During the summer, I happened upon Andrew Solomon’s TEDTalk about his most recent book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity and immediately had to go get a copy. At nearly 1,000 pages, it was a bit daunting, but it was well worth it. In his book, Solomon explores vertical and horizontal identities – vertical identities are the highly salient identities that parents and children share, while horizontal identities are those that they do not share and that prompt children to seek, outside of their parents and family, a community of similar others – and how parents react to, adapt to, and accept their children who are seemingly so different from them.
Actually, I was searching for Andrew Solomon’s email address so as to tell him how inspiring his book was, when I saw that he would be coming to DC to give two talks – one at the National Book Festival and another at Gallaudet University. Unfortunately, I would not be able to attend the Book Festival, which saddened, and still saddens, me immensely but I was able to attend the talk at Gallaudet this past Tuesday. Now, after reading the book, you would think that Gallaudet stood out to me, but it didn’t. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the University, or for those who, like me, forgot, Gallaudet was the first school established for the advanced education of the deaf and hard of hearing.
So, hearing Andrew Solomon talk at this pivotal and historic institution about his book that was spurred by an article he wrote about the deaf community was quite an experience. Given that he was at Gallaudet, the focus of his talk was on the chapter on the deaf horizontal identity. I must admit, though, since I don’t sign, I was a little bit nervous being on Gallaudet’s campus.
I found my way to the Kellogg Conference Center, where the talk was being held, with no problem. The auditorium quickly reached capacity. As the room full of students, professors, and administrators waited for the talk to begin, conversation filled the room. A flurry of signs abounded, and though I was in the midst of all this chatter, I was not privy to the conversations. I was able to pick up on a few pieces of conversation here and there, but for the most part I felt slightly out of place. It was exhilarating! Though we may come in contact with people different from us, we (unfortunately) typically stay within our own communities of similar others. So, to be in a setting where I was the outsider was a reminder that my perspective and my community is only one of many.
During the Q&A session, Andrew Solomon said, “One of the goals of the book was to make these cultures more accessible.” Through his exploration of almost a dozen horizontal identities, I became so much more aware of and informed about these different identities and cultures. A chapter is dedicated to each identity, and in each chapter, Solomon gives the historical and social background of the ‘condition,’ including policy and laws that were enacted in response, technological or medical advances, if applicable, and the mainstream social or cultural perspectives. Also included are excerpts from parent interviews and Solomon’s own observations of the different identity communities.
Interviews with over 300 families and years of writing and research culminated with this book that has undoubtedly generated constructive conversation about parent and child relationships, identity, and these communities, in particular. Solomon’s work is inspiring and motivating, showing me what is possible as an academic.