On Moving “Far From The Tree” to the “To Buy” Pile


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.



18 responses to “On Moving “Far From The Tree” to the “To Buy” Pile

  1. My parent's donor is my father

    Here are a couple of articles for consideration in response:

    “The New Birds and the Bees”

    Why Not?
    “Gay marriage bill may lead to ‘lesbian queen and artificially inseminated heir’
    Former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit also warns that legislation could allow him to marry his son to escape inheritance tax”


    • The first link is leads to what I agree is a really interesting discussion. It’s unquestionably true that we have in many ways decoupled sex and procreation in our world. You can have sex and not procreate (in all the ways discussed) or you can procreate without sex (ditto) or you can do both at the same time. This is indeed a big change–and I think most especially for women who bear the risk of an unintended pregnancy. There’s no doubt that the consequences of this shift are complicated and varied. And you can come up with horrible possibilities, etc. But overall is the change necessarily a bad thing? Or is the more bad than good flowing from it? While the authors may think so, I don’t. I still there is plenty of room for improvement in many social policies, but I have no desire to relink sex and procreation.

      By contrast the second article seems rather silly and hysterical. I suppose the lesbian queen using AI is possible, but would a lesbian queen getting pregnant by enduring sex with a man be any better? I think his problem is with the lesbian queen and presumably the problem there is with a woman who does not need a man. And marrying his son to escape inheritance tax? I haven’t seen any groundswell of support for allowing parents to marry their children and I don’t expect that I will any time soon.

      • My parent's donor is my father

        I agree that the first article is really interesting, which is the reason why I shared the second article which I also agree does sounds hysterical but it is still a reasonable question (If/when ‘marriage’ law no longer includes the opposite sex requirement, then does ‘marriage’ law discriminate against other forms of relationships? I’m sure you are familiar with the questions, ‘what does ‘sex’ have to do with it?’, ‘why the number two?’ etc. etc.). There are plenty of things written about it (and some of those questions were raised by the US Supreme Court Justices reviewing the DOMA case).

        • My parent's donor is my father

          These are the same arguments raised by http : //www . beyondmarriage . org/ (remove spaces to link). Do you agree with this organization’s statements/beliefs/advocacy?

          • My parent's donor is my father

            I apologize that my responses/questions seem to be segueing from the immediate topic of your post. I’ve been following your blog for quite a long time and I’ve notice a general overall theme that I am interested in understanding. No need to respond here. I will send you a private note.

        • I do think asking whether close relatives should be allowed to marry in a world that allows same-sex marriage is fair and important. There’s an interesting discussion to be had there, as you suggest. The concern that this would be a desirable course because of estate taxes seems rather more revealing of the class of the questioner than anything else, though.

          So here’s one way to think about the question–the question being if marriage isn’t tied to reproduction and if couples who cannot reproduce can marry, then why shouldn’t father/son or mother/daughter or sister/sister marriages be permitted? These are relationships currently barred by incest laws. Many people would say the key is in understanding why we have incest laws. It’s not only–or maybe not even–about genetics. After all, a father cannot marry an adopted child even though there is no genetic issue there. And adopted siblings cannot marry–no matter what the sexes of the siblings. There are other possible justifications for incest laws. One (that I find persuasive) is that households are settings where people are in daily and extremely close contact. Think about parents raising children, say. If sexuality is possible these relationships become distorted and dangerous. Incest prohibitions (including taboos) exist to prevent us from even thinking along those lines. And this has nothing to do with reproductive capacity. Thus, if we identify marriage as a sanctioned romantic dyadic relationship then we must exclude close relatives from that relationship–regardless of the reproductive potential of the people involved.

          • My parent's donor is my father

            “The concern that this would be a desirable course because of estate taxes seems rather more revealing of the class of the questioner than anything else, though.”

            What do you mean by that?

            The Beyond Marriage group states that the special privileges of marriage is discriminating against other relationships.

            Do you think this reveals anything about the class of this group?

            Why identify marriage in this way?:
            “Thus, if we identify marriage as a sanctioned romantic dyadic relationship then we must exclude close relatives from that relationship–regardless of the reproductive potential of the people involved.”

            Of course that leads to the next question. What is a mother, a father, a brother, a sister in relation to ART? Where there is no social relationship.

            Incest laws and marriage laws really do not make any sense when the natural/biological/procreative element is removed and reproduction is viewed as production.

            As a lawyer, this must make your job a bit harder I’d imagine (or easier depending on the side you are arguing)

            As the author of “The Birds and the Bees” article wrote:
            “We are not a rational people. We are a strange people.”

            • What I meant was that most middle income people don’t really have to worry about estate taxes and so there’s no prospect of marrying your children to avoid it. The people who engage in elaborate tax avoidance schemes (and I would put marrying your child in that category) tend to be upper or way upper class. They do planning with generation skipping trusts and such like. It may be right to raise concerns about the parent/child marriage–but it seems to me silly to suggest that the reason we should worry about it is because of the tax avoidance potential. This strikes me as something that only someone who has already thought about tax avoidance would fix on.

              As to the definition of marriage–I’m thinking about the definition that seems to be operating in the states that allow same-sex marriage. They do not (as I think you agree) identify marriage as a relationship that is primarily about reproduction. Indeed, this is the major shift of the last decade or so. Instead, marriage is considered to be a romantic relationship between two adults. (It’s still generally two, though some would challenge this.) And it is a romantic relationship–something which hasn’t always been true–it’s been financial or political in the past (thinking here about marriages between landed gentry, etc.) I don’t mean to suggest that one has to identify marriage this way. Possibly we can agree that the definition of marriage is currently contested. I was just trying to put one possible view of that into words.

              And the point I wanted to make is that even if you abandon the reproductive function of marriage and go with the romantic couple idea, you can still say that marriages between close family members are prohibited. Indeed, the bar would apply to adopted children which it would not apply to if you were only concerned with genetics. As I said (or tried to say) incest laws make sense even if you don’t care about genetics if you want to create a space from sexual tensions in which there can be the kind of physical intimacy that it common among family members. Most people think a step-father/step-daughter pairing ought to be off limits and that has nothing to do with genetics.

              • My parent's donor is my father

                Yes, I agree marriages between close family members should apply to adopted children (Woody Allen obviously didn’t get that memo though) but I’m still confused as to how that might apply to people with close genetic relationships who are not close family members (define family member – that’s rhetorical).

                The definition of marriage is very much contested and will continue to be moving forward.

                • Ok–so we agree about the Woody Allen problem–there should be a bar to marriage (and that isn’t because of genetics.) You can clearly allow same-sex marriage and not allow that.

                  As you go on are you thinking about marriage between say an adult brother/sister (or brother/brother) who are full genetic siblings but were adopted out so didn’t grow up in the same household? Thus, they are genetic siblings but not social? (As opposed to the adopted in who are social siblings, but not genetic.) And is the question how can you justify having the genetic siblings barred from marriage if marriage isn’t about reproduction?

                  (By the way, have you seen John Sayles’ movie Lone Star? There is a reason I ask.)

                  • My parent's donor is my father

                    This is kind of an aside to SSM but related. (Here is a great debate on that, fyi:…where this topic is addressed – I personally am most persuaded by Ryan Anderson’s take: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3miJ0UJ07o4&feature=youtu.be)

                    Back to the brother/sister, brother/brother, sister/sister, daughter/father, son/mother marriage – you asked if I was referring to full sibs separated via adoption. I was referring to people conceived via “donor” (egg/sperm) conception where genetic relationships are seriously underminded and negated…but adoption also.

                    Haven’t seen Lone Star but I will add it to my Netflix queue!

                  • My parent's donor is my father

                    RE: Lone Star – read the wikipedia description. Exactly.

                    Westermarck Effect

                    Doesn’t always apply. Have you read “Flowers in the Attic”?

                • Many state incest laws state that the law applies to both adoptive and biological relationships, and not just “legal” relationships. So that does seem to suggest that two people who know they are biologically but not legally related (as a result of adoption or egg/sperm donation) would not be allowed to marry.

                  • My parent's donor is my father

                    I guess the key word here is “know”. I wonder if those states allow anonymity re: “donor” conception and adoption. But even if the parties do know, if there is no social relationship, how does the (incest) law justify this? They could always adopt, use a “donor”, traditional surrogate or use PDG with IVF to prevent genetic problems. Incest laws almost seem outdated. That is unless we create laws mandating identity disclosure (for “donors”, birth parents and half/full siblings).

                  • You know, it’s funny how people just blindly trust that they are being inseminated with sperm that came from the individual they selected out of a catalog. Heck there really don’t have to be people behind all those profiles, really it could just be one or two guys sperm sold under a multitude of different brand names. What are you going to do give the kid back if he’s short and fat and dumpy instead of tall and lean and handsome? They can bill them as identity release…and what are they going to do if 18 years into it nobody picks up the phone? It’s so incredibly easy to lie and it is so lucrative there is no incentive not to lie. You don’t even know if the sperm came from a man that consented to reproduce with you for all you know he could be another patient at the fertility clinic whose sperm was missappropriated. He could be your first second or third cousin. Heck they use 20 year old frozen sperm it could be your father uncle or grandpa. Everyone is worried about sibling incest with donor offspring – lets start with the two blindfolded people that make a baby. There is a real good chance he’s a relative because your custom selecting him based on how well his child will fit with your family.

  2. I sometimes thing that ART proponents belong in the same bed and creationists in their attitude towards biology.
    Denying reproduction? Reproduction is a biological procedure carried out by every organism. And since Charles Darwin we know that every reproduction carries mutations. So what?
    I accept his point that our children are separate human being from us; in some way strangers. One need not deny biology in order to accept that.
    Production is a frightening word, it involves direct manipulation of things outside ourselves, to mass produce items for commercial consumption. That is what the word means, that’s how it’s used. That someone things production is an appropriate substitute for reproduction is scary.

    • I don’t think Solomon or anyone else is denying the process by which egg and sperm unite to create a new human being. This is nothing like creationism. The question is what do we call that process and what does our use of language mean.

      I think Solomon (and surely I) also agree with you that most people call it reproduction. But if you just stop and think about the words “reproduce” or “reproduction” out of this context does that make sense? A reproduction of a work of art is a copy. What Xerox machines do is to reproduce an exact copy of the document I put on top of it. To reproduce–if you take it apart–is to produce again. I think the word, on its own, suggests that the reproduction is identical (or very close to identical) to the original.

      But this simply isn’t true with regard to a child. A child is not a reproduction of her/his mother. Neither is he/she a reproduction her/his father. The child is a new and unique creature, composed of genetic elements of both mother and father that are combined in a totally unique way. I suppose I could think about this in a different way–if a child is the product of reproduction than what exactly has been reproduced? If a child is an original, then how can it be said to be the result of reproduction?

      In the end, this is about language and what we call things, not science or biology. But of course, the language does matter. We do indeed call the process reproduction, but it doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in other contexts. The more general meaning of reproduction doesn’t really fit what’s going on here.

  3. Interesting — I agree that language matters and the author presents an interesting idea. I quite agree that genetic parents are not reproducing themselves, but creating a entirely new human being.

    I also believe the same would be true of clones, which would also not be reproductions but unique human beings. There was a fascinating story of cloned cats, and the kittens all looked different. Here’s one story on it; you can see how the coat of the daughter clone differs from her mother: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2002/feb/15/genetics.highereducation

    The work involved in gestation and labor is simultaneously romanticized and undervalued in the USA. (You are a mother/ You are glowing!/ But there is a lack of political will to put in place robust laws to protect pregnant woman from being fired in the workplace, to provide paid maternity leave, ect.)

    The word “production” may help to emphasize that “reproduction” is valuable and difficult work and women should be compensated and valued for their societal contributions. Just as engineers, computer programers, artists, teachers, and writers are valued for their productive capacities, so should all pregnant women. In fact, since their labor is so critical to human society, their work should be more highly valued and more generously compensated.

    I have joked that every single pregnant woman (mothers/ surrogates/ everybody who undergoes pregnancy) ought to get a two week pampering vacation in a spa after giving birth. But, to be serious, I would support ideas such as a mother’s pension, retirement support, or other substantial compensation that recognizes not only the risks incurred by pregnancy but also the valuable productive benefit for society. If nobody gets pregnant human society ends. We (meaning society) collectively owe pregnant women a great debt.

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