MORRILL MEMORIAL LIBRARY

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When Children Fall Far from the Tree

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole in her Adventures in Wonderland, she was chasing the White Rabbit. When I fall down into a rabbit hole, it too means that my own White Rabbit, or curiosity, has gotten the best of me. I’ve been known to lose significant chunks of time only to reappear to meet my demands in life. As a college student, this happened in the library – either in the drawers of extensive card catalogs or in the endless mazes of the book stacks. Sometimes I surrounded myself with so many massive volumes of the Reader’s Guide(s) to Periodical Literature that I was not only figuratively, but literally, lost among them.

As a naturally curious student of life, and a librarian at that, this curiosity occurs almost daily. The difference today, of course, is that there are now many more endless opportunities to get lost. Give me a website like the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Wikipedia (gasp!) or the Urban Dictionary, and I’m meters down the rabbit hole faster than you can say “Wonderland.” Open up the candy boxes of the Internet like the Library of Congress, National Geographic, or Google Scholar and off again.

The rabbit hole also beacons me down when I visit my paid subscriptions to Netflix and Sundance, or our library services – Hoopla! and Kanopy. I’m a documentary junkie, and even the titles that don’t sound the least appealing to me hook me instantly. But then I often find myself pressing the pause button because I need to know more. Details of every character and each location. Links to clips and articles. It always leads to the library catalog and seeking those books that could tell me more.

Many of those rabbit holes become library columns. And just like my habit as a college student, I never feel that I’ve opened up enough of those candy boxes and consumed the contents. My husband, Gerry, will attest to the fact that I often start my columns with an idea on a Friday night and spend much of my weekend on my laptop, free-falling among the twists and turns of my latest curiosity.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled online upon the documentary Far From the Tree (and now available as a DVD in our library.) It didn’t take long for me to discover that Far From the Tree was based upon a  2012 book with the same name by Andrew Solomon, subtitled Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Soon, I unearthed the young adult edition with the subtitle How Children and Their Parents Learn to Accept Another … Our Differences Unite Us. Both of Solomon’s books qualify as sizable tomes for their audiences. The 2017 edition adapted for younger readers is over 400 pages. With notes, a bibliography and index, the original Far From the Tree is nearly 950 pages.

In the books and documentary, Solomon studies children who, unlike “acorns which fall from the oak tree,” fall “far from the tree.” Solomon explores the circumstances that cause children to be unlike their parents and even their siblings. These children and their families cope with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and other disabilities. They may be gay or transgender, criminals or murderers. In his lengthy book, he describes pages of cases and individuals in each of these named circumstances.

The documentary is simpler but still powerful. IFC (Independent Film Company) and Director Rachel Dretzin include intense childhood videos of children growing up and who are dealing with their differences. Also included are testimonies of the family members who are coping with accepting them.

Author, researcher, journalist, and professor, Andrew Solomon has a well-deserved reputation. The first chapter of both editions of his books describes his dyslexia and the resulting nurturing love of his mother who helped him learn despite it. Solomon graduated from the Horace Mann School in New York with honors at age 18. He earned his BA from Yale and a Master’s and Ph.D. from Jesus College in Cambridge England. He wrote The Noonday Demon, a memoir of his own depression and a definitive study of depression that earned the 2001 National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed Solomon in 2015 after an update to The Noonday Demon with an additional chapter on new treatments. Solomon has four TED Talks to his credit. One reflects explicitly on the insight he shares in Far From the Tree. (Thankfully, inspirational TED and TEDx talks can all be viewed online, for free.) In Love, No Matter What (2013) Solomon shares what he learned from children, parents, and families he talked to about learning to unconditionally love and accept differences from what was initially dreamed.

Solomon is a professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Medical School in New York City and is deeply involved with work related to women’s depression during and after pregnancy, doctoral research he accomplished before being awarded the degree in 2013. He is also actively engaged in LGBT rights and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in their families.

Solomon’s mother did not accept Andrew’s admission that he was, as a young adult, gay. In his books, and on his website (andrewsolomon.com), he argues that while he now knows that his parents always loved him, he did not recognize it as love because he felt that they rejected him. His mother sadly died of cancer years before her son earned much of his success or her acceptance; Andrew was in his late 20s at the time. His father, however, is still alive and spoke at his son’s wedding to his husband John in 2007, a poignant moment was shown on screen in the documentary.

Far From the Tree is about courage, compassion, and acceptance. These unique children are not defined by their differences when their families communicate their love for them and triumph over the odds. It is an intensely strong film.

Solomon wrote his autobiographical debut novel, A Stone Boat, in 1994.  His last book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change was written in 2016. I’m thankful I tripped upon the documentary that led me down my rabbit hole, discovering more about Andrew Solomon through his books and online, along his journey. All of his powerful books, and the documentary based upon Far From the Tree, are available at our library, and through the MLN catalog.

Charlotte Canelli is the Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the March 21, 2019 issue of the Norwood Transcript.

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