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When Andrew Solomon started his family with his husband, John Habich, he says, people were surprised that he wasn't afraid to have children, given the topic of the book he was writing. That book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, explores what it's like for parents of children who are profoundly different or likely to be stigmatized — children with Down syndrome, deafness, autism, dwarfism, or who are prodigies, become criminals, or are conceived in rape.
Though these experiences can be difficult and isolating for families, Solomon writes about parents who have accepted their children in spite of conditions others might consider tragic. "We all love flawed children and the general assumption that these more extreme flaws make their children somehow unlovable — it wasn't true of most of my experience," Solomon tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Solomon found that while many children experience their difference at first as illness, over time, they understand it as part of their identity.
On what it's like for mothers who have children conceived in rape
"All of the women were concerned about the ways in which their child might resemble the rapist psychologically. If the biological father of this child was capable of something so awful, is this child going to turn out to be capable of awful things? So that was one fear. And then next to it — and not entirely separable from it but also not entirely the same thing — the child was a constant reminder of the rape. As one of the women said to me, 'I have a friend who was raped and a few years later she was really able to get into a useful denial and say it never happened. I will never be able to say it never happened. I will always have that pair of eyes looking at me, that are evidence that yes, it did happen.' "
On what it's like for children to learn they were conceived in rape
"There's a central problem always for a woman who decides to keep a child conceived in rape, which is at what point do I actually tell my child where the child came from? So people who adopt children are usually now advised to tell the children from the very beginning of childhood, 'You are adopted, but you were adopted because we so much wanted a child and we are so lucky to have you,' and it's a part of their narrative. But rape is too disturbing and violent and the sexuality involved — it is too complicated to explain to a 2-year-old. ...
"I've met children who have been conceived in rape and who said that actually finding out had been a great relief — that it explained to them why their mother had had a child under odd or unusual circumstances. It explained why they sensed some ambivalence in a mother whom they had tried to please. ... But there were others who were so horrified by that news and felt so polluted by it that they acted out in various very destructive ways. ... They felt that other people would think, 'This person is a child of rape; this person is like a rapist; this person is untrustworthy; this person comes from dirt and darkness.' "
On how Karen Robards, whose son has Down syndrome, learned to cope
"What I found is that again, that time of diagnosis and the time of birth is often very difficult and upsetting for people. Kids with Down syndrome are, by and large, quite affectionate and relatively guileless and frequently, the attachments to them grow and deepen. And the meaning that parents find in it grows and deepens. So the story that epitomizes it perhaps was of Tom and Karen Robards, who were a couple I met in New York who had gotten involved in changing the way education services are delivered to people with Down syndrome. They set up something called the Cooke Center and they did really noble and heroic work in that arena and their son is now 30.
"And I said, 'Look you've given your lives to this.' I said, 'Do wish you wish you'd never heard of Down syndrome? Do you wish you could make it go away?' And his mother said, 'You know for our son, David, I wish I could make it go away because for David, it's a difficult way to be in the world. And I would do anything to make David's life easier.' She said, 'But speaking for myself, while I would never have believed 30 years ago that I would get to such a point, speaking for myself it's made me think so much more deeply and appreciate humanity so much more broadly and live so much more richly. That speaking for myself, I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world.'
"And while she articulated that idea with particular eloquence I found it was not an infrequent refrain — that most parents had become very attached to their children. And at some level I kept thinking, 'But surely you'd rather have children without Down syndrome?' And then I thought people become attached to their children with whatever their flaws are. I'm attached to my children with whatever flaws they have and if some glorious angel broke through the living room ceiling and offered to exchange them for other better children, I'd cling to my kids and pray away this specter."
On starting his own family and writing this book
"People said to me, 'But you are doing this book about all of these terrible things that have gone wrong for all of these families and surely doing that would have made you draw back from the project of having your own family?' And I said, 'But on the contrary, I felt that what the book was about is the fact that parents can love almost anyone who is presented to them as their child and that love has a compelling urgency to it that rises above any difficulty and I thought whoever my children turn out to be, I think I'll be able to love them.'
"And I felt that partly because of what I'd seen in these other families and partly also because I had been somewhat unforgiving of my family of being a little slow — not very slow, but a little slow — to accept the fact that I was gay. And when I started looking at all these families, I thought, 'loving someone and accepting someone are two different things. ... My parents always loved me, it just took them a little while to accept me and then they got there.' And actually, all of these parents had to struggle to accept their children and then they got there. And I began to think all parents at some level have to struggle to accept their children at some level. Their children are always full of surprises."