Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Anglais) Broché – 13 novembre 2012
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Until I attended my first dwarf convention—the 2003 Little People of America (LPA) meeting in Danvers, Massachusetts—I had no clue how many kinds of dwarfism there are, nor how many varieties of appearance are collected under the category. Dwarfism is a low-incidence condition, usually occurring because of a random genetic mutation. Since most dwarfs are born to average-height parents, they do not have vertical community. There has been occasional talk about building a town for little people (LPs); there are metropolises where activist LPs have settled; there are high concentrations of otherwise rare dwarfing conditions among the Amish; but there has never been a significant geographic concentration of people of short stature. This means that the national LPA gatherings are not simply occasions to attend lectures and consult medical experts; for some participants, they are the annual exception to a certain kind of loneliness. The gatherings are emotionally intense; one dwarf I met told me she was “happy for one week a year,” although others emphasized that they love both of their lives—the one in the larger world, and the one among their LPA friends. More than 10 percent of Americans of short stature belong to LPA, and the organization has a role in the LP community that is greater than that of similar groups for comparable populations.
Arriving at the Sheraton Ferncroft Resort, where the convention was taking place, I was struck by how the concentration of LPs changed my perception of them. Instead of seeing, primarily, short stature, I saw that one was exceptionally beautiful, that one was unusually short even for a dwarf, that one laughed uproariously and often, that one had an especially intelligent face—and so I began to recognize how generically I had responded to little people until then. I understood what a relief it had to be for them that no one was focused on their height. Of course, the LPA convention was all about stature, but it was also the place where stature became blessedly irrelevant.
It would be difficult for an outsider to acknowledge this particularizing view of, for example, Latinos or Muslims. To say that a person’s ethnicity or religion had overwhelmed, even temporarily, one’s ability to appreciate his other personal characteristics would seem bigoted. But dwarfism has been the exception to these social rules. According to Betty Adelson, author of The Lives of Dwarfs and Dwarfism, “The only permissible prejudice in PC America is against dwarfs.” Mary D’Alton, chair of Columbia University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a leader in the field of high-risk pregnancy, told me that dwarfism is the most difficult diagnosis to communicate to expectant parents. “You say that the baby has a hole in his heart,” she said, “and they say, ‘But you can fix that, right?’ But when I tell someone that they will be having a dwarf, they often seem disgusted by the idea.”
Many of the attendees I met my first day at LPA could identify instantly conditions that I had never heard of or imagined and had certainly never seen. When I went down to the conference disco the first night, I saw a brother and sister who had primordial dwarfism; they were full-grown, perfectly proportioned, and only about twenty-nine inches high. Their parents stood with them to make sure they weren’t trampled—a danger even at the dwarf convention. I learned that the girl played percussion in her high school band; she had a classmate who pushed her tiny wheelchair, and she held the drum in her lap—looking, in the words of a dwarf who was herself just three foot eight, “like a marionette.” The conference featured athletic competitions; a marathon-length talent show, including acts from Christian music to break dancing; and a fashion show, which revealed a broad range of dressy and casual styles, all tailored to little bodies. The conference also provided an eagerly awaited opportunity for dating. A dwarf comedian cracked, “You know you’re a teenager at LPA if you’ve had more boyfriends this week than you’ve had in the last year.”
• • •
When I met Mary Boggs on my second day at LPA, she told me that the organization had changed her life. When her daughter Sam was born in 1988, the obstetrician initially assumed that the baby’s diminutive size was a result of her premature arrival. A month later, while she was still in the neonatal intensive care unit, he diagnosed her with achondroplasia. “We would have rather had a child that was deaf or blind,” Mary told me. “Just anything besides a dwarf would have been better. When you’re thinking about what could go wrong with a pregnancy, this doesn’t cross your mind. We were thinking, ‘Why did we have another child at all?’”
Sam came home to her parents’ house in the suburbs of Washington, DC, on oxygen and a monitor. After six months, when Sam was declared physically healthy, Mary took her to her first local LPA meeting. When Sam was a year and a half old, she had a shunt inserted in her head to relieve her hydrocephalus (the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the head); fortunately, she did not have the skeletal problems that in later life afflict so many people with achondroplasia. Mary and her husband got step stools and put them all over the house; they purchased light-switch extenders; they moved the faucet on the kitchen sink. These adjustments at home were easier to control than the challenges outside. “We’ve had people chase us down the grocery aisle to ask questions,” Mary said. “We learned to stare back. It frightens them off. I’d watch Sam not playing with the other kids because she’s too small to do what they do. You just feel sad.”
Before Sam set off for kindergarten, her parents told her that other kids would call her names; they reviewed what some of those names might be and taught her appropriate responses. Mary went to the school and explained Sam’s special needs, giving the teacher a book about dwarfs that she could read aloud to the class. The school lowered the sink and water fountain and installed a grab bar so Sam could pull herself up on the toilet. The kids in her class learned her story, but each year it was new to an incoming kindergarten class, and some would call her names. So Sam decided to make a presentation to each incoming class. She would explain, “I’m little, but I’m eight years old. I’m in third grade. I’m a dwarf, and I’m just like you all, but just short.” She did that every year through elementary school, and the teasing stopped.
When Sam was five, the Boggs family attended their first national LPA convention. “We walked in and saw a thousand dwarfs,” Mary said. “Sam was in shock. I thought my other daughter, who is average height, was going to cry. It took two or three days for us to take it in.” Over the years that followed, the Boggs family persuaded extended family and friends to come to meetings, so that they would know dwarfs other than Sam. “The grandparents could see adult dwarfs and realize, ‘Okay, this is what Sam’s going to look like,’” Mary said. She considered for a minute. “We went for Sam, but also so we could be comfortable with her. To make it easier for us to love her right.”
Middle school was more difficult than elementary school. “People who had been friends for years were suddenly not wanting to hang out with her anymore,” Mary said. “She was not called to go roller skating or go to the movies on Friday night. They pretended that it wasn’t because she was a dwarf. But she knew.” The athletics department gave her a varsity letter for being manager of the track team; she participated in student council and was elected treasurer of her class. Despite this, she was down to a couple of friends. “She’s a little lonely,” Mary said. “She’d have crushes on the boys at school, but eventually realized that average-size guys were not interested in going out with her. It was a big turning point when she started looking more at the hot guys at LPA.”
When I met Sam, she was in the throes of her first romance. She was fifteen going on sixteen, attractive and strikingly mature, and, at three feet nine inches, fairly short for a teenager with achondroplasia. Mary was optimistic about the future. “I would prefer for her to have an LP boyfriend or LP husband,” she said to me. “I think it’ll be easier for her. It’s kind of neat. I mean, you have a dwarf child. But it doesn’t just stop there; it goes on forever. We’re going to have, probably, a dwarf son-in-law, and dwarf grandchildren. What used to be an average-size family then becomes, when we’re gone, a dwarf family! And to think, if I’d known about this early in my pregnancy, I might have terminated.”
• • •
Writing in 1754, William Hay, a dwarf and the first notable memoirist of disability, described visiting a general: “I never was more humbled, than when I walked with him among his tall Men, made still taller by their Caps. I seemed to my self a Worm and no Man: and could not but inwardly grieve, that when I had the same Inclination to the Service of my Country and Prince, I wanted their Strength to perform it.” This feeling of inadequacy salted with the wish to transcend it has been a common narrative among dwarfs, but in the long pause between Hay’s dignified early account and the modern literature on the experience of being an LP, a grossness of prejudice has often quelled that dignity.
Woody Allen once quipped that dwarf is one of the four funniest words in the English language. To be in your very essence perceived as comical is a significant burden. When I described the other categories included in this book, my listeners were hushed by the seriousness of the enterprise; at the mention of dwarfs, friends burst into laughter. I would describe, for example, the time during a convention when a miscreant dwarf had made a bomb threat at 8:00 a.m., so that all hotel guests, most recovering from a night of intense partying, had to evacuate the building. People found hilarity in the mere idea of some five hundred sleepy dwarfs, many of them hungover, standing in the hotel’s forecourt. This had some resonance for me; I know that not so long ago, people might have found the idea of five hundred sleepy homosexuals similarly hilarious. But homosexuality can be hidden, and being among gay people is not a visual gag. Passersby who might avert their eyes tactfully from wheelchair users stare at dwarfs. A sighted woman who marries a blind man inspires admiration; an average-size woman who marries a dwarf inspires suspicion that she has a fetish. Dwarfs still appear in freak shows; in dwarf-tossing competitions; and in pornography, where a whole subgenre featuring dwarf sex exploits an objectifying voyeurism. This is testimony to a callousness beyond that shown to almost any other disabled group. Barbara Spiegel, now director of community outreach at LPA, described how her grandmother said, “You’re a beautiful girl, but no one’s going to marry you. You need to be able to do everything because you’re going to be alone.” Barbara’s stepmother complained about having to be seen on the street with her.
More than 80 percent of people with skeletal dysplasias—the primary dwarfing conditions, the most common among which is achondroplasia, resulting in shortened limbs, a large head, and an average trunk—are born to average parents with no history of dwarfism in their families, either because of de novo mutations or because both parents carry a recessive gene. Other forms of dwarfism include pituitary dwarfism, based on lack of human growth hormone, and psychosocial dwarfism, caused by severe physical abuse.
Parents are still dealing with a legacy of blame assigned to mothers. From medieval times into the eighteenth century, “monstrous births” were said to indicate the unfulfilled desires of lascivious women, whose obscene longings supposedly produced deformity. This theory, called Imaginationism, was hotly debated for hundreds of years. The Princeton historian Marie-Hélène Huet describes how “in the nineteenth century, discoveries in the fields of embryology and heredity provided scientists with new ways of explaining resemblances. But if the mother’s imagination was no longer perceived by the medical field to be a factor in resemblances, its role as the shaper of progeny was never totally forgotten.” John Mulliken, a pediatric surgeon, writes that every parent wants to know what he or she did to cause the situation. “In most cases, the answer is nothing. But every mother is blamed.”
Dwarfism is also often outside the experience of doctors with whom these parents initially interact, and parents frequently recall being told of the condition with particular insensitivity. Adelson recounts one doctor’s pronouncement to the parents of a newly diagnosed child—“You have given birth to a circus dwarf”—and another’s equally heartless recommendation that a child he had diagnosed should “be institutionalized or sent to live with a dwarf troupe in Florida.” One mother reported that most doctors acted as though her daughter were defective and therefore didn’t deserve to be treated like a “real” baby. Another described being in the delivery room with her dwarf husband when the doctor said to them both, “I regret to tell you that your child is a dwarf.”
Such behavior from a doctor is not merely a breach of etiquette; the way the news of a dwarfing condition is communicated to parents may have a lasting effect on their ability to love and care for their child. Mothers and fathers are helped by knowing right away that the child will have a full life span, that they did not cause the dwarfism through acts during pregnancy, and that their child can lead a happy, healthy, and independent life. Parents, in turn, influence friends and family; embarrassed parents create awkward friends. In addition to LPA, organizations such as the MAGIC Foundation and the Human Growth Foundation have fact-filled websites and sponsor both online chat rooms and local support groups, providing average-size parents of dwarf children opportunities to meet dwarfs who are living positive, fulfilling lives.
Nonetheless, many parents begin in sadness, denial, and shock. One dwarf, Ginny Sargent, wrote online, “No matter what we (as dwarfs) feel about how great it is to be alive, I still can’t help but wonder how much more pain (more than I) my mother was in when I was in discomfort . . . upset, hurt, or disheartened and beaten down by my uniqueness.”
Matt Roloff, former president of LPA and father on the popular television program Little People, Big World, said, “My parents didn’t wonder what I would like to do, what kind of woman I’d marry, or how many children I would have. They wondered what I could do for a living, if I could ever marry, and if I could have children.” He is now married to Amy, also a dwarf, and they have four children. Little People, Big World, which ran for almost four years on the Learning Channel, documented the Roloffs’ lives on their farm in Portland, Oregon. The show is somewhat voyeuristic but fairly clear of sensationalism, and it has helped to normalize perceptions of LPs.
Amy Roloff grew up in a household in which few accommodations were made for her. Friends who came to visit wondered why the phone was positioned where she needed to climb on a stool to reach it. “My mom said, ‘If Amy has to learn to adapt outside of the home, she might as well feel comfortable and learn to adapt within the home.’ Nothing was really tailored to my needs, and that was a good idea, ’cause I’m more independent.” The Roloffs have two average-height sons and one, Zach, with achondroplasia. Amy didn’t want to set up a house that suited the LPs in the family and felt foreign to the average kids, so she kept things “regular.” She encouraged Zach to be both proud of and nonchalant about his dwarfism. “He said one day, ‘Mom, we were playing and the kids were a little too rough.’ I said, ‘Zach, why don’t you be a little grateful that; perhaps, this was a moment where they don’t even think of you as a little person; they’re just hanging out and goofing around with you? That’s a good thing.’”
This equalizing spirit is extended to all of her children. Jeremy is the eldest and the tallest. “I have to remind Matt that we can’t take advantage of Jeremy because he’s tall. I don’t want him to think that he’s only good in the family ’cause he’s tall.” But even the New York Times, commenting on her children as they appear on TV, described Jeremy as “a gorgeous young athlete who manages the soccer ball with lazy grace,” and his brother Zachary as having “a clever and intense persona.” There’s nothing wrong with a clever and intense persona, but it’s interesting what different vocabulary comes up when the writer is describing, with kind intent, someone with a body that is not beautiful within the conventions of our larger society.
Revue de presse
“Solomon is a storyteller of great intimacy and ease…He approaches each family’s story thoughtfully, respectfully…Bringing together their voices, Solomon creates something of enduring warmth and beauty: a quilt, a choir.” (Kate Tuttle The Boston Globe)
“Solomon’s first chapter, entitled ‘Son,’ is as masterly a piece of writing as I’ve come across all year. It combines his own story with a taut and elegant précis of this book’s arguments. It is required reading…This is a book that shoots arrow after arrow into your heart.” (Dwight Garner The New York Times)
“A brave, beautiful book that will expand your humanity.” (Anne Leslie PEOPLE)
“[Far from the Tree] is a masterpiece of non-fiction, the culmination of a decade’s worth of research and writing, and it should be required reading for psychologists, teachers, and above all, parents…A bold and unambiguous call to redefine how we view difference…A stunning work of scholarship and compassion.” (Carmela Ciuraru USA Today)
“Deeply moving…” (Lisa Zeidner The Washington Post)
“A book of extraordinary ambition…Part journalist, part psychology researcher, part sympathetic listener, Solomon’s true talent is a geographic one: he maps the strange terrain of the human struggle that is parenting.” (Brook Wilensky-Lanford The San Francisco Cronicle)
“Monumental…Solomon has an extraordinary gift for finding his way into the relatively hermetic communities that form around conditions…and gaining the confidence of the natives.” (Lev Grossman TIME)
“Masterfully written and brilliantly researched…Far from the Tree stands apart from the countless memoirs and manuals about special needs parenting published in the last couple of decades.” (Tina Calabro Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
“A careful, subtle, and surprising book.” (Nathan Heller The New Yorker)
“Far from the Tree is fundamentally about the bonds and burdens of family, and it’s a huge valentine to those who embrace the challenge of raising children who are in some way not what they had hoped for.” (Virginia Vitzthum ELLE)
“Solomon has found remarkable fonts of love and kindness in the mothers and fathers of children afflicted with severe problems, and he captures their lives in one touching anecdote after another.” (Paul McHugh The Wall Street Journal)
“A raucous, joyful tribute that exalts all parents who love their alien offspring with molten force.” (Ann Bauer Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
“Solomon is a superb writer…[Far from the Tree] is the author’s “Song of Myself,” a book containing multitudes. It is a gorgeous, necessary, ambitious book.” (George Estreich The Oregonian)
“Solomon treats his subjects with great empathy.” (Rachel Wexelbaum Lambda Literary Review)
“Deeply profound…[A] brilliant tome.” (Kristen Kemp Parents magazine)
“A behemoth worth every one of its 976 pages.” (Amy Boaz Publishers Weekly)
“Years of interviews with families and their unique children culminate in this compassionate compendium…The truth Solomon writes about here is as poignant as it is implacable, and he leaves us with a reinvented notion of identity and individual value." (Booklist)
“[These] stories are entirely unpredictable and offer us the full range of human experience—not only the horror but also the astonishing beauty—and in the end a Shakespearean sense that we are such stuff as dreams are made of.” (Judith Newman More)
“Profoundly moving…Solomon’s own trials of feeling marginalized as gay, dyslexic, and depressive, while still yearning to be a father, frame these affectingly rendered real tales about bravely playing the cards one’s dealt.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
“An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life, and the future of humanity.” (Kirkus, starred review)
“In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon reminds us that nothing is more powerful in a child’s development than the love of a parent. This remarkable new book introduces us to mothers and fathers across America—many in circumstances the rest of us can hardly imagine—who are making their children feel special, no matter what challenges come their way.” (President Bill Clinton)
"This is one of the most extraordinary books I have read in recent times—brave, compassionate and astonishingly humane. Solomon approaches one of the oldest questions—how much are we defined by nature versus nurture?—and crafts from it a gripping narrative. Through his stories, told with such masterful delicacy and lucidity, we learn how different we all are, and how achingly similar. I could not put this book down.” (Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies)
“Far-reaching, original, fascinating—Andrew Solomon's investigation of many of the most intense challenges that parenthood can bring compels us all to reexamine how we understand human difference. Perhaps the greatest gift of this monumental book, full of facts and full of feelings, is that it constantly makes one think, and think again.” (Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families)
“Solomon, a highly original student of human behavior, has written an intellectual history that lays the foundation for a 21st century Psychological Bill of Rights. In addition to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on the basis of race and religion, this Bill extends inalienable rights of psychological acceptance to people on the basis of their identity. He provides us with an unrivalled educational experience about identity groups in our society, an experience that is filled with insight, empathy and intelligence. We also discover the redefining, self-restructuring nature that caring for a child produces in parents, no matter how unusual or disabled the child is. Reading Far from the Tree is a mind-opening experience.” (Eric Kandel, author of The Age of Insight and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)
“Andrew Solomon has written a brave and ambitious work, bringing together science, culture and a powerful empathy. Solomon tells us that we have more in common with each other—even with those who seem anything but normal—than we would ever have imagined.”— (Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point)
“Far from the Tree is a landmark, revolutionary book. It frames an area of inquiry—difference between parents and children—that many of us have experienced in our own lives without ever considering it as a phenomenon. Andrew Solomon plumbs his topic thoroughly, humanely, and in a compulsively readable style that makes the book as entertaining as it is illuminating.” (Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad) --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Relié.
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That chapter was so good, I moved to the crime chapter and stayed up way too late because I could not put it down. Thank you, Mr. Solomon for pointing out the absurdities in our justice system when it comes to dealing with juvenile crime. (And as for the reviewer who questioned including crime at all, this book focuses on any possible way that a child can turn out different than their parents expected, and being guilty of a crime definitely seems appropriate to me.) I learned a lot from this chapter, and was particularly fascinated by the Klebolds' story. Once again, Soloman wrote with sensitivity about a very difficult and controversial topic.
From there I read the chapter on dwarfism, and then finally turned to the first pages of the book and started reading the beginning! I wanted to learn about how families deal with a diagnosis of autism; instead I learned about how families deal with all kinds of unexpected outcomes, how resilient parents can be when faced with hardships, and how connected are the identities of parents and their children. As a parent, I understand the constant struggle to balance who we want our children to be and who they actually are. "There is no such thing as reproduction" may be my new mantra.
One more thing: in 700 pages (okay, I admit, I didn't read the Acknowledgments) I never found an example of "martyrdom" that one reviewer complained about. The book relates honest responses from parents in the trenches. Parenting isn't always fun, even for parents of kids who have no extra challenges. But Far From the Tree isn't a chronicle of long-suffering devastated parents; there are plenty of positive, hopeful, make-the-best-of-it moments as well.
It's a fascinating book for anyone interested in parenting, psychology, or the history of disability. Highly recommended.
It is a rational and helpful thesis and there is research quoted. But most of the book is based upon very thorough and careful interviews which lead you to wonder about the depths of the mystery of being human and of consciousness, and about the depths of compassion that "ordinary" people develop when they have an "extraordinary" challenge. Yoga teachers are often saying, "Open your heart." Well, this book does.
Andrew Solomon is an excellent writer. Even with medical and forensic research information being shared, he is very clear. It is not always easy to read, emotionally or intellectually. Lots of concentration is required BUT that said, it is like going to grad school for pleasure....the deep pleasure of learning and thinking because you want to.
Even if our own challenges from our "vertical" family are just the average ones, the ability to perceive and validate "horizontal" identity in others is an important insight we all can work with....even with 'temporary' ones like "teenager.'
Every physician, every educator should "have to" read it. May it become an undergraduate classic. May many many people read it now out of interest and in the interest of awareness, of their neighbors challenges. If we are more open to understanding in these ways, we won't have so much to fear (and shun). This book deserves all its awards but more importantly it deserves to be widely read, and for a long time. May it be translated into many languages, so we all have another shared language to explore answers to the fundamental an important questions extraordinary people bring to the lives of families and communities.
Thank you Mr. Solomon, for your good work.
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