Dazzling terror of love

05 March 2013 - 02:14 By Jane Shilling

All children are different, but some are more different than others. Most expectant parents spend the nine months of gestation buoyed by the conviction that their child will be the most remarkable infant in human history.

Most will find their belief vindicated - more or less. For parents euphoric after the dangerous adventure of childbirth, the fact that their offspring displays all the vital signs of normality is enough to make it seem miraculous.

For a significant minority, however, the experience of bringing a child into the world is not one of triumphant relief but the beginning of a time to reconsider expectations.

"Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger," writes Andrew Solomon, "and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination."

Solomon is an academic and journalist whose previous books include the prizewinning study of depressionThe Noonday Demon. The title of his new book is taken from the adage that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but his interest is in the apples that have fallen elsewhere - "some a couple of orchards away".

His book explores the experiences of families who have had to deal with difference, and have learnt over time to accept, accommodate and sometimes even to celebrate it.

The range of difference he explores is - like his book, which runs to 900-odd pages - immense. He writes about children who are dwarfs or deaf; who have Down's syndrome or multiple disabilities. He also considers differences that are not apparent at birth - autism, schizophrenia, children who are transgender and those who will commit crimes - and he includes two categories in which the child is physically and mentally "normal", but possesses a trait that disrupts the family dynamic: children born of rape, and musical prodigies.

The book begins and ends with two chapters of memoir, "Son" and "Father", in which Solomon writes about his own experience of difference. As a child he was dyslexic. His mother, who noticed his difficulties when he was very young, began working on his reading skills when he was just two years old.

"That early victory over dyslexia was formative: with patience, love, intelligence and will, we had trounced a neurological abnormality," Solomon writes. "Unfortunately, it set the stage for our later struggles by making it hard to believe that we couldn't reverse the creeping evidence of another perceived abnormality - my being gay."

That childhood experience of the acceptance of one kind of difference and the rejection of another brings a particular resonance to Solomon's anatomy of otherness.

Increasing acceptance of difference means the narratives of otherness need not be tragic. Solomon writes of the resources of support and empathy among communities of the deaf, dwarfs, transgender children and people with Down's syndrome. But for the parents of children unable to form such social bonds - the severely mentally disabled, or profoundly autistic or schizophrenic - the project of parenthood involves a painful ambivalence between love and despair.

Solomon interviewed more than 200 families, and records the extremities of anguish and devotion he discovered. At the end of the book, as the father of a newborn, it is his own extremity and that of his partnerhe records, when the baby's doctors become concerned about his condition. Watching his son undergo a CAT scan, he recognised in himself the quality he had spent so long observing in others: the dazzling terror of parental love. - © The Daily Telegraph

'Far From the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love' by Andrew Solomon is published by Chatto & Windus, and will be available next month at Exclusive Books, R540

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