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This reading group guide forFar from the Treeincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and ideas for teachers. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Winner of a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, and Solomon documents triumphs of love over prejudice in every chapter. Life for the parents in this book turns on a crucial question: to what extent should they accept their children as they are, and to what extent should they help them become their best selves? When, then, is their child’s condition an illness to be cured, and when is it an identity to be celebrated?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon tells the stories of dozens of parents raising children from across the spectrum of horizontal identities. Did any particular family remain etched in your memory?
2. Solomon describes how his reporting on deaf culture quickly challenged his assumption that deafness “was a deficit and nothing more” (P. 2). What did he discover? Were any of your own assumptions challenged by Far from the Tree?
3. On page 83 Solomon writes about visiting the village of Bengkala, Bali, where a congenital form of deafness has affected generations of residents. What struck Solomon about the way this community treated its deaf residents? Can we draw any lessons from Bengkala about the way we treat deaf people or those with other kinds of illnesses/identities?
4. One of the book’s recurring themes is the difficult decision parents face when a child could benefit from “corrective procedures” such as cochlear implants and limb-lengthening. At what stage in a person’s life do you think such interventions are appropriate? Should parents of young children be allowed to authorize such surgeries?
5. How has the Internet built community for people with horizontal identities?
6. Solomon notes that some dwarf couples use pre-natal testing to “screen out average size fetuses and ensure a dwarf child” (P. 156), and that some deaf people prefer to have deaf children. In contrast, Solomon describes “ever-increasing options to choose against having children with horizontal identities” for society at large (P. 6). He notes that most people who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to abort. What moral burdens come with the existence of these tests? What does it mean for any individual to seek out or to avoid prenatal testing?
7. Emily Perl Kingsley’s son Jason became a public face for Down syndrome but went on to struggle with depression. “I’ll admit that lower-functioning Down’s kids are happier, less obsessed with how unfair it is,” she tells Solomon. What do you think of Emily’s quest to make Jason “the highest-functioning DS kid in history?” (P. 178). How would you approach parenting a Down syndrome child?
8. From your reading of the book, how do you think socioeconomic status affects the way parents cope with children with horizontal identities?
9. Imagine that you are the parent of a severely autistic child or a child with multiple disabilities. What strategies would you adopt from the parents profiled here? Any you would avoid? Is there a formula for maintaining mental, emotional, and financial health when one must be a constant caregiver?
10. What do you think of Andrew Solomon’s decision to include chapters on the families of children conceived in rape, prodigies, and criminals alongside those chronicling people with disabilities?
11. Solomon is puzzled to find that among the schizophrenic people he meets “there was surprisingly little railing at the disease itself” (P. 296). How do people with this horizontal identity differ from many others in the book? Why is it “in a class by itself for unrewarding trauma?” Could society do more to alleviate this burden?
12. What do you think is the proper role for government in the realm of research and treatment for people struggling with horizontal illnesses or identities? Are some identities more deserving of public funds than others? Why or why not?
13. One of the book’s most unforgettable stories involves the girl known as Ashley X, whose parents, controversially, asked doctors to perform procedures that would attenuate her growth, to preserve a childlike “body that more closely matched her state of mental development.” Review Ashley X’s story (pp. 385-393). Did her parents make the right decision?
14. In what context is the word “genocide” used in identity movements? Is it justified?
15. Solomon writes that, “more than any other parents coping with exceptional children, women with rape-conceived children are trying to quell the darkness within themselves in order to give their progeny light” (p. 536). Did you find it harder to read about the choices these parents make than about those made by other parents in this book?
16. In the “Crime” chapter, Solomon writes, “Love is not only an intuition but also a skill.” What do you think he means here? What do you ultimately make of the theme of love that permeates the book?
17. “Most adults horizontal with identities do not want to be pitied or admired; they simply want to get on with their lives without being stared at” (p. 31). How do you treat people with a noticeable horizontal identity, such as Down syndrome. Do you shy away from contact? Do you find yourself curious? Give an honest assessment of yourself. Will you alter your behavior after reading Far from the Tree?
18. In his conclusion, Solomon writes that he used to see himself “as a historian of sadness,” but he ends Far from the Tree on a decidedly hopeful note, writing about his newfound joy in parenthood. What was your state of mind as you finished the book? How do you ultimately view the parents in these pages, as “heroic” or “fools?” (P. 702).
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Write the names of each horizontal identity Solomon discusses in Far from the Tree onto a small piece of paper and place them in a bowl. Have each member of your book club draw one and invite them to imagine being the parent of a child who possesses the identity noted on the slip. Go around the room, asking each member to envision the challenges and rewards of parenting such a child.
2. Do any members of your book group know someone with a horizontal identity discussed in the book, or a parent who has raised a child who is different? If you feel comfortable doing so, invite this person to join your meeting to speak about his or her life.
3. Solomon primarily interviewed American parents in researching Far from the Tree. Before the book club meeting, assign each member a populous nation, such as China, Russia, Pakistan, or Brazil, and ask the group to conduct online research into a current issue facing that country tied to horizontal identities. Ask each member to present their issue to the group.
4. Visit FarFromtheTree.com to meet a few of the families profiled in the book, see Andrew Solomon discussing the subjects and themes he explored in his writing, share your personal stories, and connect with other readers.
Ideas for Teachers
1. Solomon spent over a decade researching and writing Far from the Tree. He drew on “forty thousand pages of interview transcripts with more than three hundred families.” Have your students find someone who belongs to one of the horizontal identities in the book (or another identity not in the book) and interview that person or his or her parent or caregiver. Ask your students to write a reflection paper. What were the challenges mentioned by the subject of the interview? What was surprising? Did their findings correspond with what Andrew Solomon describes in Far from the Tree, or did the student discover unique information?
2. Solomon describes numerous difficult and controversial issues affecting groups in the book. Assign your students a paper in which they must research an issue, explore moral and ethical considerations, and take a position on it. Topics may include the following: • cochlear implants for deaf people • limb-lengthening for dwarfs • insurance coverage for gender-reassignment surgery • genetic screening during pregnancy • institutionalization of the disabled
3. Social attitudes and government policy toward the disabled, the mentally ill, transgender people, rape survivors, and criminals have evolved throughout modern history. Assign students to small groups and direct them to research how people in a horizontal identity category have been treated throughout history. Ask the students to assess whether attitudes today have improved over past conditions. Students can create a timeline of important events and people connected to their issue and present it to the class.
Andrew Solomon is a professor of psychology at Columbia University, president of PEN American Center, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, NPR, and The New York Times Magazine. A lecturer and activist, he is the author of Far and Away: Essays from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years; the National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, which has won thirty additional national awards; and The Noonday Demon; An Atlas of Depression, which won the 2001 National Book Award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and has been published in twenty-four languages. He has also written a novel, A Stone Boat, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost. His TED talks have been viewed over ten million times. He lives in New York and London and is a dual national. For more information, visit the author’s website at AndrewSolomon.com.