A few months back I wrote about a book on my “to read” pile. It’s Andrew Solomon’s “Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.” I have it from the library just now and, as it is around 1000 pages, I don’t think I’m going to finish it. Truth be told, I won’t even make a good start on it. Even so, I’m moving it from “to read” to “to buy.” That’s significant as I buy books rather sparingly, preferring to rely on the library unless I think a book is really a keeper. This one is.
It’s funny because the first thing that struck me was the very first sentence. It’s not surprising that I read the first sentence first, of course. What’s funny is that’s the same thing that struck me when I read the Guardian review, but I’d completely forgotten that. (Okay, mind like a sieve. I know.)
This time I’ll quote the first two sentences rather than just the first line.
“There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads.”
[Emphasis in original.] Solomon goes on to comment:
Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.
Solomon’s focus in the book is children who are, in important ways, not like their parents. They may be differently-abled or they may be mentally ill or they may be lesbian, gay or transsexual. It’s a curious list when you look at it (I’ve only given you a part of it) but there is this common thread–and it’s clearly tied to the title of the book. These children are far from the tree.
In some ways, though, I think Solomon’s first sentences suggests an even broader assertion. All children are some distance from the tree. That’s why they are better viewed as result of production rather than reproduction. Our children are not us. And the more we expect them to be us, the less we will be able to see who they are and what they need from us.
A little side-note here: Saying that “children are the result of production” certainly takes us deeper into the use of language that aligns children with property. (Remember that we all agree that children should not be treated as property.) After all, the way we commonly think about it, things (but not people) are produced. By contrast, though reproduction can produce things (like Xerox copies) it is also the way we usually talk about creating children. Thus, I can certainly see that one could argue that using “production” instead of “reproduction” is a bad idea. But this doesn’t diminish Solomon’s point that using the word “reproduction” here is misleading. Unless and until we perfect cloning, children are not reproductions of their parents. Each child–even an identical twin–is something new, unique and different.
Solomon also offers some very important thoughts on the development of identity. In particular, he distinguishes between vertical identities and horizontal identities. I think this typology is incredibly important.
Vertical identities are passed down from parent to child (or more broadly from generation to generation). What struck me (though it is quite obvious once you say it) is that some but not all of these are genetically based. What Solomon refers to as “shared cultural norms” can also compose vertical identities. So skin color can be the core of an identity and that is clearly genetic. But speaking a language other than that in general use gives rise to a vertical identity and that is not genetic. Similarly, being raised in a particular religion is vertical but not genetic. (As Solomon notes, there are also traits that are genetic but don’t give rise to identities–like myopia.)
Horizontal identities arise from traits foreign to the parents. As above, not all traits foreign to the parents give rise to identities, but some do. Being lesbian or gay is often a horizontal identity. (Most lesbians/gay men have straight parents.) So is belonging to a disability community. (Being deaf, say.)
Of course, people have multiple identities. We are simultaneously of a particular race, a particular gender, an ethnicity, a sexuality, a class, and so on. I would guess that for most of us some of our identities are vertical and some are horizontal. Solomon focusses on the horizontal ones because these are the ones that most confound out notions that are children are like us. Horizontal identities challenge us in special ways.
So I’m moving the book from “to read” to “to buy.” Once I’ve bought it and read it through maybe I’ll have more to say.