early stages of schizophrenia, often experience depression, but those who have been sick for a long time do not dwell on a future that was lost. “They had a stoic grace to their illness and I was consistently moved by it,” he writes.

People living with schizophrenia, however, often are stereotyped rather than seen as living with dignity and grace. Solomon recounted how in 1975, when the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed at Oregon State Hospital, the producers were offered the opportunity to use actual patients as extras in the film. They declined on the grounds that the patients did not look “strange enough” to fit the popular image of mental illness.

Stigma itself represents corrosion of identity. When it is internalized, it reinforces a person’s illness and impedes stabilization or recovery.

Far from the Tree offers acareful examination of such issues, as well as a wealth of information about the nature of schizophrenia and other categories of horizontal identity. It’s worth the time to read.

NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).