Andrew Solomon’s Timely, Timeless Book: Embattled Families and the Work of Love
“I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did,” says Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold, “because the love for them — even at the price of this pain — has been the single greatest joy of my life.” People looking for answers or at least insights in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School shootings might begin by reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner $37.50), which includes a long, timely, in-depth conversation with Klebold’s parents. In the decade Solomon spent gathering material for this bible of “differentness” (702 pages, 130 pages of notes), he spoke with some three hundred families, including my own.
When Andrew first contacted us (from now on it’s “Andrew,” since that’s how we know him), he was calling the book A Dozen Kinds of Love. The change from a primarily descriptive title to the more didactic, agenda-driven Far From the Tree is reflected in the almost Emersonian assertiveness of the first sentence — “There is no such thing as reproduction.” The idea that “two people are but braiding themselves together” in “an act of production” is “at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads …. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.”
As the parent of a child who is as close to the tree as he is far from it (this has never been an either/or situation), I’m sympathetic to the working title, if only because the final one lacks a crucial word, and the word (as the Beatles sing in “The Word”) is “love.” It might be an awkward fit, but you could put Love after Children in the subtitle. That one word and everything it stands for is behind the force that drives parents to bravely make the best of — or else to be unmade by — a dire situation. And it’s the word parents bet everything they have on, emotionally and materially, in hopes of saving a life or a mind or at least sustaining the day-to-day reality of a family that could fall apart forever with the next 9-1-1 call.
Before and after chapters on deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, severe disability, prodigies, rape, transgender, and crime, Andrew tells his own story, first as a gay son whose sexuality alienated his parents, and then, in the concluding chapter, as a gay father suddenly dealing with a new son and an extended family so diverse and complicated as to make the very issues of parenthood he highlights at the outset seem almost trivial.
In the last sentence of the book’s first paragraph, Andrew claims that “Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.” As many of the heartbreaking stories in Far From the Tree suggest, parental love actually blindsides the imagination; it’s a visceral experience, it hurts, it doesn’t have time or space to think or imagine, it’s a sensory ground zero, as can be seen in Andrew’s own response to childbirth.
On learning there may be serious medical issues with George, his newborn son, Andrew writes, “I felt the inside parts of my body that are usually warm go cold, while the parts exposed to the air suddenly seemed to be on fire.” Earlier, though his partner John had been “instantly enraptured” by the baby, Andrew was imagining birth as “so mysterious and so much weirder than sorcery or intergalactic warfare that it humbles you instantly.”
When, however, it begins to look as though George may have bleeding in the brain, a symptom necessitating surgery, Andrew thinks “how ironic it would be if, in the midst of writing about exceptional children,” he “were to produce such a child.” He may also have been thinking how ironic that with his powers of empathy, and the enormous effort he’s made to understand and appreciate what so many suffering parents have gone through, he’s about to experience the real thing. But “imagination” leaves the room when he looks at his son as a victim: “I knew I loved him by how hard I suddenly tried not to love him. I remembered all the parents who had described spreading the news about their thriving baby and then picking up the phone a day or two later to report a different tale.” At this point, it gets intense: “A terrified piece of me was contemplating giving him up into care. My strongest impulse was to hold him tight and not let him go for the tests at all. I wanted him to be well, but I wanted me to be well, too, and even as I formulated that divide, it collapsed, and I saw that one thing could not be true without the other.”
When the brain scan is completely clear, Andrew realizes “that George, who had done nothing more admirable than cry and feed, was richly and permanently human to me, possessed of a soul, and no alteration could change that.”
It’s only because of the debacle in Newtown that I’ve singled out the Columbine mother’s story from among the many gathered in this invaluable book’s “epic narratives of resilience,” as Andrew puts it after describing the birth of his son (“no other optimism is so great as having a child”). When you meet Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, in these pages, you get at least some small notion of what Nancy Lanza would have been facing had she not been her son Adam’s first victim last week. “After Columbine,” Sue tells Andrew, “I felt that Dylan killed God. No god could have had anything to do with this, so there must not be one. When everything in your world is gone, all your belief systems, and your self-concepts — your beliefs in yourself, your child, your family — there is a process of trying to establish, who am I? Is there a person there at all? …. I sat next to someone on a train a while ago and we had a really wonderful conversation, and then I could feel the questions coming — ‘So, how many kids do you have?’ …. I had to tell him who I was. And who I am forever now is Dylan’s mother.”
On another occasion, Ms. Klebold, whose job involved counseling victims of disabilities, was talking with a client “who was blind, had only one hand, had just lost her job, and was facing trouble at home.” When the woman told her, “I have my problems, but I wouldn’t trade places with you for anything in the world,” Dylan Klebold’s mother could only laugh: “All those years I have worked with people with disabilities and thought, ‘Thank God I can see; thank God I can walk; thank God I can scratch my head and feed myself.’ And I’m thinking, how funny it is how we all use one another to feel better.”
That last thought suggests one of the many virtues of Far From the Tree. Regardless of any reader’s particular situation, from the parent of a “perfect child” to the parent of an unending human challenge, reading this book, using, in effect, “one another to feel better,” we know more and we care more.
Beginning in Venice
I can’t resist mentioning “Welcome to Holland,” the popular fable (5000 postings and counting on Google) Andrew quotes in full to open the chapter on Down Syndrome (DS). Briefly stated, the idea is that expectant parents who have been looking forward to childbirth as to “a fabulous vacation trip to Italy” (“you buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans”) end up, alas, in poor little Holland. The parents are upset (“All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy”) but since the change in the flight plan is beyond their control, they make do with the thought that it could have been worse, could have been some “horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease.” But hey, it’s “just a different place,” and all you need is a new set of guidebooks.
It’s hard to believe that “Welcome to Holland” has been recommended by doctors and therapists to parents of disabled children. For a start, the essence of the premise is thoroughly absurd. To equate a lifetime proposition like raising a disabled child with a vacation! But I’m a sucker for crazy analogies, so let’s try it my way. If the birth and beauty of the child is as thrilling and as engaging as, say, ours was, Holland and Italy have got nothing to do with it. Our plane lands in Shangri-La, or, to be faithful to the original, Venice, since that’s where my wife and I actually began the hitchhiker’s honeymoon in reverse that led to marriage and a baby and a place in Andrew’s book.
Okay, so there we are in our metaphorical Venice, living humbly but happily in a pensione off Piazza San Marco with the most beautiful baby in the world. For the first few weeks we spend every evening at Caffé Florian on the Piazza pigging out on silver saucers full of chocolate gelato, but then we start hearing from Italian pediatricians about conditions like “failure to thrive” and “renal tubular acidosis” and “possible dwarfism” (precursors to the “perfect multitude of psychiatric symptoms” listed for our child in Far From the Tree) and all of a sudden Venice is threatened with flood and famine and plague; in fact, it’s sinking, possibly to its doom, and we have no choice but to head back to the U.S.A. and an apartment on Patton Avenue in Princeton. Jump ahead three decades and here we are having lunch with Andrew on the back deck of the house we now own and have been living in since 1986. And when Andrew tells our son goodbye, saying, “I know it can be hard having a total stranger come into your house and ask you all these questions,” our then-33-year-old son gives him “a warm hug,” looks him in the eye, and tells him, “You don’t seem like a stranger to me.” For a brief moment, Andrew senses “a deeply touching capacity for connection” and a “self beneath the illnesses.”
The truth is, in this relationship there are no strangers and the work of love goes on and on and on.