NEW YORK In his latest book "Far From the Tree," National Book Award winner Andrew Solomon turns the conventional wisdom that children are composites of their parents on its head, but says that is not a bad thing.
In the 700-page tome that explores the lives of families with children with conditions ranging from autism to deafness, Solomon says having a child is an act of production rather than reproduction that "abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger."
Though the book focuses on how families cope with more extreme forms of difference, Solomon, 49, believes that encountering unexpected traits in one's child is a universal part of parenthood.
"I have yet to meet anyone as a parent who has not from time to time looked at their child and said, ‘Where did you come from?'" he said in an interview.
The book seems to have struck a chord. "Far From the Tree" is a top selling book and has garnered praise from critics.
Writing for The New Yorker, Nathan Heller called it "a careful, subtle, and surprising book," while the New York Times Book Review wrote, "This is a book that shoots arrow after arrow into your heart."
The book, which includes 10 years' worth of interviews with families and relevant research, is divided into chapters that are devoted to conditions such as dwarfism, transgender and schizophrenia.
Solomon said what unites the diverse collection of conditions covered in his book is that each one often results in isolation for the child and confusion and resentment for parents.
"Intellectually, the difficult part was trying to understand the ways in which these very differences had something in common, and coming up with the underlying idea of the book, which is that these individual differences are isolating, but taken together they're unifying," he said.
Solomon uses his own experience growing up as a dyslexic homosexual, two qualities that set him apart from his parents and were viewed as flaws by most, to frame the travails of the families in his book. He cautions against viewing the conditions he writes about solely as problems that need to be fixed or eliminated.
"We have to recognize that this thing (homosexuality) so universally described as an illness just 50 years ago could now largely be accepted as an identity ... We should be awake to the idea that what seems obviously to be an illness today may seem very different 50 years from now," he said.
Solomon noted the strong deaf culture that has grown among deaf people, and predicted that transgendered people and high-functioning autistic people would both gain increased acceptance over the next several decades.
Regardless of whether a trait is viewed as an illness or an identity, he believes that the goal should be to improve the life conditions and minimize suffering for the types of families featured in "Far From the Tree."
Solomon said the happiest families he interviewed were ones that were able to move past anger and frustration about their child's condition to accept their child and find meaning in challenges.
"The families that had looked at these experiences and acknowledged how unbelievably difficult they are and how painful they can be but nonetheless have found meaning of the experience were the ones that were doing better," he said.
"I was amazed by the way that for many of these families that experiencing difficulty had intensified rather than undermined parental love."