The Magazine

Fathers and Sons

‘Special’ children in a less-than-special world.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
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Every Christmas I receive a charming letter from a college friend I’ll call Doug. Because we live far from each other, I have never met his three children. Reading his letters carefully, I could see that one child wasn’t flourishing as well as the others. So this past winter, when Doug and I met in person for the first time in years, I wasn’t surprised when he told me that this son was “special.” On certain tests, the boy is as bright as his siblings, who are racing through honors programs—yet he cannot remember the names of his classmates or teachers. He moves and thinks in slow motion. My mentally agile, talkative friend spends every night poring over homework with a son to whom words are like heavy stones. 

The Bundy family of ‘Married .  .  . With Children’ (ca. 1997)

The Bundy family of ‘Married .  .  . With Children’ (ca. 1997)

columbia tristar television / everett collection

His condition has a name I hadn’t heard. When I asked Doug whether there was any biological understanding of it, he threw up his hands in despair.

American parenthood is becoming more heroic. There are more kids, like Doug’s son, with odd, big problems. In the less clear cases, the “special needs” epidemic may be exaggerated, yet the parents are burdened nonetheless. The costs of raising any child seem to be soaring as well. 

And parenthood is less taken for granted; whether by choice or circumstance, nearly 1 in 5 American women ends her childbearing years without having borne a child, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s, according to a Pew Research Center study of census figures. 

So this study of extreme parenting comes at a pivotal moment. After 10 years of interviews with more than 300 families, Andrew Solomon describes the dilemmas, hardships, and joys of raising children with “extraordinary” needs or under extraordinary circumstances, for instance, the progeny of a rape. The book’s grand scope, creativity, and style recall the gentlemen-scholars of the 19th century, accumulating data and pondering big ideas in beautiful prose. 

Far From the Tree is a love song to parents and parenting (Solomon becomes a father at the end), but it is flawed by wishful thinking and unpersuasive on key points. Solomon comes dangerously close to saying that it’s better to have a child with disabilities than one without them: “Life is enriched by difficulty,” he writes. “Love is made more acute when it requires exertion.” Many of the families he met, he says, “have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.”

While arguing with gratitude seems churlish, life always includes difficulty, and all love requires exertion. Solomon means more difficulty and more exertion, which is not a mere quibble. The outcome must depend on your starting point, the degrees of stress the situation elicits, and who you are. Solomon’s own character and history, which he shares candidly, seem to influence his argument: He is introspective, beloved, wealthy, and well-connected—all examples of the kind of good fortune that may create high expectations for parents. 

With much help, Solomon overcame dyslexia and profound depression. However, he chose the topic of parenting children who fall “far from the tree” because his own parents didn’t want him to be gay. This vast volume is the end of “a quest to forgive my mother and father for pressing me to be untrue to myself.” 

The father in question is Howard Solomon, CEO of the pharmaceutical company Forest Laboratories. The author’s earlier big book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, attributes his depression to the loss of his mother and describes his father’s tender round-the-clock care. The parents he interviews are also impressive, no doubt partly because parents who agree to interviews are self-selecting, and also because the book tilts towards Solomon’s kind: people with significant resources. 

Their voices are moving. “You go into Central Park with a special-needs child, and the other parents look straight through you,” one father of a disabled daughter says. “They would never think to come over and suggest that their child could play with your child. I know how they feel, because until Maisie was born, I was one of those people.” Solomon wants us to take our child over to play with Maisie because she will have something special to offer—special in a good way, without the quotation marks. He urges us, as parents and as a society, to embrace variety even when it’s deeply risky or inconvenient—to let our kids be homosexual, or transgender, say, or rely on sign language.