Thursday, August 29, 2013

Far From the Tree

I'm reading Andrew Solomon's extraordinary book Far From the Tree, and my mind has been whirling in response to it.

I've not written a lot about it, but I did not have the best of childhoods. I won't go into it here, but I my father had MS, and most of my childhood was shadowed by having a disabled and ill parent.  I've dealt with a lot of it.  It was not a movie of the week lovefest. There weren't a lot of resources in the early - mid seventies.  I remember, in the year after my parents divorce, my Dad fighting to get handicapped placards and parking spaces implemented in Nebraska. We even went to Washington and met with our state senator.  I think about it now, and it's quite amazing, in the midst of all that personal pain, that that was happening.  But overall, it was not an easy row to hoe.

His book isn't about illness, but it is about difference; children who are deaf, dwarfs, transgender, schizophrenic, down's syndrome, autistic, and how the families and the children themselves cope.
It's a beautiful, difficult, exhausting, exhaustively researched book.  I have many reactions, and I'm only about half way through.  Here's one, and one that I've been thinking about for a while -

Difference is hard, and I'm always struck by the disconnect between lived experience and the stories we tell ourselves.  Overwhelmingly, the love that these families have discovered by dealing with the challenges is awesome. As always, though, the truth of living with these differences is very different than the stories we tell ourselves about difference.  We watch films and write stories about underdogs, appreciating difference and how in the end, we all are and the difference that was so hard will turn out to be the gift.  In reading this book, I can see how that is true and not true.  Most of these families have discovered a great love and would not trade their experiences, but not all. Lives have been deepened and transformed.  And, at the same time, it's hard and a continual process. There is no ending. We all want it all to be okay at the end of the story, but we know life goes on and the process continues.  I had a parent in a wheelchair, and I remember, to my shame somewhat, what that was like as an adolescent to feel so self-conscious. Being a gay kid already I was hyper self-conscious, and this was another level. Add to that a complicated, the polite way of putting it, relationship with my father, and things were not easy. And I wasn't even the one in the wheelchair. I guess I'm reacting to the fictitious we're-all-a-rainbow-of-happiness-by-the-end things that I read and see in popular culture (which, yes, I know, are fiction).  At the end of it I always think, okay, it's great here, but now you have to go to another high school and this will happen all over again. Or you just have to go into a restaurant and a whole new crew of people are going to stare.

As a gay person I have to continually come out. I have to think before I travel to foreign countries, or even certain places in my own country, with another man. Or hell, even with myself.  Solomon sometimes brings up discussion of his sexuality and depression as an analog to the identities he writes about in his book. They are somewhat facile, and I'm not sure 100% analogous, but the feeling underneath that he is identifying is right on - I am different and no one knows what I feel like. Or even, I will never truly fit in. I am different even than my family, which is key. Unlike race or ethnicity, you feel a stranger within your own tribe. There is something, and Solomon describes it here, about knowing that you are in a larger world where there is something different about you. Though there may be acceptance, you always know that there is a chance of rejection. Or at the very least, you will have to explain something about yourself, and be a teacher to someone. The onus is on you, being the one who is different, not on them. There are times when you will be only with people of your kind, and you have to create community that way, but there will always be the larger world in which you exist.

I'm not saying at all that my sexuality is the same as being deaf or having down's syndrome, or any of the other identities he writes about, but there is something about how the world is not constructed for one particularly that I identify with.  I suppose that's why that disconnect has been on my mind lately.  Of course, most fictions are wish fulfillment, so it shouldn't surprise me that they can feel untrue.  We tell ourselves stories of the best parts of us, and who we wish we were. In some cases in real life, we fall short, and in some cases, as in many in this book, we far exceed any expectation. The stories in this book have made me even more in love with the human spirit, and more fascinated by how extra-ordinary people can be.

So I guess in the end, I'm saying the fictions of difference that I read not only over-simplify acceptance and understanding, but underestimate the complexity of response, compassion, heart, and reality.  I suppose that's should not surprise me.  In this realm, everything that is not reality feels like a fairy tale.

Boy, do I hope that made sense. In any event, read the book. It's well-worth your time.

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