In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Andrew Solomon – a Pulitzer Prize finalist – about intergenerational divergence, as well as his book, Far from the Tree, which was in some ways the very inspiration for this topic.
Andrew’s experience with intergenerational divergence began as a child, when his gay identity imbued him with a sense of outsiderness that is evident in his work. His book, Far from the Tree, deals with this topic explicitly, exploring the impact of things like deafness on a family’s ability to relate to and provide for their child. Andrew’s distinction between vertical and horizontal identities, referring to the ways in which the child relates to and is distinct from their family, is profound and underlies much of the message 18Forty has tried to convey this month.
Tune in to hear Andrew Solomon give his thoughts on coping with generational differences.
Andrew Solomon, Ph.D., is a writer and lecturer on politics, culture and psychology; winner of the National Book Award; and an activist in LGBTQ rights, mental health, and the arts. He is Professor of Clinical Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Medical Center, Lecturer in Psychiatry at Yale University, and a former President of PEN American Center.
Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring – well, this month is actually a bonus episode, because we just finished our series on religious divergence: how parents and children have different religious identities, and how they negotiate those distinctions and differences. And this is a bonus episode, which I am so excited to share with you. This podcast, if you don’t know already, is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish questions that animate our lives, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can find all the videos, articles, and transcripts – people love those transcripts – and recommended reading.
We’ve never done a bonus episode. We plan out pretty far in advance. It gets trickier sometimes before a holiday, a yom tov like Pesach, but we plan out pretty far in advance, and rarely have I considered doing a bonus episode, because usually the way we explore a topic, and we do it fairly deliberately, is we try to curate different opinions, thought leaders, scholars, leaders, whoever it is, on a given topic, who deliberately don’t necessarily all agree with one another, and take a topic from different vantage points.
Our last topic on religious divergence, and let me just add right off the top how moved and so appreciative I am for how well this was received by our listeners. We certainly have never had a podcast, nor was it ever our goal to have a podcast, where we’re data driven. We’re not looking to be the biggest fish in the pond. There are other amazing, amazing podcasts out there who are doing incredible work. And we’re trying to do something very specific, which is address the points of dissonance in our religious lives. To go to those points of friction, tension, perhaps. And as we’ve mentioned before, there are different points of friction and tension in people’s lives.
People have theological tension: they don’t really understand, or they’re looking to figure out how to navigate different theological ideas, maybe the ones that they were brought up with as kids, and the one that they now see after immersing themselves in more scholarship and more books and more Jewish ideas, they don’t necessarily cohere. We also look to address sociological dissonance: the way that we look at the world – at the Jewish world, at the non-Jewish world, at the Orthodox world, at the non-Orthodox world – and try to figure out how those ideas, narrative stories, that we were brought up with actually can apply as we grow up. And we look out at the world that we live in, we work and we operate in.
How do we bridge that gap? And not everybody sees that gap, but I think some people do. And sometimes the ideas and the messages that we’re brought up with need to not only be reinforced – trying to find the right verb – but need to be transformed, need to evolve in a way that allow us to hold on to those formative stories, even in our adult years. And I think that sometimes, as we’re evolving and growing, there’s that point of dissonance where we start to notice that what we were brought up with, or the way that we’ve always been told to look at the world, doesn’t always apply now that we’re in this, operating in this large world, and that sociological dissonance.
And finally there’s emotional dissonance. The way that we thought religious life, religious commitment, would make us feel. Here we are, and we don’t always feel that way. We can feel alienated. We can feel distant. We can feel removed. And I think all of these points of dissonance, which is really the theme of what we’re trying to do – It’s not a negative thing: it’s constructive. We go to points of dissonance because that’s where you find friction. And it’s in that friction that allows us to propel ourselves in our religious lives and in our religious stories. And I think that of all the stories that we’ve covered, the stories behind this series on religious divergence, the outpouring of positivity, of appreciation from our listeners, from people in that wider 18Forty community – a term that I have never used, and I don’t quite think that we could talk about a community in such a specific way – but people who are engaged in what we’ve been doing, and we’ve been starting for longer than a year, it has been so gratifying, because we do put in a lot of thought and a lot of care into the content, conversation, series, articles.
Everything that we put out, we really do put a lot of thought into it, and to see that reciprocated by our listeners with so much positivity and appreciation is something for me that… I don’t know, I don’t want to sound grandiose, but there’s a part of me that feels like you create something and you put it out to the world and it’s received with positivity. To share ideas, the privilege of sharing ideas will never be lost on me, and the joy of sharing ideas will never be lost on me. And every time that I’m able to share something that is received in such a productive and constructive way, it is extraordinarily gratifying. And I am incredibly appreciative to all of our listeners, and really thank you so much for that.
And it is overwhelmingly positive, and these were sensitive conversations, as we stress so much. There was a sense of our listeners and the people who engage with us, the overwhelming majority, 99.9%, really rose to the occasion and heard the conversations with exactly the type of context ears, the type of listening that we were hoping to cultivate and engender. And to me, it bolsters my faith in the Jewish people. Nothing short of that. And I am so appreciative. But we are not finished. We have a bonus episode, which is really what this is about.
This is an episode that I had reached out a long time ago to the author, Andrew Solomon, the author of the book Far From the Tree. If you don’t own the book, if you’ve never looked at the book, look at it now. If you’ve enjoyed these conversations about religious divergence, about parents and children with different religious identities, Andrew Solomon is the inspiration for this concept. We spoke about him in our opening video, about horizontal and vertical identity, how sometimes children are forced to create what he calls a horizontal identity with their peers, with other people in their peer group, because that vertical identity connecting you to the previous generation of your parents has frayed for a host of reasons, whether it’s differences in your social circles, maybe it was a difficulty that you had like our first conversation, with drugs, recovery, our second conversation about your religious affiliation, your denominational affiliation, or finally the conversation that we had with the Penners about your orientation, your sexual orientation.
Each of these can create a situation where somebody is in need of a horizontal identity. And it was Andrew Solomon from the get-go who created this. But I want to give a little bit more context to this interview. Andrew Solomon is definitely not a rabbi. He would definitely not tell you that. He is Jewish, we talk a little bit about his Jewish identity. But I really want to talk about the lessons from his book, Far From the Tree, which every chapter is about a different group that was forced to have this horizontal identity.
And it really began with work – as he talks about in our interview – he had with the deaf community, of people who are deaf, with hearing parents in particular, and how they’re forced to navigate a world with different language, with different means of communication, than their parents are used to speaking with them, and they form this horizontal identity. The deaf community has done this through signing, and the way medical advances, particularly the cochlear implants, have jeopardized or challenged the notions of what it even means to be normal, what it means to perpetuate a community that has existed for so long with sign language, should they even opt into that.
Before we get to that, I want to give larger context to both what drew me so much to these conversations, and I want to share a Torah idea which has long animated the way I approach this subject. It comes a little bit from the book Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, but it really begins with a description that the Torah has of one of the four mothers – is that what they’re called? – the matriarchs. Four fathers, we never hear four mothers. Not the patriarchs, the matriarchs. One of the great matriarchs, one of the great imahos, Leah, when we describe Leah, the way the Torah describes her, it says “vi’eyney Leah rakos,” the eyes of Leah were raka, were tender.
The way Rashi describes, and the way I always thought about it, is that they were puffy, because the way Rashi explains this description is that she spent her whole life thinking that she was going to have to marry this older brother – not Yakov, one of our great avos, our great patriarchs – but she would have to marry the older brother, and she would spend so much time crying over this that her eyes got puffy. I always think about my lovely wife, Tova, is a little bit of a crier. This is well-known, runs in the family, in her family. She has it in spades, and any time she cries, I could tell from a mile away if she’s cried within the last five hours, because her eyes get puffy, like this description that her eyes were tender.
But I actually thought of a different approach to this, and it’s based on this amazing story and narrative that emerges from Far From the Tree of these families negotiating these differences. And it’s from a poem that is incredibly, incredibly famous, but he talks about it, and the genesis of this poem, in the book. The poem’s by Emily Perl Kingsley, and she wrote this in 1987. It’s called Welcome to Holland. It’s about what it’s like having a child with down syndrome. I know that there are some in the down syndrome community, parents in that community, who don’t love this poem. I think the poem, regardless of the community that is in reference to, is an incredibly moving poem. I don’t think this poem needs to be read as an explanation of any one single phenomenon, like this topic in general. This is about how we approach life. And I want to read the poem to you.
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability, to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this. When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo. David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.” “Holland?” you say. “What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.” But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland, and there you must stay. The important thing is they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It’s just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guidebooks, and you must learn a whole new language, and you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met. It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.” And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away, because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss. But if you spend the rest of your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to go to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.
And whether or not this poem resonates to you about the way you think about children, the way you think about any difficulty that you may face in raising a family, about those religious divergences in this life, I think this poem is a moving testimony of what it means to confront life itself, because anybody living in this world, in this often impossible life, realizes that there have been moments – I’m certainly not an exception. I don’t know anybody who is an exception to this rule. – that you’ve planned for aspects of your life, and you’ve planned and planned, thinking that you’re going to go to Italy, and you wind up in Holland, and you try and you spend the rest of your life trying to appreciate where you are.
But it can be distracting because so many other people, it seems, are coming and going from that idyllic vacation that you had anticipated for yourself. And for reasons big and small, maybe it’s your professional aspirations, maybe it’s your family aspirations, maybe it’s the religious identity that you once had and it’s evolved in a very different direction, but I think in so many ways, people negotiate with this feeling of planning out a life for themselves, getting the guidebooks, learning the language, thinking of all these amazing spots in this dream vacation, and then going someplace else entirely. And I think in many ways, this is what it means when we describe Leah with having soft eyes.
The term “raka” in Hebrew does mean soft, but it also means resilient. It means that you have resilient eyes that are able to evolve and transform when life doesn’t unfold according to your rigid ideals of how you expected it sequentially to go from one stage to another in your life. You have the resiliency to look at your own life, and to look at others within your life, with a measure of slack that allows you to sway, so to speak, back and forth. It’s the reason why the Gemara in Ta’anis actually says that a person should always be resilient and flexible like a reed, raka, like a reed, like that branch that’s able to sway in the wind rather than being that strong stiffness of a cedar. When you’re so strong, and you’re so stiff, and there’s no slack that allows you to sway, it’s much easier to crash, to crumble, to fall apart when life doesn’t unfold the way that you wanted.
And this is why, and this is very much true, that to avoid earthquakes, buildings are actually structured in a way, the architecture is structured in a way, to allow it to shake a little bit in the wind. I think that more than anything else, what this series and what our podcast in general is trying to cultivate, is allow people to have eyney rakos, to have resilient eyes, to have soft eyes, to have eyes that allow them to look at the difficulties, the challenges that they face within their own life, whether it’s with their family, whether it’s with themselves, whether it’s the way that they look at the world. And when it doesn’t unfold the way that they had hoped, to still have the strength to continue to love, to continue to appreciate, to continue to be constructive, rather than cynical and angry and bitter, though there’s certainly room for all of that, as we’ve been discussing. That room, that gentleness to even allow and articulate disappointment is also a form of resilience. To not say, “Oh, this is fine. This is perfect.”
There’s a measure of strength and resilience in even allowing yourself to say, “this is disappointing,” to give yourself that compassion and that empathy. And that’s really been the subject of this month, and in a larger way, it’s been the subject of this entire series, this entire 18Forty project. What we’re trying to do is chart a path of sorts to allow people to look at that theological, sociological, emotional, those difficulties, those narratives that don’t always unfold the way that we wanted to, the theological truths that we were given, the sociological narratives that were handed to us, or the emotional ideas, the emotional feelings about our Jewish life, our Jewish identity, that we may have been once promised. To give us that soft eyes that, when it doesn’t unfold the way that we wanted, when we’re handed the brochure that says Welcome to Holland, our life can still remain intact, and we don’t need to feel completely adrift.
And it’s with that that it’s really my privilege to introduce our bonus episode, my interview with Andrew Solomon. Andrew Solomon is a world renowned author, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his incredible book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. He’s a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University, [inaudible] maybe he’s already affiliated with Columbia. He’s a world renowned professor, author, Pulitzer Prize winner, and I am so appreciative. I had emailed him about a month ago saying, hey, would you come on and close this out and give your perspective, your takeaways, from dealing with families, from dealing with this in his own life, as he shares how this was manifested very much in his own life, something that he’s written about quite a bit. But I was so gratified and so appreciative that he did reach out and said, let’s do this together. It was right before Pesach, we recorded it. And it is now my absolute pleasure to share with you my conversation with Dr. Andrew Solomon.
Welcome all to the 18Forty Podcast. This is a very special treat. We’ve gotten an outpouring of support and interest for our series on intergenerational divergence, speaking to parents and children with different religious identities, and the special treat that we have for you today is a conversation with Andrew Solomon, author of the book that we’ve mentioned throughout this series, Far From the Tree. Andrew, it is such a privilege to have you with us today.
Well, it’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me on.
And I didn’t ask, I hope it’s okay if I call you Andrew.
Please call me Andrew. Yes, absolutely.
I have been fascinated by your books, by your writings, for years, and this outpouring that we’ve had, I mean, we’ve just, from all across the spectrum. Most of our listeners are situated within the Jewish world. This topic traverses any sort of specific cultural background or situation. Obviously, we came about it from Orthodox Judaism. But I’m wondering initially, where did you get the idea to write this book, Far From the Tree?
The idea really originated in the intersection of two experiences, one of which was my experience as a gay man growing up with straight parents, and having to negotiate the gap that existed between us, and the difficulties they felt in understanding who I was and what my life would be like. I’d been going through that for years, and I’m making my way through it bit by bit. And then my editors at the New York Times assigned me an article on deaf culture. I was kind of surprised at the time because I had mostly been doing international reporting, and my editor said, quite insightfully, he said, “This is a foreign society in our own midst.” And when I went into the deaf world, I discovered that most deaf children are born to hearing parents: that they often have parents who want them to function as well as possible in the hearing world, and that it’s often only in adolescence or thereafter that they discover deaf culture and gain a sense of identity in it. At the same time, of course, medical advances mean that fewer and fewer people are functionally deaf, especially the cochlear implant. So I wanted to look at this whole question of identity, and illness, and the erasure that sometimes comes with medical progress.
And there’s that remarkable movie, I don’t know if you saw it, it came out on Amazon, the Sound of Metal, which negotiates this aspect of deaf culture. If you haven’t seen it and you like movies, I would recommend that to you. One question I had when reading the book – and you address this briefly, maybe in passing – is about religious identity. For most of our listeners, religious identity is a major part of who they are, and the question of having a child who chooses to continue with their religious traditions, or as we had earlier in the series, a family that grew up perhaps more in the Reform denomination and have a child who becomes Orthodox. Becomes, I don’t want to call it more religious, but definitely more engaged, or engaged in a very different way, in their Judaism. I’m curious if you thought about, or it was a deliberate choice, whether or not to include religious identity within your book.
I definitely thought about it, and it was a choice not to include it only because the book was getting too long, and I had too many categories, and it was just becoming overwhelming. I had to eliminate a lot of areas that I’d considered. But I think that question of how, either less religious parents dealing with having more religious children, or more frequently, perhaps how parents who are very religious may come to terms with having children who identify as very secular, really parallels the lines that I was looking at in the book. It’s one of the chapters that I regret not having written, and I hope someday to write about it.
I’m curious to hear a little bit, I was listening to a lot of interviews that you’ve given, most of which don’t have a very Jewish angle to them, which I appreciate that you’ll indulge me. One of the things that I found comforting is that you’re a very bold interviewer. So you see it throughout your book that you’re comfortable asking a little bit of personal questions. I’m not going to get all that personal, but one of the stories that you shared was when your mother, and I think you wrote this in an article, when your mother would pass by Jews who would seem, you didn’t write it explicitly, who were more Orthodox, or I assume that they’re maybe Hasidic or Orthodox, she would have a negative comment saying, “Those are the Jews who embarrass us. Those are the ones who make us look bad.” I’m curious how, if at all, your exploration of identity, and even more important, the expectations of identity, has influenced at all the way you look at religious cultures in general, and specifically Jewish cultures.
Well, I would begin by saying that it wasn’t necessarily a matter of passing by people who were more Orthodox, or even by people who were Hasidic: it was mostly a matter of passing by people who were being loud and intrusive in some way that she had associated Judaism, having grown up in a household that I think tried very hard to be waspy and to be integrated with what they perceive to be the American mainstream. So it certainly wasn’t a prejudice against religiosity itself. But the question of identity remains a very central one, and I actually wrote more about Jewish identity in my more recent book, which is an anthology of my international reporting called Far and Away.
I open that book by saying that I remember, incredibly vividly, when I was about seven years old being in the car with my father. I can remember exactly where we were and exactly what it looked like. He told me some story that alluded to the Holocaust, and he assumed that I knew all about the Holocaust, and I didn’t, maybe I was six. I asked him what he was talking about and he explained it to me. And as he explained it, I had the response of horror that I think almost everyone has in learning about the Holocaust for the first time. But my question to my father was, “Well, when things got so bad for all those people in Germany, why didn’t they just leave?” And my father said, “They had nowhere to go.” And I remember thinking, even at that age, I’m going to be someone who has other places to go, and who has a means of going elsewhere, and who can fit in in different places, and has friends in different places.
And while I wouldn’t want to say that my sense of Jewish identity is entirely wrapped up in the kind of essentially negative reality – well, more than negative – in the horrifying reality of the Holocaust, I would say that that was the moment when I thought, “Oh, I see. We are actually different, and there are things that could happen because we’re different. And how am I going to negotiate that?” And in some ways I feel that my negotiation of gay identity, which was much more front and center, because once you are living with someone of the same sex, it’s hard to be discreet about that, my negotiation of gay identity and my negotiation of Jewish identity were very tightly entwined. And in some ways I feel that it was getting through the identity process as a gay person that gave me the wherewithal really to reckon with Jewishness as central to my identity. I mean, I’d always known I was Jewish. My name is Solomon. I had a bar mitzvah. Many, many of my friends, if not most of them, are Jewish. It’s not that I was outside Jewish society or Jewish culture. But I think in some ways, I had held that at arm’s length as incidental, and I began to realize how central it was.
I think one of the questions that I had in the book is the conundrum of any identity is going to be, there’s an exclusivity to any identity that you have. Your book explores parents who can hear with children who are deaf, and it explores all sorts of, I was very moved by the chapter of parents with children who are down syndrome. But I’m curious, is there any way to avoid the expectations of identity? Meaning, there’s no way that, especially as it rears its head in a family, is there any advice, or any perspective, you would offer a parent who says every parent has the identity and personal culture that they build in their family? How do you do that in a way that it doesn’t become so exclusionary that a child who ends up on a different path feels so alienated? Meaning, I’m curious to hear, I’m rephrasing the same question. I’m sorry it’s garbled, and I appreciate your patience. But I’m trying to understand the role of disappointment and expectations in the idea of identity. Is the goal to have no identity so you have no disappointment and no expectations? Or it’s almost unavoidable, so how do you then manage those expectations and feelings of disappointment?
I think the idea – and I say this both as a son and as a father – I think the ideal is to have a strong sense of identity of your own, and to be able to tolerate your children’s emerging sense of identity, even when it’s different from your own. And I think that’s very difficult to do. I mean, one of the points I’ve made in the talks that I’ve given about Far From the Tree is that all of parenthood consists of two activities: it consists of changing your children, and it consists of celebrating your children. You have to change your children. You have to give them an education. You have to give them moral values. You have to convey whatever is most important and meaningful to you, which may be religion, or may be intellectual pursuits, or whatever it is you have to convey. And then you have to also recognize, what are the things about your child that are fundamental, and that aren’t going to respond to your influence, and help your child to feel okay about himself in the ways in which he is different, or she is different, from you. I think that can be terribly, terribly difficult to do. And some things obviously need to be changed. I mean, you have to teach your child to read. And some things obviously you just are not going to change. Like if your child is short, you aren’t going to suddenly make your child tall by exerting your influence.
But a lot of things fall in a foggy middle, and many parents become confused, and even I do, about the question of, in what instances do your children need to be persuaded, and in what instances do you need to be accepting? The book really, Far From the Tree, is about that process. How do you go about loving someone who isn’t exactly what you had in mind when you set out to have children? And none of us, no one has ever had children who turned out to be exactly what they had in mind when they set out to have children. We all face this challenge. I wrote about it in three dramatic instances, but even on a much smaller scale, it’s operative I think in every family.
One of the things that I was wondering about when I read your book, when I was reading some of your essays, not your book, but it was some of your essays that may have been collected later, and the moment that we’re in, and I don’t want to get too into, I’m definitely not interested in talking politics because I have like a learning disability for politics. But I’m curious if you’ve ever thought, you’ve had some very vocal, strong essays that weigh in on politics. Have you ever thought to yourself, what would I do as a parent if my child had a militantly different political view than me? Meaning, you’re fairly progressive. You have that. And I feel like that question is very of the moment, particularly in the United States, when we see there’s so much partisanship. Have you had parents reach out to you with that political question? Is that the fear that you would have as a parent? Obviously among many, many others, but I think in the religious world, the fear is my children aren’t going to continue my religious identity. I’m curious what your thoughts are, both as a parent, and as a thought leader in this space about political identity.
Political identity is obviously complex and it can shift and change, as religious identity also can shift and change over a lifetime. One of my children is a daughter whom I have, her mother is one of my closest friends from college. But they live in Texas. Her mother had got divorced and wanted to have a child, and I said I would be honored to be the father, and that was how, in a nutshell, it came to pass. But I remember, I think just a few weeks after she was born, I wrote her a letter which I probably won’t ever give her, at least in the form in which I wrote it. But that just said, “I am determined to love you basically even if you turn into a kind of Texas hyper conservative, super evangelical Christian person of a completely different set of values from my own.”
That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. She actually is much more sympathetic to my way of life than I dared to hope at the beginning. She’s 13, so it could all fall apart tomorrow, but yes, I thought about it a lot, and I thought, okay, I have to be prepared. I can continue to argue my case. I’m not going to say, “Well, I just don’t care about these issues anymore. You think whatever you want to think.” I will continue to engage in a conversation about it, but not, I hope, to have the love that needs to exist between parents and children, and that does in fact exist for me, at least with my children, not to have that compromised by it.
I’m curious, over the course of your book, and it’s amazing how thematically all of these distinctions, divergences between parents and child, what you call the vertical versus horizontal identity. The vertical identity is that sequential following parent to child where basically it works out more or less the same. Maybe I live in Long Island and my parents live in New Jersey – it’s actually vice versa in my case – but we’re in the same ballpark. But I’m curious thematically, what do you find are the keys to building the capacity for that kind of acceptance, and what are the pitfalls that you saw, whether it’s parents of deaf children, or a child with down syndrome, or transgender, and you have chapters on each of these. I want to warn our listeners, go out and buy the book, but don’t lift it if you have back problems. It’s a chunky book. It’s probably one of the chunkiest books outside of the dictionary encyclopedia that I own. I’m curious, thematically, looking back at all of those interviews, all of those relationships you built, what are the key ways to build that capacity, and what are the common pitfalls that parents make them unable to have that sense of acceptance?
Well, I’ll begin just as a parenthetical response to what you said halfway through by saying that my closest friend said to me, when the book was published, she said, “Your book is so good, I can’t put it down, but unfortunately I also can’t pick it up.” But many people have said that it flies by, so don’t be put off by the fact that it’s fat, and it can also be read in bits and pieces. In terms of what gives parents that capacity for acceptance, I turn to Freud a lot. Freud described maternal love as being so moving, and at bottom, so childish. And what he meant was that women love their babies not because of some glorious selflessness, but because they see their babies as an extension of themselves.
Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair, and obviously we’ve moved past a lot of Freudian constructs, but there is still a piece, and I find it in my relationship with my own children, for all the wisdom that I attempt to summon on these subjects, there is still a sense that when you love your children, part of what you love in them is a sense of the way that they continue your legacy. They represent the ongoing nature of your experience. But if you feel that way too much, and you allow that to take over too much, then it becomes a way of erasing their separateness and their individuality. And the consequence of erasing someone’s separateness and individuality is either having someone who is meek and closed down and doesn’t know what to do, or having someone who revolts against it and goes to an opposite extreme.
So I think the first element of being able to accept your children is based in the ability to separate from your children. To adore them still, but to separate from them in some fundamental way. And then I think the second piece of it is being interested in seeing who they are, and allowing bit-by-bit for the possibility that you can be open to their influence just as you have demanded that they be open to your influence. I find already in various minor ways, at this stage, that my children have changed my perspective on things, not only because the experience of being a parent is transformative, but also because of their particular personalities and the things that interest them.
I had a moment, and this is so miniature compared to what you’re talking about, but my son and I were driving together and he wanted to listen to some music, and I said, “Yes, George, if you really want to listen, you can put on that music.” We were in the car for two hours and I was almost losing my mind as we headed upstate. And then he said to me, “Well, what did you think of the music?” And I said, “Well, George, you know it’s not my kind of music.” And then he said, “Well, you want me to be interested in opera and all this music that you like.” He said, “Maybe you could really try to listen to the music that I like.” And I thought, oh, there is justice in that. If I want him to be open to my way of seeing things, I can get there only if I’m also open to his way of seeing things. A dialogue works better than an invective.
I’m just curious, I know this isn’t the main reason why we’re speaking together, what kind of music did your son like?
Daft Punk, which has just dissolved. There was a lot of Daft Punk on that ride up there.
Yes. We don’t know each other all that well, though I know you from your writings, and you do not strike me as a Daft Punk fan. There’s one thing that I’ve gleaned from your works. I think one thing that I found really remarkable and touching, actually they made a documentary out of your book, which I actually just saw. When I saw the trailer, I almost broke down in tears, because there’s this moment where you see an autistic child trying to make his parents proud and bridging that. It’s a brief moment. You could find it online. You could purchase the documentary.
It opens up a conversation that, you had a turn of phrase in the way that you described it, about how medical advancement and our capacity for acceptance are almost on a collision course as we are able to shape and provide, and this comes out so much within deaf culture. And I’m curious now, it’s probably advanced even in the last year, what advice do you give to, not only parents who are negotiating these questions of being able to change the very fabric of our biological humanity, but what advice do you give as a scholar – you’re affiliated with Columbia University, you’re a professor there – about the caution that perhaps we need to take before this collision course really runs into something quite horrific?
We live in a time of cures and treatments. So most children who are born deaf have now – in the United States at least, and I think in Israel too – have cochlear implants as a first line of treatment. They grow up functionally part of the hearing world, though never quite part of the hearing world. The deaf culture that I originally wrote about 20 years ago has dwindled considerably. What I think is that we should recognize the value and the beauty of existing traditions, and that we should make a conscious attempt to sustain them, but not at the cost of the suffering of any individual. So in the same way, and I think I said this in the book, that my father talks all the time about how wonderful it was for him to go to the Yiddish theater when he was a child, and it doesn’t exist in New York in the way that it then did, the recent Fiddler on the Roof notwithstanding. It’s a whole tradition that’s in some ways vanished, at least in the context that we mostly live in. I think it’s a loss. I think there was a lot achieved through that assimilation. I think that the assimilation of my family provided us with certain privileges and opportunities, but I also recognize that something was lost. And I think that people should be brought up, as much as possible, to appreciate both the culture that they were almost part of and the culture that they are part of.
So if I had a child who was deaf, I would get cochlear implants because I would like that child, I’m sure, this hypothetical child, to function as well as possible in the hearing world. But I would love that child also to learn sign language, and also to have a sense of pride in saying I was actually born deaf and I have this reasonable facsimile of hearing that comes from an implant, but I am still connected to deaf history and the deaf world. And I would like that child to have the option when he’s, I don’t know, 15 or 18 or 26, to say, “I actually have decided I want to turn off the cochlear implants and I want to live in the signing world.” I think it’s a matter of trying to keep both things alive.
And I said that there is no question that if there had been a minor medical intervention that my parents could have undertaken that would have made me straight when I was a kid, they would have gone for it. And actually, I would have gone for it too. It was not the easiest thing growing up as a gay kid in the United States in the era in which I was growing up. I didn’t want it. I wish it were otherwise. Now I’m happily married to my husband. I have really great kids. The perspective of being gay I think allowed me to write this book, and in some ways, all of my books, the sense of outsiderness that’s been my subject. And I wouldn’t give it up, but I would have given it up for a long time.
I’m curious because so much of Jewish life is about preserving that duality. It reminds me of a phrase in the Bible where Abraham describes himself as “ger ve’toshav,” I am a foreigner and a resident. He describes himself as somebody who’s both of the culture, but also foreign to the culture. I’m curious to know after writing this book, what, maybe if anything at all, jumped out at you about Jewish life or Jewish ritual that you looked at perhaps differently, or appreciated more, since so much of Jewish life is negotiating this both perpetuation of Jewish values and Jewish traditions, but also the evolution, and ensuring that it can co-exist throughout the diaspora.
Well, in the first place, I had a very strong sense of the complex and sometimes ironic-feeling relationship between our being the chosen people, which was a phrase that played in my life very early on, and our having been the victims of the Holocaust and the victims of all kinds of anti-Semitism over many, many years, which had direct effects on my parents, and has in smaller ways had its effects on me. I think that idea that you can exalt an identity, and recognize it as being a powerful and encompassing one, even in the face of the difficulties that it may generate or may have brought along, that was very strong in me. I think the sense of Judaism being a religion predicated in many ways on language, the language of the Torah, the language of the Talmud, in the beginning there was the word, all of those principles were very important to me in coming to value language. And so, in some ways, even though there are obviously many, many writers who are not Jewish, I feel like literary expression remains in my mind, at least, a very Jewish idea.
And then as I wrote the book, the book was about people who were able to find dignity in circumstances of great adversity. So many of the stories, from the book of Job on down, are about people managing to find dignity in the face of adversity. So many of the stories of Judaism are about people managing to find that dignity in the face of adversity. And the persistence of anti-Semitism, and the need always to defend against it and to rise against it, that seemed to be something that informed my sense of the prejudice that other people encountered, that Jewish people encountered and that non-Jewish people encountered. I think I generalized a lot, but I think there’s a great deal that was very Jewish in my outlook and in my concerns and in my sense of the world as a kind of dangerous place. I think I had that sense very early on. And therefore, when I met people who were experiencing actual dangers in a way that I generally wasn’t, I was able to sympathize with their sense of being overwhelmed or frustrated, or on the other hand, rising incredibly beautifully up to the sense of poise and of dignity that was required of them.
I don’t want to dwell on it as being so primary, but the Holocaust was really quite primary for me. I mean, my family, there’s nobody I know of within my family who was still in Europe at that point. My maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather had both escaped Eastern Europe when they were young. Then my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother, their parents had immigrated. So everyone was in the United States by 1917 or 1920 or something like that. But still, the awareness of what that was like, of how much hatred there was to negotiate in the world, and how much suffering could be occasioned around it.
I mean, I think we’re right at the brink of Pesach, and I think when I read Avadim Hayinu, we were slaves, I always think, we were slaves, and worse, and very recently. And I feel like it could happen again, readily and easily. I’ve encountered enough examples of anti-Semitism in the news and personally so that I feel like I have a kind of watchfulness and weariness all the time. And as I said, I don’t want to make that the center, I also believe in the glorious celebrations that are part of Judaism, and the many occasions of festivity and song. But I think in terms of the way it influenced my approach to the world, I think that even though in some ways I had a very privileged and advantaged life, I had a sense of the proximity of suffering that made it easy for me to engage with people going through other kinds of suffering.
You had mentioned that, and you kept on qualifying, and I was going to follow up to push you a little bit further, because you did mention the literary quality. I’m curious what jumps to your mind, first and foremost, moving away from the suffering and the Holocaust, meaning the otherness of what Judaism brings. What do you associate most for yourself? I’m curious because I think one of the things that comes out from your book is the importance of identity not being the lack of. Meaning, you’re not someone who can’t hear, you have an active deaf culture. So I’m curious in that parallel, when you think of religious identity for yourself, what do you think are the rituals, aside from the literary idea, which you did discuss, what are the moments, rituals, and ideas – if anything, it’s okay if it’s nothing. I don’t want to send you back to Hebrew school – but I’m just curious: what are the rituals that give you that sense of pride in Jewish life?
Obviously the occasions of celebration, the beauty of Purim and the celebration that there might be around Purim, and Sukkot, and other holidays and other rituals like that. The loveliness of the menorah and the prayers that are said over it, all of those things.
I feel like I just sent you back to Hebrew school. I almost feel bad.
No, no. I’m just thinking kind of on the spot. I mean, the art that has come of it, my first book was about a group of Soviet artists who had their lives changed during glasnost. There were some of those artists who were Jewish, artists whom I felt very, very much connected to, and who had been through many of the really horrible experiences during the Soviet Union, not to go back on the Holocaust, who, they had managed to come out singing and dancing. And I found that incredibly compelling. I mean, I could list individual people and so on. What are the other things that really feel celebratory to me?
I now live in a house in Manhattan that was originally the home of Emma Lazarus, who is remembered by many people as the author of the poem on the Statue of Liberty. But she was also, as you may know, a big activist for the Jewish immigrants who were coming in from Eastern Europe and who were being badly treated, not only by the American establishment, but also in many instances by sophisticated Jews from Germany and elsewhere who didn’t want to be associated with these ill-washed peasants who came in. She was an amazing and inspiring woman. I mean, living in her house, I’m constantly getting calls from the Sephardic Women’s League of Greater Cleveland asking to come and wander through, to which I almost always say yes.
But she also wrote this essay, her Epistle to the Hebrews, in which she said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Which is an idea that’s been bandied around by other people since, but it really hadn’t been bandied around until then, and no one else has ever said it as simply and as clearly as she did in that essay. So what have I drawn from Judaism? I’ve drawn that sense of that there is a generosity inscribed in Judaism that I find very beautiful and that I think has persisted over centuries, and that it’s a generosity of openness and of embrace. It’s not characteristic of all Jews or even of all communities, but it’s something that I found a lot of joy in, and that I think is fundamental to Judaism as I understand it.
That’s absolutely beautiful, and I can’t help but imagine the cruel irony of somebody reaching out to you wanting to wander through the house of Emma Lazarus, and you turning them back at the gate and say, “You’re not welcome here.” It puts you in an impossible position there. Well, if I have to let everybody in. Just my final question. I always wrap up with a couple of rapid questions, which we could do in a moment. But my final question is: there are so many stories that are so deeply moving in your book. I think one of the things that I remember, it was the first time that I saw it. It’s actually quite famous, but I was only introduced to it through your book. It’s not even your words, it’s the poem that you recall.
The name escapes me, but I’m sure you remember Welcome to Holland, which is about somebody describing their experience finding out and discovering that they have a child with down syndrome, which I’ve repeated so many times and discussed in so many different – because I don’t think, none of your book, not even the chapter on down syndrome children, is about down syndrome children or deaf children. It’s not about the diagnosis or the symptom. It’s really about the familial experience and that negotiation. I’m curious, when you think back broadly on your book, is there a particular story, individual, relationship, that jumps out to you that still moves you to this day?
Well, first of all, I’ll just say that that passage is by Emily Perl Kingsley, who became a great friend and who is the only person I featured both in the book and in the movie of Far from the Tree, and who is, just as it happens, is Jewish and has quite a strong interest in Jewish identity as well as in her experience with her son. But in terms of what… I mean, there are so many stories that have remained so incredibly vivid to me. The society around us has changed. When I started working on that book, I said I was going to write about children who were transgender. And people said to me, “What? How can a child be transgender?” No one had ever heard of it.
And now, I mean, I started working on the book in 2002, and it was published in 2012, and now it’s 2020 and it’s hard to pick up a magazine that doesn’t have someone who’s trans on the cover, and frequently a child who’s trans. Indeed, I have a Jewish godson who is, or goddaughter now, who is in the process of transitioning. So the stories of the amount of hatred people encounter that are in that chapter, and then the transformation that took place, has been tremendous.
But among those stories, the one that always stood out to me was the woman who adopted three children, one of whom turned out to be transgender, and who was a teacher in a school, and had taken them in so that she could be a comforting and good mother to them. When her child turned out to be transgender, she thought she was beloved in her community and that it wasn’t going to be a problem. She lived in the deep South, and it was such a problem that she ultimately had to flee the place where she lived, live under an assumed name, and work doing menial work, because you can’t go be a teacher if you can’t provide recommendations, and she didn’t want anyone in the town she came from to know where it was that she’d gone. She even made a fake Facebook page on which she posted things so people would think she was somewhere else.
The story of the willingness of that mother to sacrifice everything, she gave up her marriage, her husband had to stay in his job in the place that he came from because they needed the health insurance. She gave up her birth family, whom she’s had almost no contact with since. She gave up everything. And I just remember looking at it and thinking, gee, if I had a child who was different, I think I could do the thing of loving a child who was different. But if I were called upon to give up everything that constituted my life as I knew it, would I actually have the courage to say, for my child, I’ll give up everything?
I now think, as my children are older, I think I would actually be able to do that. But certainly when I was writing it, I didn’t think so. Certainly I am relieved not to have had to make choices like that. The book is full of stories of nobility and sacrifice. And then the other one of course is the family of Dylan Klebold, who was one of the people responsible for the Massacre at Columbine, and whose mother is also Jewish. It was her saying to me, when we talked about what her experience had been, she said, “When it first happened, I used to wish I had never gone to Ohio state. If I hadn’t met Tom, we wouldn’t have had these children. This terrible thing wouldn’t have happened.” She said that, “Over time, I’ve decided that I love the children I had so much that I don’t want to imagine a life without them, even at the price of this pain. When I say that, I’m speaking of my own pain, of course, not the pain of other people. But while I recognize it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born, I’ve decided that it would not have been better for me.”
I was so overcome with the idea. I mean, her life had been utterly and unfathomably destroyed by what had happened. Her son had behaved in a hateful way. He had left behind hateful materials and various kinds of videos and documents and so on. And yet, I go back to what I said earlier. Freud said that maternal love is so moving and at bottom so childish. I looked at the love of those two women, and indeed of many others in the book, and I thought, this is a love that is deeply moving and that isn’t childish. It’s a love that is knowing, and that’s recognizing exactly who the children are, and that endures despite the horror of what they’ve had to encounter.
That is incredibly moving. And I read, there’s a wonderful book on Columbine by Dave Cullen, I believe. It just focuses on Columbine. I was absolutely fascinated by her life and her story, which I probably was most closely introduced to through your own work. I always ask people at the end of our conversations three fairly quick questions, none of which are really great for someone who’s already a prolific author. My first question is, for a parent, aside from your own book, which obviously has been featured throughout, what is a book that you would recommend to a parent who is looking to understand more how to build that capacity for love, acceptance, and a capacity for healthy disappointment? That’s what I love so much about Kingsley, Welcome to Holland. It’s about negotiating with disappointment, not hating yourself for having that disappointment. Are there other books, or books that you found helpful in writing your own, that you would want to recommend?
There are a million books, but my favorite is one that was written by Rozsika Parker, who is actually a Rothschild and grew in great privilege, and then went on to write a book that was called Torn Into, I think in the British edition, and Mother Love/mother Hate in the American edition, though I think it’s only the British one that’s in print at the moment. She said that parenthood, motherhood really, because she was writing about motherhood, requires two impulses: the impulse to hold onto and protect your child, and the impulse to push your child out into the world. And that the ambivalence that mothers experience throughout the course of being parents is not the shameful thing we hold it to be, but it’s rather the engine of their achieving those twin goals, and being neither smothering nor rejecting, which are the two negative possibilities. And I think she sketches out how you go about that process with a kind of visceral, exquisite, and she writes beautifully. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. She sadly died of cancer at quite a young age and didn’t complete her oeuvre, but I think if she had, she would have won every prize in the world.
That is incredible, and I will definitely take a look at that. My next question is probably even more ridiculous from your vantage point. I always ask, and I did notice that to my knowledge, you do not have a PhD, correct?
I do have a PhD.
You do have a PhD. Okay. I’m mortified. So I’m going to have to crawl under my table. I’m viscerally mortified right now, but we’re going to power ahead. I always ask, if somebody gave you a great deal of money, and allowed you to take a sabbatical for as long as you needed, without any obligations, to write a PhD – you already have one, so a second one – what do you think the topic and title of your PhD would be? I’m just curious, you could throw in the topic of your first one, because I’m so embarrassed that I didn’t know that. For some reason, it’s not in your bios.
Oh, well, I’ll have to check which bios it is you’ve looked at and make sure that we squeeze it in all accomplishments we catalog. If I were writing a new PhD, I think I would want to write it on really what I’m writing my next book on, which is expanding ideas of family. About the way that we have tended to use, over and over again, a kind of 1950s ideal of family that wasn’t really very true even in the 1950s as the gold standard, and judge all other families by the extent to which they conform to the nature of those families. And I would say, even of my own children, it’s not that we’re trying to give them the exact same childhood I had. I had two parents who adored each other. They had an incredibly happy marriage. I grew up in a, in many ways, very conventional household, and it fit all of those 1950s ideals.
My father was a breadwinner. My mother was focused on her children. So I have no objection to that model. But other models succeed on their own terms, not by reproducing those terms. And while there are a million ways in which I reproduce things for my own childhood with my children, good things and sometimes not such great things, but mostly good things, but I also feel like they’re growing up with gay parents, and they’re having an experience that is different from the experience I had, neither greater nor lesser. So I think I would want to write about the idea that family in the larger sense, whatever form it takes, single parents by choice, multi parent families, gay families, all of these different kinds of families, rather than having to be exactly the same as others, are expanding our idea of what family is.
Just so I can really lean into my own mortification before we get to our final question, what was your original PhD on? And I just want to, to our listeners, he’s got a bio. When you win a Pulitzer Priz, you’re allowed to leave out your PhD. That’s the one excuse. But what was the original title and topic?
The PhD that I did was on the stages of maternal attachment, and proposed that when a woman has a baby, she develops two new relationships: one to the child him or herself, and the other to her changed identity in the world as she becomes a mother. And that it’s possible absolutely to adore your child, but to be very uncomfortable in the identity of motherhood. And that equally it’s possible to feel fully realized in the identity of motherhood, but strangely detached from your child, him or herself. I had a cohort of 24 women whom I interviewed longitudinally every six months from the time that they were, I started when they were pregnant, and it went until the children were five and a half, and looked at the ways in which those relationships changed and developed.
That is absolutely fascinating. And it’s just so interesting the themes that thread themselves through all of your work: identity, changing identity, its effect on mental health, which is really an incredible work that I think began as an article, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas for Depression. My final question, which has to do with my own, I’ve spoken about it in the past, my own struggles with mental health probably are manifest even more so when I was a child with my sleeping patterns. I always ask my guests, what time do you go to sleep at night, and what time do you wake up in the morning?
Well, if I’m to be completely frank, especially now that I have children, I like working in the small hours when everyone is asleep and I work most efficiently. I follow a sort of law of inertia whereby if I’m asleep, I tend to want to stay asleep, and if I’m awake, I tend to want to stay awake. So I usually go to bed sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 AM, but I do need a lot of sleep, and I sleep until 11:00 AM or so most days, sometimes later.
That is my aspirational sleep schedule, because I’m exactly the same. I would love to start my day at 11:00 and just go till 3:00, 4:00. I’m probably an hour or two earlier. Dr. Andrew Solomon, I cannot thank you enough for your time today. It means a great deal.
Well, this has been a real, real pleasure. Thank you for reaching out to me. As I said, I don’t know deeply as much as I would like to about Orthodox Judaism, but I’m moved by it and honored to be drawn into the world that you’ve just drawn me into. Thank you very much.
Really, really appreciate it. And the world of Orthodox Judaism, the slice that I am a part of, really appreciates and is so indebted to your works and ideas. So thank you so much.
Looking back at the past few weeks, I think the takeaway is more than just familial divergence, whether it’s a parent or a child looking at one another’s respective identity and feeling that they’re drifting in a direction different than your own. I think this is really a story about us. This is a story about individuals contending with the way that the very narratives of their own lives unfold. And whether or not you have children, whether or not you have any sense or sort of divergence in your own family, I think there’s divergence in all of our stories.
There are ways that our lives inevitably unfold in ways that we did not expect. There are ways in which the conventional means of support, those vertical identities that we’re supposed to traditionally look upwards to find support, very often are not enough, and we need to go ahead and find those horizontal identities, those support systems that support us in other ways. And I would ask all of you to ask, what was the expected vertical identity? Where were you expected to get support? What was a time in your life where maybe that wasn’t sufficient, and you found support from those horizontal identities?
And I think most of all, looking and reflecting on your own life, where is a place in your life when you had to develop, or maybe still need to develop, those enayim rakos, those soft, resilient eyes, something in your own life that you’re still contending with, still figuring out how it’s going to settle? I think for all of us, there are places in our lives that we need to be more willing, to have more strength, to accept and appreciate. And I hope more than anything else, these conversations over the past month have helped you cultivate and develop a little bit that softness, that resilience, that tenderness, that empathy, to look at lives around you and to look at your own life with that softness and with that sweetness.
So thank you so much for listening to this series on the 18Forty Podcast. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring. So if you enjoyed this episode, or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered – and we’ve covered some really great ones: God, comedy, Talmud, social justice, Jewish peoplehood, science and Torah, the list goes on – check it all out on 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8, followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org, 18Forty.org. You’ll also find videos, articles, transcripts, recommended readings. I hope you enjoy, and stay curious, my friends.