May 26

Andrew Solomon: TED Talk “Forge Meaning, Build Identity”

When I introduce TED talks on this blog I usually stick to the shorter ones, recognizing that many readers lack the time or inclination to go bigger. Today, however, is a holiday, and thus I’m hoping you can fit in Andrew Solomon‘s recent “How the Worst Moments in Our Lives Make Us Who We Are.” About 20 minutes long, it’s a moving, eloquent, and personal presentation from an accomplished gay male about resilience in the face of adversity.

If you don’t already know writer Andrew Solomon, his most recent book is Far From the Tree (2012), a highly praised volume that “tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.” When it came out I did a series of posts on it, which you can see here.

Here’s the TED talk, filmed in March and received with much acclaim:

Some Highlights

Okay, so you skipped watching it, but you still want to know what it was about.

To begin with, it’s about finding meaning in one’s life experiences—or, rather, forging meaning, in his estimation. Emphasis on making it versus looking for it.

Solomon talks about being disliked and bullied in childhood, particularly for being, or seeming to be, gay. He was once the only kid who (purposely) wasn’t invited to a classmate’s party, for instance. He also, throughout his school years, was continually ridiculed for being different.

As a result of his marginalizing experiences, Solomon learned to keep his own company. “I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance.”

He also put a lot of effort into trying not to be gay, eventually putting himself through a type of sexual surrogacy therapy that of course didn’t work.

In adulthood Andrew Solomon has worked not only to forge meaning but also to build identity. He gives several interesting examples of how oppressed individuals across the world have done this. “Forging meaning is about changing yourself, building identity is about changing the world.”

About himself: “I’m lucky to have forged meaning and built identity, but that’s still a rare privilege, and gay people deserve more collectively than the crumbs of justice. And yet, every step forward is so sweet.”

Toward the end of the talk Solomon speaks about marrying his partner as well as having kids. He now regularly feels joy in his life, a feeling he’s not sure he’d now have were it not for his history of victimization and his quest to create meaning and identity from it.

Then he talks about the party thrown last year for his 50th birthday. In the midst of the celebration, his 4-year-old son George insisted on giving a speech. After getting everyone’s attention, he said, “I’m glad it’s Daddy’s birthday; I’m glad we all get cake; and Daddy, if you were little I’d be your friend.”

In closing, Solomon encourages us to share our struggles and identities with others. Why? Because it makes an important difference.

“Forge meaning, build identity,” he says. “And then invite the world to share your joy.”

Nov 23

Genius As Possible Disability: “Far from the Tree”

In an essay Andrew Solomon adapted from his book Far from the Tree for the New York Times, he notes that prodigiousness is most often seen in the areas of athletics, mathematics, chess, and music. Considering that we marvel at such gifted kids, why is being gifted with genius sometimes seen as a disability?

These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect, and it was in that context that I came to investigate them. Having spent 10 years researching a book about children whose experiences differ radically from those of their parents and the world around them, I found that stigmatized differences — having Down syndrome, autism or deafness; being a dwarf or being transgender — are often clouds with silver linings. Families grappling with these apparent problems may find profound meaning, even beauty, in them. Prodigiousness, conversely, looks from a distance like silver, but it comes with banks of clouds; genius can be as bewildering and hazardous as a disability…

In pointing out how prodigies are still indeed children after all and not the adult-like creatures they may sometimes seem, Solomon offers this striking example: “One prodigy I interviewed switched from the violin to the piano when she was 7. She offered to tell me why if I didn’t tell her mother. ‘I wanted to sit down,’ she said.”

About the parenting of those considered to have genius, Solomon draws this conclusion from his research:

Half the prodigies I studied seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents. Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.

Additional Selected Quotes

Prodigies are able to function at an advanced adult level in some domain before age 12. “Prodigy” derives from the Latin “prodigium,” a monster that violates the natural order. These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect…

Despite the past century’s breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience, prodigiousness and genius are as little understood as autism. “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,” says Veda Kaplinsky of Juilliard, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent teacher of young pianists. “Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are often in denial over everything else.”

If genius springs from genetics, a meritocracy is hardly more just than the divine right of kings; it, too, mythologizes inherent superiority. If genius results from labor, then brilliant people deserve the kudos and wealth they reap. The communist perspective is that everyone can be a genius if he will only work at it; the fascist perspective is that born geniuses are a different species from the rest of humanity. Many people fall short of their potential through lack of discipline, but a visit to a coal mine will amply demonstrate that hard work on its own neither constitutes genius nor guarantees riches. The history of high intelligence is no less political than the history of intellectual disability or of mental illness.

Nico Muhly, from Far from the Tree:

Nov 22

People with Schizophrenia: Susan Weinreich, Elyn Saks

Please hear this: There are not ‘schizophrenics,’ there are people with schizophrenia. And each of these people may be a parent, may be your sibling, may be your neighbor, may be your colleague. Elyn Saks, author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness

Among people with schizophrenia who are open about it and have been managing it is Susan Weinreich, an artist diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. From Andrew Solomon‘s Far from the Tree, meet Weinreich:

Another woman who has come out about her schizophrenia is Elyn Saks—attorney, professor, founder of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics, author of The Center Cannot Hold (2007), and speaker of the above-cited quote.

Saks explains the three things that have helped her survive (from CNN): her treatment (including psychoanalytic psychotherapy and medication), a community of friends and family, and the support of her workplace, the USC Law School. “Even with all of that — excellent treatment, wonderful friends and family, enormously supportive work environment — I did not make my illness public until relatively late in my life. And that’s because the stigma against mental illness is so powerful that I didn’t feel safe with people knowing…”

Her story is also available as a TED talk of longer length:

Selected Quotes from The Center Cannot Hold:

My good fortune is not that I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found my life.

No one would ever say that someone with a broken arm or a broken leg is less than a whole person, but people say that or imply that all the time about people with mental illness.

Dropping in and out of your own life (for psychotic breaks, or treatment in a hospital) isn’t like getting off a train at one stop and later getting back on at another. Even if you can get back on (and the odds are not in your favor), you’re lonely there. The people you boarded with originally are far, far ahead of you, and now you’re stuck playing catch-up.

Nov 21

Trans Kids Transition: “Far From the Tree” and “Beautiful Music…”

Trans kids are featured in Andrew Solomon‘s Far from the Tree as well as a new YA novel, Kirstin Cronn-Mills‘s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. (See my previous post about Far from the Tree.)

I. Transgender chapter, Far from the Tree

In an example from Solomon, adult child Kim, who’d been raised as Paul, comes home for her father’s funeral, leaving her mom feeling the need to explain things to some folks. “‘I’m not responsible for my child and who she’s become, but I am responsible to her,’ Kim’s mother says as she spreads the word, ‘and she is a wonderful person. I love her. I don’t know if you need to know anything else, but that’s all I need to know.'”

Below, Kim Reed talks about dealing with transgender issues:

I watched the above video clip and realized that Kim is the same person featured in the documentary Prodigal Sons (2008). It’s for a different purpose that she returns home to Montana in this film—her high school reunion.

II. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

The 18-year-old protagonist in a recently published Young Adult novel, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills, is just waiting to finish high school so he can make his transition from Elizabeth to Gabe.

“Beautiful Music for Ugly Children” refers to the radio show Gabe deejays. Music is very important to him, and, as Kirkus Reviews states: “Being trans, Gabe opines, is like being a 45 record with an A side and a B side.”

The importance of a support network for trans kids, including of course one’s family, is emphasized in many of the reviews:

 LGBT@Your Library: “The path is not at all easy and the book tackles a lot of difficult facets–from being bullied to gaining the acceptance of friends and family. It’s clearly not an easy road for anyone involved and Ms. Cronn-Mills didn’t shy away from those aspects. Acceptance wasn’t sugar-coated or made to seem easy, and readers will appreciate that honesty.”

Infinite Reads: “All in all, an often-sweet, sympathetic look at a talented protagonist who only wants to live his life without getting persecuted for his identity. Practical issues of transitioning come up several times, and teens might come away with some great new (to them) tunes.”

Kirkus Reviews: “While Gabe’s coming-out process figures heavily into the story, it is, refreshingly, only one aspect of his experience. The show-stealer here is John, a unique, well-conceived, funny and loving figure whose enthusiasm for music and endless support for Gabe provides solidity and warmth amid the many changes Gabe experiences.”

Nov 19

“Far from the Tree” By Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon‘s new book Far from the Tree feels particularly pertinent this week, as many adults who began their lives falling “far from the tree” will see their families for Thanksgiving, and most of these families will probably deal in one way or another with the kinds of issues Solomon describes.

Already known for his award-winning personal account of living with a mood disorder, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Solomon’s latest and lengthy contribution represents over 10 years of interviews with over 300 extraordinary families with exceptional children.

From publisher Scribner: “Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, as are the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter.”

But that’s not all. Solomon’s own childhood differences and subsequent adult developmental process also inform this book. Because a parent disapproved of his homosexuality, for example, he tried reparative therapy. Fast forward, though, to him being an out and proud gay man—and a parent himself.

Dwight Garner, The New York Times: “Mr. Solomon’s first chapter, entitled ‘Son,’ is as masterly a piece of writing as I’ve come across all year. It combines his own story with a taut and elegant précis of this book’s arguments. It is required reading.”

Publishers Weekly further describes that Solomon “relies on anecdotes to convey the herculean tasks facing parents and caregivers of special-needs children because ‘stories acknowledge chaos,’ and he takes great pains to probe the dark side of parental despair and anger, as well as ennobling efforts of resilience and strength. Sifting through arguments about nature versus nurture, Solomon finds some startling moments of discovery…”

Book critic Kathryn Schulz, vulture.com, reaches the following ultimate conclusion:

I seldom cry at books, but I was moved to tears by Far From the Tree more times than I can count. What undid me, again and again, was the radical humanity of these parents, and their gratitude to and for children they never would have chosen. ‘If someone had said to me, Betty, how’d you like to give birth to a lesbian dwarf?, I wouldn’t have checked that box,’ one mother joked. Yet what once seemed alien and unwanted has become beloved beyond expression. A father of a child with Down syndrome says, ‘For ­David I’d cure it in an instant; but for us, I wouldn’t exchange these experiences for anything. They’ve made us who we are, and who we are is so much better than who we would have been.’ A mother of a deaf child says that she ‘can see no benefit whatsoever in Tom being deaf—for him. But the benefits for me were absolutely huge … I’d been brought up among very clever, high-pressure people. For the first time, through disability, I met people who were good.’ Solomon cites a poll in which parents of disabled children were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements. One of them was ‘I have increased compassion for others due to my experience.’ One hundred percent of respondents agreed.