Author Andrew Solomon's monumental "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity" (Scribner, 2012) is an indescribable book every adult should read.
This astonishing new release, both in its hefty 702-page proportion and its researched scope, details identity and illness as it pertains to children whose physical or personality profiles land outside parental expectations.
Although not every person is a parent, every person was once a child and therefore, found -- or is finding -- identity amid life's mad mix of thunderbolts and blessings.
Interviewing 300 families over a 10-year span, the National Book Award winning author of "The Noonday Demon" (2001) spreads his inborn compassion like a graceful umbrella embracing a diverse population.
The stories of unsympathetic characters and noble masters of disability are treated to similar reverential tones. Between bookending autobiographical chapters on his childhood and fatherhood experiences, the book carves a searing narrative of children who have physical or learning disabilities or are otherwise born or grow up "different" than what their parents would have expected.
In a Berkeley Arts and Lectures visit on Nov. 29 at Berkeley's Hillside Club, Solomon said the book originated 20 years ago with an assignment to write about the deaf.
"I went off into their world with very little sense of what it meant," he admitted.
He discovered a culture closely parallel to his experience growing up as the gay child of heterosexual parents. Intrigued, he set out to parse the sometimes slender difference between identity and illness.
Vertical identities are what Solomon defined as inborn qualities dictated by ancestry and biology, such as skin color and language. Horizontal identities are traits in some measure learned primarily from a peer group, such as criminality.
"I came to believe almost anything can be defined as both identities and illnesses," he said.
In 1973, the centuries-long definition of homosexuality as a pathological disease ended, when the American Psychiatric Association removed it from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but it took decades for society to catch up.
"How did this illness (being gay) turn into an identity and what other realms is it possible to have a similar shift?" Solomon asked.
The search for an answer drove him to burrow into the lives of children whose parents wrestled with issues the general public sees as esoteric or polemic dinner table conversation: Do I deny my child's "natural" state and engage in "limb lengthening," a barbaric but possible means of adding 13 inches to the height of a dwarf? Do I place my Down syndrome baby for adoption? Can a person who commits filicide (murdering one's own child) be forgiven?
Solomon said the parents who were able to find meaning in the suffering were liberated.
"Even if it wasn't accurate, I found they were able to lead wonderful lives," he said. "In our quest for cures, we dehumanize," he explained. "If we deny the value of a child, we are entering a dangerous world."
Solomon's gritty subjects gain buoyancy through clear, effortless writing. Laid bare, but glowing under the light of his (and possibly, our) radiant compassion, the tortured, tedious, tremendous lives of these parents and their far-from-the-tree children are as remarkable an achievement as the book that honors them.