Review: Far From the Tree

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Several years ago, when I was doing research on depression for my novel Home Field, my sister recommended The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book/memoir about depression. It sounds odd to say that I loved a book about depression and yet I did love that book, because it helped me to understand an affliction that I had seen wear down many friends and loved ones. It also gave me new ways of thinking about  the mind-body connection — if the mind and body can even be separated. Finally, it looked deeply into the question of nature versus nurture, and what effects environment and life experience have on health.

The Noonday Demon also introduced me to the voice of Andrew Solomon, which is erudite, peculiar, witty, and confiding. Like the best novelists, he has the ability to synthesize huge bodies of knowledge and research and to put it in the service of whatever story he’s telling. I was eager to read more of his writing after I finished The Noonday Demon and as it happened, his new book, Far From the Tree had just been published. I bought without knowing much about it, except that it was about parent-child relationships and that it was very long, over 900 pages.

What followed was on of the most indelible reading experiences of my life.I read it as a new parent, sitting in a bean bag chair in my baby’s room. I was thinking a lot about what it means to suddenly be on the other side of the parent-child relationship and who is this little person in my care? What is he like? How is he like me? How is he different? How will we understand each other? What can I do when there are misunderstandings?

Far From the Tree spoke to these questions by examining families in which the child is very different from their parents. To give a few examples: a deaf child born to hearing parents; a dwarf child born to parents of average height; prodigies born to parents of normal intelligence; or autistic children born to parents who are not autistic and who don’t know much about autism. It’s been six years since I read the book, so I might not have the details exactly right, but as I recall, each chapter addressed a particular kind of difference and featured several families who had to adjust to their child’s way of being. (For instance, the parents of deaf children might decide to learn sign language.) The deepest change came in the way parents thought about their children, as they dropped their expectations, assumptions, and biases.

The overall message of the book is that your children are never going to be who you think they will be, because they are their own people. You have to accept them as they are, which sounds lovely, except that Solomon complicates the picture by including the parents of children who have committed crimes. These parents are haunted with guilt, wondering what they could have done differently. Solomon’s discomfiting answer is: not much. Sometimes really nice, kind people are the parents of people who do terrible things.

The documentary Far From the Tree hews very close to the book (it doesn’t fall far from the tree, ha ha) which is why I’ve spent so much time describing the book. However, if you’ve read the book, you won’t be seeing the same stories, because the filmmakers have done new reporting for the movie. So, while the themes may be the same, the interview subjects are different–with one exception, Jason Kingsley, who has Down syndrome and whose parents insisted that he be taught to the best of his abilities, with other children his age. In the film, you meet him as a middle-aged man, living in a group home with two other men and a full-time caregiver. He has a job, friends, hobbies, and an obsession with the movie Frozen, which developed after the death of his father.

There are just five families in the film, as opposed to the book, which examines at least twenty families in depth and probably mentions over one hundred. The director, Rachel Dretzin, was present at the screening I attended and said she and her team interviewed dozens of families in order to get the right balance of subjects. She also talked about her love of the Solomon’s book, saying it struck her immediately as cinematic because she wanted to see the people he described, and meet them.

Here I must admit that I don’t think of Solomon’s writing as particularly friendly to movie adaptation, and was somewhat skeptical of this documentary. Solomon tells good stories, yes, but he doesn’t use a lot of images or dialogue, and what makes his writing really special is the way he brings together so much reporting and scholarship. I worried that the documentary would plod as it tried to match the research contained in the book. But the film has a surprising levity and joy at its heart. I think for this reason, the audience had trouble digesting the one tragic story, a portrait of a family whose oldest son is serving a life sentence in prison for killing an 8-year-old child. At the Q&A afterwards, there were several follow-up question about that family and it was clear that people were disturbed that there was no explanation given for the son’s crime. I felt the same way, though I think I was a bit more prepared for the discomfort, having read the book. In this way, the film works best as a companion to the book — either as an introduction/invitation to read Far From the Tree, or as a way to expand its reporting  and to “meet” Solomon, who is featured in the film. I’m not sure that the film stands on its own, but I’m also not sure that it needs to, or even wants to. As with the book, I’d recommend Far From the Tree to anyone who is a parent, or who has parents.

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