Over the fall season of 2012, I came to see an online recommendation on the Globe and Mail for a publication that came to press just recently this past November. It was described by the well known journalist, Ian Brown, as a book that discusses “children who are hard to love.” These may be children who grew up to commit massive crimes, children born out of rape, children born with physical disabilities or who came to develop psychiatric disorders…the list goes on. These are, as Brown quotes, “the children we never expect to have.” It discusses the way families adapt to these children, and how they might or might not learn to love them despite the social stigma, despite being ostracized, amongst numerous issues. It’s called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, written by Andrew Soloman. The jacket of this book shares his professional background as “a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Cornell University and Special Advisor on LGBT Affairs to Yale University’s Department of Psychiatry.”
Needless to say, it has been a very intensive read. This book, produced over at least 10 years of research, compiles interview upon interview, statistics upon statistics, research upon research, of family members and how they respond to their children, the psychological effects that travel between parent to child during such stigmatism, whether the child may penetrate or perpetuate the unease that surrounded their upbringing, and whether these children, in turn, were able to learn to love their own children despite their past.
Ian Brown’s brief description of this book captured my attention during a time that I was seeking to find a greater compassion and a greater meaning to life. I am still seeking these things. His introduction of Soloman’s book seemed to come in perfect timing to address some of the issues I was interested in learning about. One of those issues being human compassion. For the average leisure reader though, such as myself, I would call this text a heavy read to digest. Optimism seeps through many places of this massive seven hundred page book, but there are many points where I have to catch my breath and reread sentences over and over again, thinking I misread the brutality that is evident in the statistics which surface. Some are numbers which address crime rates, in a magnitude that I could never have conceived on my own. At times, I have to remind myself why I am reading this book when it can make me hold my breath so much as I am sitting in bed late into the night. And then I think of how it is through knowledge and understanding of our society and history that people progress. I believe there is something to be said about understanding the world around you, and how we came to be of this way, as well as what type of events or societal constraints continue to plague us to this day. I admit that I don’t know a lot of such things, and that I have a lot yet to learn. A whole lifetime of learning ahead of me.
In reflecting upon this desire, I am going to make a big leap here and share with you a couple passages from a piece of children’s fiction that rides on a similar wave length, for it is a story about preserving history: The Giver, by Lois Lowry. It’s funny how some things carry over. I was very young when I came across this book, but it taught me to cherish important things. This is a dystopian story, it is about a society that functions through a committee choosing how to assign family units together, and then assigning people their careers, their spouses, amongst many things. These people take medication to control hormone and emotion, and (forgive me if I have mixed up this detail) have reached a point in genetic evolution that they don’t see or feel or even have simple knowledge of their history. They are content to live this way. There is one boy in this community who is gifted, though, and he becomes privy to society’s past in a way that no one understands. I share this book to commemorate some simple things worth appreciating in life amidst the calamity that may surround us. The following passage has always been my favorite.
Jonas thought again about that incident. He was still bewildered by it. Not by the announcement or the necessary apology; those were standard procedures, and he had deserved them- but by the incident itself…. It had happened during the recreation period, when he had been playing with Asher. Jonas had causally picked up an apple from the basket where the snacks were kept, and had thrown it to his friend. Asher had thrown it back, and they had begun a simple game of catch.
There had been nothing special about it; it was an activity that he had performed countless times: throw, catch; throw, cath. It was effortless for Jonas, and even boring, though Asher enjoyed it, and playing catch was required activity for Asher because it would improve his hand-eye coordination, which was not up to standards.
But suddenly Jonas had noticed, following the path of the apple through the air with his eyes, that the piece of fruit had- well, this was the part that he couldn’t completely understand- the apple had changed. Just for an instant. It had changed in mid-air, he remembered. Then it was in his hand, and he looked at it carefully, but was the same apple. Unchanged. The same size and shape: a perfect sphere…. He had tossed it back and forth between his hands a few times, then thrown it again to Asher. And again- in the air, in an instant only- it had changed.”
Later, as the story develops, Jonas comes to meet the one person who holds the knowledge of history. This person tells him that what Jonas has begun to see, is the color red. This dystopian society lives in world where they perceive no more color than black, white, or grey.
I have thought back to this passage many times in my life, for it reminds me of the very small things right in front of our eyes that we forget to love. It’s so normal, so taken for granted. I was moved by a sense of loss as a child in imagining, for the first time, a world bereft of color. Hence, I use the memory of this passage to hold dear, and hold tight, of one small thing in this world that I often forget to appreciate. May everyone’s readings provide them the same gift of life.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Random House, 1993.