Review: Far from the Tree

Before reading Andrew Solomon‘s Far from the Tree, I had read one of his prior books, The Noonday Demon. While I enjoyed the latter, a long work about depression, Far from the Tree was, frankly, beyond disappointing. As a person with a severe physical disability, I found it insulting.

As the title suggests, in Far from the Tree Solomon explores the relationship between children and parents when those children have a horizontal identity. In other words, Solomon looks at families in which a child has a disability or some other identity which its parents do not share. Specifically, Solomon looks at parents affected by deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, prodigy, rape, and crime. He lauds himself for interviewing “more than three hundred families for [the] book, some briefly and some in depth, producing nearly forty thousand pages of interview transcripts.”

Interestingly – and frustratingly – Solomon appears much more interested in speaking with parents than with the children, themselves. This is especially clear when it comes to disabled subjects. Despite his attempts to appear neutral and present multiple perspectives, Solomon’s true feelings of disdain are apparent:

Disability activists often referred to Ashley’s loss of dignity, but having seen a number of similarly disabled people lifted up in pulleys with chains to be removed from bed, put in metal standers to preserve muscle tone, conveyed on rope systems into showers, I cannot see much dignity there. (Solomon at 389.)

This statement produced a visceral reaction from this reader. First, for those who don’t know about Ashley, do a quick Google search on “the Ashley treatment” and “the pillow angel.” Ashley’s parents were worried they would not be able to care for her if she grew into an adult, and asked physicians to perform a total hysterectomy on her, remove her breast buds, and provide hormonal therapy to keep her small. This kind of rights violation would be absolutely unthinkable if Ashley was not disabled.

That Solomon thinks the mutilation of a child preserves dignity while use a Hoyer lift does not is inconceivable. Perhaps that’s because I use a lift myself when toileting and showering. I’m a lawyer. I’m a taxpayer. I’m a friend. I consider myself pretty darn dignified.

Don’t read this book. Find something more interesting. Something that actually considers the disability perspective.

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