The retelling of the story of the Israelites’ passage out of Egypt is deepened with the understanding that each of us inhabits our own Egypt, our own mitzrayim, or narrows, and struggles to free ourselves from the morass of deficits, doubts and disappointments that entangle us. So two recent books are particularly meaningful this season, with their tales of valiant struggle and their messages of hope and resilience.
“I started this book to forgive my parents,” writes Andrew Solomon in his extraordinary study of difference in children, “and ended it by becoming a parent myself.” Such an ending is nothing short of a triumphal validation of Solomon’s gradual understanding of the profound and utter joy of parenting, despite its potential for equally profound and utter despair. Bookending his remarkable “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” (Simon & Schuster, $37.50 hardcover) with chapters titled “Son” and “Father,” Solomon uses the amazingly readable 700 or so pages in between to look at children whose identity typifies difference — deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, transsexualism, among others — and the ways in which their families, and society, perceive and respond to them. He constructs a matrix of vertical identities — attributes or values passed down from parents or cultural norms — and horizontal identities — inherent or acquired traits not acquired from parents — and maps his stories of more than 300 families, interviewed over a course of 10 years, on the framework.
Solomon, a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University and the special adviser on LGBT affairs at Yale University, was moved to explore difference from his own identity as a gay man, and from his experiences growing up in a home and at a time when homosexuality was not accepted. He writes perceptively, as son and now parent, of the wondrous miracle of birth and the incipient optimism it engenders, and how parents’ hopes can be dashed when the child they bear does not match their imagined picture.
Solomon suggests that dealing with such realities can make parenting all the more valiant, as the everyday practicalities of having an atypical child reveal unexpected meaning. It comes, he says, as parents reach a level of acceptance of their child’s horizontal identity and cast off the weight of expectation. Then, he says, “they (fall) in love with someone they didn’t yet know enough to want.”
For John and Jeanne Schwartz that “falling in love” came early, but not so early as to shield their son Joe from a tumultuous childhood that threatened his ability to learn to navigate a potentially unfriendly world. In “Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality” (Gotham Books, $26 hardcover), John Schwartz, a New York Times national correspondent, tells the story of Joe’s life with pathos and humor, testing Solomon’s premise that acceptance will ease the way for both child and parents. The Schwartzes early on suspect that their third child might be gay. While Solomon writes achingly of his mother’s uneasiness with his choice of a pink balloon over blue, Schwartz tells of his son’s early turn toward flamboyance — his beloved Barbies, his glittery plastic castle, his light-up sneakers — that Schwartz and his wife indulged. Attuned to the differences between Joe and his big brother, Sam, and sister, Elizabeth, his parents delighted in their son who was early to smile and laugh, loved to read and had an impressive vocabulary even at a young age.
At home, he was a wonderful child, warm and loving, but as he entered the often-tricky terrain of public school, his development became more fraught. Schwartz charts Joe’s progress through each year, as his difference becomes more obvious, his isolation grows, and his stress leads him first to act out in the classroom and later to strike out at his tormentors. The boy who would retreat into a corner with a book when the anxiety overwhelmed him was the same child who chewed holes in his shirts, pulled his hoodie over his head in the lunchroom to hide his tears and warded off bullies with a thumbtack or a sharpened pencil. The worried parents sought help through traditional means, appealing to teachers, school administrators, and later mental health professionals, then reaching out to support groups in the gay community. Their persistence is remarkable as is their keen sensitivity to Joe’s difference, and while Schwartz opens the book with Joe reaching a desperate low point, the book is uplifting and hopeful.
“Our story is not over,” writes Schwartz toward the end of the book, “Joseph is still a work in progress — emphasis on progress … but more and more we know it’s getting better.”