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Unique children find own kinship

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It is a fear common to all parents -- your child is different. Not simply different from other kids at the same age and stage, but also different from you in mystifying, heart-breaking and often infuriating ways.

Although parents often wish to have children who exhibit only their very best tendencies and family traits, New York author and journalist Andrew Solomon is interested in exactly the opposite. His lengthy yet accessible work for parents, educators and activists alike is both formidably academic and deeply personal, as Solomon reflects upon the phenomenon of children who are profoundly and distinctively different from their parents.

Counting himself among the legion of children to have caused this universal familial burden, Solomon notes wryly, "these children are apples that have fallen elsewhere."

In what comes across at times like a personal crusade, Solomon spent more than a decade interviewing and studying the commonalities between seemingly unique groups of diverse individuals. This after his 2001 memoir of depression, The Noonday Demon, won the U.S. National Book Award.

Over 10 years ago, while working on a magazine article about deaf culture, he began to notice similarities in identity-building across otherwise disparate communities of people who had been categorized by their surrounding culture as abnormal or extraordinary.

Solomon observed that some traits, whether learned or genetic, were not inherited, so the child had to seek out kinship from other people with similar traits.

As Solomon began to compare the experiences of these seemingly atypical groups of people who had been formed primarily by horizontal, rather than vertical, identities, he realized with a shock of recognition that his personal experience as a gay teenager with dyslexia gave him insights into the exclusions and challenges that deaf and autistic people were facing.

Rather than a few random and damaged souls adrift in a sea of normalcy, Solomon began finding many exceptional people who were part of a rich tapestry of diversity that actually was more unified that he initially imagined.

What distinguishes this book from the scores of shallow and trite self-help books that clog the bestseller lists is its patient attention to both the academic literature and the daily experiences of appealing case studies.

There are enough detailed footnotes and comprehensive bibliography to satisfy those well-versed in the healing professions, and yet lots of engaging stories and insightful insights about the small joys and large heartbreaks of living life as exceptional within family units that range from completely supportive to utterly rejecting.

Solomon chooses different horizontal-identity markers ranging from autism to dwarfism to geniuses, in order to highlight what is truly unique and transcendent about our common humanity.

As he considers each of these groups in turn, his gaze is compassionate, but Solomon does not excuse or minimize the damage done by and to people and families. His treatment of rape-conceived children is poignant but not cloying, while his chapters on transgendered people and prodigies both contain strongly drawn portraits of families rising to the challenge of acceptance and love.

Solomon is on less sure ground with parents of criminals, as the element of free will and choice are strongest here and, fittingly enough, tend to mess up some of the his categories and analyses. Despite some insightful sociological critiques, this chapter ends up feeling disconnected from the rest of the book.

Solomon chronicles not just the challenges of coming to grips with creating new forms of family, but also the quotidian joys and sorrows of marriage and fathering that his own parents experienced.

In the end, Far from the Tree ultimately embraces what Solomon calls "the terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility," and offers his introspective and powerful story as a beacon of hope to other families struggling toward the light.

Dr. Andrew Hall is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who works in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 J9

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Updated on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 4:11 PM CST: adds fact box

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