Far From The Tree: Parents, children and the search for identity

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“I know I’m clear with my responsibility going forward,” said Caitlyn Jenner in her acceptance speech at the ESPY awards. She’d received the Arthur Ashe award for courage; specifically for her inspirational public transition from male to female. “It’s to promote a very simple idea,” she continues. “Accepting people for who they are. Accepting people’s differences.”

The drive to accept differences has been supercharged of late; Caitlyn Jenner’s publicly celebrated transition has represented a watershed moment in trans rights, and identity politics in general. Who would have predicted a decade ago that the rise of social media would drive gender, race and sexual equality so far up the public agenda? Seemingly overnight, a ‘condition’ that was misunderstood, derided and mocked was transformed into an identity to be respected as a feat of self realisation.

In his book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and The Search for Identity, psychiatrist and journalist Andrew Solomon unpicks the roots of our need to define — and reject — those we see as ‘other’. For him, society, and families are made up of vertical and horizontal identities.

Vertical identities — like race, ethnicity, language — are passed directly from one generation to the next; remaining relatively static. Horizontal identities are the family curveballs; the unexpected characteristics that emerge in children entirely separate from their parents. From homosexuality to deafness, autism or dwarfism, Solomon investigates these horizontal identities — these children who fell ‘far from the tree’ — by meeting families who’ve experienced them. In doing so, he uncovers what it means to be different, what it means to be a parent and what it means to be human.

One could argue that black people face many disadvantages in the United States and Britain today; there’s little research into how gene expression could be altered to make the next generation of children born to black parents come out with straight, flaxen hair and creamy complexions. In modern America, it is sometimes hard to be Asian or Jewish or female, yet no one suggests that Asians, Jews or women would be foolish not to become white Christian men if they could. Vertical identities make people uncomfortable, and yet we don’t attempt to homogenise them.
The disadvantages of being gay are arguably no greater than those of such vertical identities, but most parents have long sought to turn their gay children straight. Anomalous bodies are usually more frightening to people who witness them than to people who have them, yet parents rush to normalise physical exceptionalism, often at great psychic cost to themselves and their children. Labelling a child’s mind as diseased — whether with autism, intellectual disabilities or transgenderism — may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child. Much gets corrected that might better have been left alone.
Defective is an adjective that has long been deemed too freighted for liberal discourse, but the medical terms that have supplanted it — illness, syndrome, condition — can be almost equally pejorative in their discreet way. We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time.
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle-like question, and a wave if we ask a wave-like question. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can only see one when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine short-changes identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness.

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Written by Susie Hogarth, senior behavioural analyst at Canvas8

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