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Everyone who believes in books, or has (or has been) a child, should read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree

A quarter of Americans read zero books per year.  The Onion, as usual, put it best: “Print is Dead at 1803.”  I know this is a blog. You’re reading it on a screen.  And I like blogs, and websties, and Facebook. (Twitter, however, is too scary. Mean people.) I read articles and sites online every day, sometimes for hours.  I teach online classes and collect and respond to student papers, even in face to face classes, electronically.  But books are different, and special.  People need to read more of them.[1] Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity demonstrates precisely what a book, and no other form or medium, can still do.

Greatly exaggerated

Greatly exaggerated

What it’s about: children who are different from their parents.  That, of course, would be all children, but a simple recitation of the chapter titles alone reveals something of the book’s scope and depth: Son, Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender, Father.  The first and last chapters refer to Solomon’s personal experiences and bookend the other the chapters.

Of course, it takes nearly a thousand pages to cover the material.  Solomon frames his discussion of seemingly disparate groups in two main ways.  First, he talks about parents and children as having both “vertical” and “horizontal” identities.  Parents default toward the vertical—that is, what is the same between parents and children, and what is passed down (the language itself suggesting verticality) directly from parent to child.  Hearing parents, heterosexual parents, cis gender parents expect and assume their children will be the same as them.  But often, children are radically different, instead having what Solomon calls horizontal identifies, therefore becoming part of a new, horizontal community outside of the biological family —the deaf community, the dwarf community, the disabled community.  And sometimes, there is only the identity without the community: prodigies, children born of rape, children whose disabilities prevent them from any form of communication, who, unlike other groups, have not coalesced into an identifiable horizontal identity.

But even the idea of identity itself is complex, which brings Solomon to his other framework. Drawing upon his own experience as a gay man and the cultural trajectory homosexuality has taken during his lifetime, Solomon suggests that his subjects can each be understood as operating on a kind of spectrum.  On the one end of the spectrum is illness, which requires intervention: homosexuality, and various kinds of disability, were believed to necessitate cures, treatment to establish the vertical identity of the parents.  But on the other end of the spectrum is identity: a meaningful difference that is not perceived as undesirable, one not to be taken away, pitied, or, for that matter, admired.  Where different syndromes and orientations fall on this spectrum, however, is subject to contentious debate.

Not surprisingly, the book is exhaustively researched and extensively documented: over 100 pages of notes alone, so it felt nutritious—I learned more on every page.  But it is not just a synthesis of academic articles, or the more than three hundred interviews that Solomon conducted himself. The tensions between these ways of understanding children who are not like their parents—vertical/horizontal; illness/identity—inform each chapter, and my summary cannot do justice to the overall intelligence, nuance, morality, and warmth that comes through.   It is a long book that easily moves back and forth between individual case studies—no, not case studies, people, since “case study” sounds more clinical than the human, and humane, portraits that emerge—and academic analyses spanning literature, psychology, history, and medicine, navigated and negotiated by an author who places himself, and his well-informed beliefs and ideas on the page.  By the time I was done, I felt as though I had been through something, and gotten to know, and love, Andrew Solomon himself.  I didn’t agree with everything I read, but I considered everything I read.  Nonreaders are quick to create a false dichotomy between books and life, but they are wrong. The best books provide a deep, meaningful life experience for the reader.  Books, like births, create horizontal communities and identities as well.

One of the few 1-star reviews on Amazon.com, for me, helps explain the book as well as one of the many 5-star reviews: “The author talks 2 much- and he is super boring and actually sounds like he just took a class in college and is repeating what the professor said- very disappointed.”  This reader, unwilling to put in the time, retreats into the worst cliché, boredom.  (The part about “repeating what the professor said” baffles me, though, as through Solomon somehow didn’t write it.)  Reviews like this help me to understand the zero books per year number.  A good book, unlike other popular forms of reading, to say nothing of other forms of entertainment, makes the reader work, but feel as though the work is worth it. Even if I did not work as hard as Solomon, who took over ten years to write Far From the Tree.

I don’t know how he finished it so quickly.

Time: 50 minutes, not counting reading the book.

In Comments, feel free to share a book that you felt to be a meaningful life experience.  While Far From the Tree is of course nonfiction, any genre is fine.


[1] I’m not going to get into the electronic vs print book issue here, except to say that I still read books only in hard copy, and I can’t imagine having read this one on a screen.

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Are There Two Kinds of People in the World?

Who are we to call him Monster?

 

It was bad enough to wonder whether I was a man or a Muppet.  Now I spent all weekend worried that I was also the wrong kind of Muppet.

I blame Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that there are two types of Muppets, “chaos Muppets” and “order Muppets,” and that, by extension, “every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.” 

Lithwick elaborates:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. […] It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

Two things become pretty clear: 1) despite her ironic implications (”This is really just me having fun,” she protests a little too strongly; filing under “Dubious and Far-fetched ideas”), Lithwick takes her binary system pretty seriously; and 2) despite that “It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other,” she clearly prefers chaos Muppets.  So do I.  And, I’ll add, so does everyone.  Chaos Muppets have all the fun, and order Muppets are the straight men, the ones who get flabbergasted and frustrated and freak out while muted trumpets go “Wha wha whaaa” at their expense.

Which is why I found it so disturbing to realize, as I was obsessively vacuuming the living room, that I was clearly an order Muppet.  Even worse was the realization that my wife is also an order Muppet, even as Lithwick takes pains suggest that her classification system is crucial for life partners: “Order Muppets tend to pick Chaos Muppets for their life partners, cookies notwithstanding. Thus, if you’re in a long-term relationship with a Chaos Muppet, there’s a pretty good chance you’re Bert. If you’re married to an Order Muppet, you may well be the Swedish Chef. And by all that is holy, don’t marry your same type if you can help it. That’s where Baby Elmos come from.” No word on what becomes of the children of two order Muppets.

I didn’t feel this way after reading Heather Havrilesky’s “Steve Jobs: Vampire. Bill Gates: Zombie”  in the New York Times Magazine last October, which suggested that “Vampires and zombies seem to reside at the polarities of our culture, telling us (almost) everything we need to know about (almost) everything in between.”  It was clear to me that I was a vampire, and that the piece, like Lithwick’s, wanted us to feel as though the writer is disinterested in the distinction when really vampires come off far cooler.

As Havrilesky puts it,

Vampires are solitary and antisocial and sleep in the ground. Zombies are extroverts, hanging out in big, rowdy clusters, moaning and shrieking, and apparently never sleeping at all.

Why do these sound like people I know? Maybe because these two approaches to being undead mirror two very different approaches to being alive. You’re either a vampire or a zombie, and it’s easy to tell which one.

The vampires are the narcissists, the artists, the experts, the loners: moody bartenders, surgeons, songwriters, lonely sculptors, entrepreneurial workaholics, neurotic novelists, aspiring filmmakers, stock traders, philosophy professors. The zombies are the collaborators, the leaders, the fanatics and obsessives: I.T. guys, policy wonks, comic-book collectors, historians, committee heads, lawyers, teachers, politicians, Frisbee-golf enthusiasts.

“Sexy!”–New York Times

This is all meant to be fun and funny.  But we really are required to place ourselves in mutually exclusive binary categories all the time.  There’s Male/Female, of course, and even if biology or culture weren’t forcing our hand, our English pronouns leave us no gray area. (“Ze” is not a viable option yet.)  There is the dichotomy that still allows for, insists on, legal segregation: smoker and nonsmoker.  There is the dichotomy that no one thinks about but may be the most intrinsically important one of all: to borrow from Sharon Olds’s book of poems, The Dead and the Living.  There was the ancient Greek distinction, between themselves (Greeks) and barbarians (everyone except Greeks). That dichotomy was originally related to language, but like chaos Muppets/order Muppets and vampires/zombies, you know which side you’d rather be on.    

In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”

Tuco, though, has his own ideas: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”  They’re the same two groups for both men, but sometimes the ones who carry loaded guns wind up with ropes around their necks as well. You have to wonder, though, about a movie whose recurring motif is “two kinds of people” when its title clearly suggests that there are three.

Yet in many ways, these writers aren’t so different from the psychologists who want to squeeze all of humanity into two boxes, despite that context and mood probably influence our actions more than a temperament derived from multiple choice testing: extraversion or introversion; sensing or intuition; thinking or feeling, judgment or perception.   Nietzsche knew better.  He didn’t think in terms of two types of people, but rather two human impulses, as anthropomorphized by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius.  Clearly, Apollo is an order Muppet and a Vampire, while Dionysius is a chaos Muppet and a Zombie.  But as humans, we are both and neither, instead the product of constantly conflicting beliefs, moods, attachments, and desires.  Putting people into simplistic categories has the potential to explain as well as dangerously simplify the world. As writer Tom Robbins put it, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

So now I know better.  

Time: one hour.

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