November 12, 2012

Nathan Heller On Andrew Solomon On Difference, Disability, Identity, Parents, Kids

Nathan Heller will get your attention in his review of Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon's amazing-sounding new book on parents, kids and difference grappling what he terms, "horizontal identity": wher

The secret history of sex is not a story of fulfilled desires; it's a story of expectations dropped off the cliff of the unknown. Coupling reroutes lives, and delimits them, and when the stork turns up bearing a charming bundle the chances for complication grow alarmingly profuse. On the day of the twenty-week sonogram, perhaps, you learn that your child has foreshortened limbs. Amniocentesis might identify abnormal chromosomes; an obstetrician in the delivery room whisks away your newborn to run tests. Maybe, back home, a fire alarm goes off and he does not wake, or maybe, at ten months, you notice that your baby will not look you in the eye. Or perhaps none of this happens and you're one of the lucky ones, and so you send your kid to oboe lessons and good schools and camp and proms, and then, at twenty, on a campus where he has a girlfriend and a full course load, he begins hearing voices in his head. Ordinary family life is perilous enough: healthy kids fail at school, have drug problems, get bullied, or are shattered by foul divorces. When the quirks of biology intercede, too, the foreverness of parenthood can turn into a long walk in the dark.
The difference between the differences Solomon explains is based on shared/transmitted experiences. Identity characteristics like race, religion, personality, etc. that usually flow through generations are termed "vertical identity," while "ruptures between the child's life and the parents' experience," such as autism, gayness, Dwarfism, etc. are termed "horizontal identity".

Which, yes and well, hmm. Solomon apparently doesn't shy away from the complications his framing generates, which is good. But I can already think of cases where horizontal and vertical align, like depression, which has genetic/familial components. And vertical identity situations like this one, which I wrote about a couple of months ago.

But Heller really brings powerful, persuasive, and personal insight to Solomon's intensive, and nuanced exploration. Definitely on the reading list.

UPDATE Whoa, so I just heard Solomon being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air--I didn't realize it for a few minutes, because I'd turned down the radio in the car rather than risk having to explain to K2 what a "child of rape" is.

Anyway, at the end of hte interview, Solomon told Terry Gross about how, in the midst of his ten years of research on parents grappling with children who are profoundly different in some way, he became a dad himself. Or more specifically, how he was the donor dad for a divorced friend, how he got married to a guy who is the biological father to two kids of a lesbian couple, and how one of those women offered to be the donor mother and carry Solomon's kid. So five parents, four kids, three states, and an amazingly resilient, optimistic, and kind of wonderful surprise ending to an intense, sometimes depressing interview.

The Fresh Air episode's still being broadcast on public radio stations across the country [find it live somewhere on publicradiofan.com], but I'll add a link to it as soon as it's available. And now, I believe I will stop blogging for the day before my heart is wrenched any further by random parent-related news stories.

Books | Little Strangers [newyorker.com]
Get Far From the Tree in Kindle or hardcover edition [amazon]

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