The author of such epical books as Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity and The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon is a writer and activist in mental health, the arts and LGBT rights. In this interview Andrew talks about parenting, juvenile crime, the right to die, alternative medicine and more.
When you say that we live in xenophobic times, I get it on a different level, living in India because sex selective abortion is so rampant here. What made you work on this book (Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity)?
I didn’t know that the book would get this scale. But growing up gay, I knew what it meant to be marginalised and I wanted to understand what the experience of marginalization was like for other people and how was it for people who were pushed to the edge and it became very absorbing. I mean, each time, I discovered a new community of people who were facing prejudice and narrowness of mind, who were being treated badly and that became a window to another community. So the revelation of the book was to delve in each of these communities of people who were marginalized (which were a small group in itself), so many people who were dealing with schizophrenia, autism or down’s syndrome; but if you look at the commonality, it becomes enormous. So in the same way that I feel like in race relations in America it constitutes only those people who were black, that’s a small amount of people. But if you see the inequality of races all together, it’s a problem of a huge magnitude. Include all minorities and then suddenly, everyone’s in it together and the problem of prejudice becomes much into a process.
“If we are looking at the question of age, there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the maturation of the brain doesn’t really complete particularly before the early 20’s.”
What kind of research method did you follow because you have talked about Down’s Syndrome, you talked about Dwarfism, transgender and all of these are such complex issues in themselves? So what was the basis of selection of materials?
Well, first and foremost I have spent eleven years on the book and eleven years is a long time to gain expertise in these areas, understanding the criminal justice system, the genetics of autism… very different areas. But I decided I wanted to look at all kinds of situations in which a child’s ‘deformative conditions’ maybe alien to each parent. I came up with a list of more than 50 of these conditions. I then tried to narrow it down and I narrowed it down mostly because I thought there were some conditions that had overlapped with other conditions. So if I did Dwarfism, I didn’t need to do Gigantic, if I did transgender, I didn’t need to do intersex. It’s not that the issues are all the same but only to say that I chose the ones with more distinct specifications. Then I did a lot of reading in the area and did a lot of talking to people, I mean I interviewed a vast number of families, I interviewed at least 30 families from each of the area I was delving into. The families tell you about their experience but also in the course of talking to them, they tell you how they came to terms with those experiences – to the literature, to the doctors, or the lawyers or those working on field in these areas. It was a long emotional process and people said to me “Oh eleven years, you must have done one chapter each year” and I said “No, No, it was all the chapters all the way through.” There were times when I was more focussed on one over another but it was a long marriage to each of the topic.
If you could tell something about the idiom -“Far from the tree” that you use in the book…
So there’s a saying in America and in England—The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree-which basically means that the child is very much like the parent. You have a father who is brilliant; you’ll have a child who is brilliant too… My investigation was with families where the apple does fall far from the tree, where the children are expressly different from their parents in some profound way and how the people work around that and how do people work through the dynamics of the family.
So far as difference is concerned, there’s lot of prejudice in society, but there’s also a lot of prejudice within the family. People with disabilities face a lot of hatred within the family. So what kind of research, what kind of facts came up, while you were writing and working on this book?
I found that there were a lot of families that support and were able to sustain a level of energy and devotion that children of these differences required and there were some families that rejected these children, pushed them away and had nothing further to do with them. I felt by and large that the families were very uncomfortable at the time the disability was discovered and that they kept the child at home and refused to bring the child out. Over time, their own feelings and affection developed. There’s a process through which taking care of someone often leads into love, not universally of course, some parents take to other methods, but the parents I interviewed mostly gave more emphasis to that in which they were able to appreciate their children. But it took them a while, might have taken some years and years to come to terms with it.
“What is sanity is a big question and I’m not sure if I am the person to be asked about that (laughs) because I’m not sure I have it (laughs).”
Last year in Delhi, there was this rape incident that got a lot of international press as well. One of the rapists was a 17 year old boy (he has just turned 18) and now there’s a lot of discourse about whether age of consent should be reduced. Currently in India, it’s 18. And there’s a lot of research on juvenile violence, given the increase in crimes reported among children , the shooting in Newcastle for instance. So these incidents are coming up on a regular basis in the media, how do you make sense of it?
Well I think if we are looking at the question of age, there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the maturation of the brain doesn’t really complete particularly before the early 20’s. The ability of controlling behaviour doesn’t happen until older. I think the base for forgiving juvenile crimes is not to say that they are less serious than other crimes but to say that there will be a certain biological maturation and that they are less likely to commit that crime when they are older. I think with young people, rehabilitation should always be attempted. Can you take someone who’s done something as horrific as this and actually help them to grow into a person who will not be capable of such horrific action? Perhaps you can. I think when you’re dealing with people who are criminals, you can certainly try. Having said all of that, I think more and more serious crimes are being committed by people, younger and younger in age. Where that comes from is hard to say – it may have surfaced from violence in video games, does it have something to do with music? Does it have something to do with some genetic shit taking place? It’s impossible to pin it down. I have seen in my own work that some people are capable of enormous wrongs. I think we have to try to have a system which is not about exacting revenge but about our ensuring that fewer crimes take place. I don’t think that it would desist juveniles from committing crimes if they know that they will be treated like adults. I don’t know that lowering the juvenile age actually would be fruitful. I think one has to deal with juveniles like juveniles and one has to deal with adults like adults.
In this interview on Adam Lanza (who fatally shot 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school, Newtown before killing himself), you said that “Looking for answers becomes hopeless at times”. So how does one cope in such hopeless times?
So I think what I said in the Adam Lanza thing was that if we insist that we can’t really have peace with it unless we understand why it happened, we’re not going to make peace with it for a long time. I mean there’s a limit to how much peace you can make with an event that’s as horrific as that. But you have to accept that it happened and try to figure out how to prevent it from happening again and not get completely lost in this thing of trying to understand “Why? Why? Why?” because there is no simple answer to the question Why. In fact there isn’t really an answer, it is simply what happened and I think people in pursuit of the answer why only seem to blame somebody else than the person who did this. His mother was to blame because she was bad at accepting him. The school was to blame because they treated him in this way. The doctors were to blame because they didn’t pick up on it. It’s just all that blaming doesn’t lead anywhere, it just makes people feel better but it doesn’t give any results and I think the tendency to blame and blame is a very dangerous one.
Coming back to mental health, is there any such thing as mental illness?
Yes, there is certainly such a thing as mental illness and I speak with someone who suffers from depression and has been allotted treatment for it but in terms with people who’ve got Schizophrenia for example, they clearly have an illness and they’re clearly suffering in a lot of ways. The problem is that I think the boundaries between mental illness and eccentricity and normal behaviour are very vague and difficult to find. So people will say that someone committed a murder and he didn’t have a mental illness, he can’t be diagnosed, these sort of things being designated. I think that you have a mental disturbance for you to go and kill someone who you don’t even know. So I think the borders of mental illness are very difficult to sketch, but the fact that there is mental illness can’t be denied.
Then what is sanity?
Well, what is sanity is a big question and I’m not sure if I am the person to be asked about that (laughs) because I’m not sure I have it (laughs). Humans are intensely social animals and I think sanity is the ability to be by and large engaged in the positive and the constructive rather than the negative and the destructive. I think sanity is the ability to consider the effects of all of your actions before you undertake those actions. But that’s setting quite a high standard for sanity, not so many people would abide by it (laughs).
That not being able to abide brings sadness. Is sadness a good thing?
Why is sadness such a good thing? Partly because it grows internally and partly because I think people grow through the experience of difficulty and if you eliminate the experience of sadness or pain, then you will eliminate the people’s capacity of growth and most of all I would say about sadness that sadness is inherent in love. I mean in my last book the opening line was that ‘depression is the law of love’. If I were married to someone and deeply in love and if that person dies, would I just go and find someone else and wouldn’t the death bother me at all? If yes, then that’s not love as we know it. Love as we know it has to do in part with defending against loss and loss is central to love. And that is sadness.
In this article where you talk about your friend’s suicide and there you begin the article with those lines from Tennyson’s In Memorium (I sometimes hold it half a sin/To put in words the grief I feel/For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the soul within) Again this futility in looking for answers. So what is suicide? Is it an adventure? Is it fantasy? Necessity? Could it also be seen as a way of not compromising with the daily banality, the mundaneness of life?
Well I think suicide is a complicated phenomenon and people commit suicide for many different reasons. I do believe people have the right to kill themselves and feel that if they think that their life can’t ever be meaningful again, and some of them are right in thinking so (and it is not always about some debilitating illness), they have the right to end it. Some people have that experience and are not right and the reality is that they can go on to have many complex experiences in life. So it’s important that we attempt to take people who are inclined towards suicide and find whether recovery is in any way possible, so that’s what’s essential. But I think the power to commit suicide can give hope. You think “I can’t bear today so if I really can’t bear I can kill myself” and then you’re like “ok I’ll give it my best and make it through”. It’s both the most horrific thing that there could be and in some way it gives people hope to know they could have committed suicide but they didn’t. So I find suicide is a very strong position.
You’re an advocate for Right to die, so would you extend that to people who are not terminally ill as well?
I have met people who came to me without terminal illness but were in pain that could be an unrequited emotional pain and they thought it would never stop. I wrote about a boy who had been adopted. He was severely disabled, had been sexually and physically abused, he had suffered from a huge depression, it didn’t seem to me that his life was going to get any better and it didn’t seem to me that all he needed was a little more treatment to achieve happiness but I certainly did not want to be the doctor involved in helping him to kill himself. I believe if he wanted to kill himself, he should be alive to do it. Then again, there are a lot of people who look like that and then 5 years later they turn tables. So it’s a complex issue.
You’re in India-the land of alternate medicines-Homeopathy, Ayurveda and so much. What’s your take on that?
You know, when I was working on my book on depression, I started off thinking that there was very clearly one way of treating depression or there were a couple of ways and therapy and medication and all of the rest of the stuff. And then I met lots of people who have had alternative treatment of some kind and ended up in getting better. And I also thought maybe there’s actually a treatment in which one may get better or maybe that treatment makes them think that they’re getting better. If you’re talking about depression, if you think you’ve got better then you did get better because depression is an illness of how you feel. If you think you’re ok, then you’ll turn out feeling more depressed. I alternately ended up thinking that there was a great degree of truth in various kinds of alternative treatment and the process of interviewing all these people, hearing all of these stories, the stories in the book as well, people who respond to this treatment gave me a new self-respect for them. So, I am kind of agnostic about it. I don’t know which thing has some real basis and which things are in some way psychosomatic and are simply changing a myth in a positive way but I basically think if something is obviously getting you better, you should do it, whatever it is and I know many people who have been propounding alternative treatment including those originated in this part of the world..
You mean a placebo effect?
Yes that’s what I meant by saying it may be psychosomatic, it maybe ego effect, it may be genuine but alternately it doesn’t really matter. If a person feels bad and feels better after treatment, why not prolong with such treatment?
You write on such intense subjects. What are your guilty pleasures?
(Laughs) Sleep is my biggest guilty pleasure and I am a fantastic sleeper! Time with my children, that may not be a very original answer…
But that’s more of a necessity and they are part of your life…
Ya, it’s a necessity but it’s a pleasure as well and… travel, looking for beauty in the world, those are the central ones. What are your guilty pleasures?
(Laughs) At middle age, there isn’t lots of it!
Hmm… so what are you currently working on?
There’s my book tour and I’m also in the process of writing a doctoral dissertation. So for that work, I interviewed mothers about their experience in handling children, that consists longitudinal interviews starting with each woman before the birth of the first child and afterwards and then every 6 months, till the child is four and a half. So it’s been a long process and a great deal of interviews. I’m going to write about the emergence of thematernal identity- how is it that women do what they have come to do out of experience of being mothers.
And your current reading list?
I am dying to go back to the classics but at the moment I’m reading Anna Applebaum’s book about the Iron curtain, the Stalinization of eastern Europe.