Recently I’ve been reading a lot about a new book by Andrew Solomon, a journalist, called Far From the Tree. Full disclosure: I haven’t finished it yet. From what I’ve read so far though, and read about it (a multi-page article in The New Yorker, among others), I’m a bit disappointed. It’s an interesting topic and approach but there are some glaring questions regarding Solomon’s take on his chosen subject. The book rests upon the premise that there are two kinds of identities, those that are shared among family members (vertical) and those that people develop independently (horizontal). To summarize his efforts, Solomon has set out to investigate how families cope with children’s development of horizontal identities and in particular how parents deal with children dramatically different from themselves. My problem is that I don’t believe that horizontal and vertical identities are as distinct and clearly differentiated as Solomon claims. Several of what Solomon characterizes as horizontal identities (mental illness, criminality, genuis) arguably are passed on vertically, from parents to children by way of genetics, child-rearing, social situation and status, or some combination of these and other factors.
Furthermore, from what I’ve found out so far, Solomon fails to differentiate between identities based on the level of their social construction. All the identities he discusses are in some sense socially constructed, but there is no arguing that deafness, for example, has a more biological basis than criminality. Indeed, his inclusion of “criminal” as a horizontal identity makes me uncomfortably wary of Solomon’s book as a whole. That “identity” is so subjective (it could be argued that it isn’t an identity at all, as it is primarily defined by behavior rather than any intrinsic personal characteristic) that it threatens to dilute any interesting conclusions he may have reached. After all I doubt he is including jaywalkers in his analysis.
Even having just begun the book, I have also already noticed some off-putting misrepresentations of vertical identities. Solomon claims that vertical identities are more accepted as immutable and worthy of embrace, even if they are marginalized, which I agree is true. He goes on though to say that people do not attempt to change these identities and that no one would ever suggest that they should, a statement that seems puzzlingly oblivious to me. Clearly this is the work of someone who has never set foot in the hair care aisle of a CVS in an African-American neighborhood or been informed about the popularity of nose jobs in the Jewish-American community. How someone so educated, clearly intelligent, and worldly can so wholeheartedly ignore the ongoing struggles and conflicts over assimilation experienced by many, if not all, vertical identity groups eludes me, and it does not bode well.
In some ways what upsets me the most is that this question, of drawing too sharp a line between horizontal and vertical identities, need not have presented a problem for Solomon. I believe he betrays a lack of confidence in his argument through his insistence on an either/or system of characterization of identities. Solomon has chosen an interesting and important topic for his book, one which deserves the attention it is receiving. I only hope that his analysis proves worthy of it.
Rating in David Tennant “oh yes”s: 3/5 (so far)