Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and no power is more absolute than parenthood.

All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves.

Belonging is one of the things that makes life bearable, and it can be tough to look at a binary world and choose against both sides.

Defective is an adjective that has long been deemed too freighted for liberal discourse, but the medical terms that have supplanted it—illness, syndrome, condition—can be almost equally pejorative in their discreet way. We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Nobel Prize–winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle-like question, and a wave if we ask a wavelike question. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanges identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness.

Physicists gain certain insights from understanding energy as a wave, and other insights from understanding it as a particle, and use quantum mechanics to reconcile the information they have gleaned. Similarly, we have to examine illness and identity, understand that observation will usually happen in one domain or the other, and come up with a syncretic mechanics. We need a vocabulary in which the two concepts are not opposites, but compatible aspects of a condition. The problem is to change how we assess the value of individuals and of lives, to reach for a more ecumenical take on healthy. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ?All I know is what I have words for.? The absence of words is the absence of intimacy; these experiences are starved for language.

Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources.

Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.

If we tolerate prejudice toward any group, we tolerate it toward all groups,” he said. “I couldn’t have relationships that were conditional on excluding my brother—or anyone else. We are all in one fight, and our freedom is all the same freedom.

If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.

I hate the loss of diversity in the world, even though I sometimes get a little worn out by being that diversity.

I’ll tell them all the good things and some difficulties. The parents may never accept what happened to them and yet accept their child. They’re two separate things, the parental loss, and the actual person they will almost always end up loving.

I met people on college campuses who were defining themselves as genderqueer to express revolutionary feelings, or to communicate their individuality; they were gender fluid without being gender dysphoric. This phenomenon may be culturally significant, but it has only a little bit in common with the people who feel they can have no authentic self in their birth gender.

In the heat of an argument, my mother once told me, "Someday you can go to a therapist and tell him all about how your terrible mother ruined your life. But it will be your ruined life you're talking about. So make a life for yourself in which you can feel happy, and in which you can love and be loved, because that's what's actually important." You can love someone but not accept him; you can accept someone but not love him. I wrongly felt the flaws in my parents' acceptance as deficits in their love. Now, I think their primary experience was of having a child who spoke a language they'd never thought of studying.

I realized that I had demanded that my parents accept me but had resisted accepting them.

It is a surprise to me to like myself; among all the elaborate possibilities I contemplated for my future, that never figured. My hard-won contentment reflects the simple truth that inner peace often hinges on outer peace. In the gnostic gospel of St. Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.

It is not true that "love is not love which alters when it alteration finds." Love alters all the time; it is fluid, in perceptual flux, an evolving business across a lifetime.

I told her that what was most important to me was not whether she loved a man or a woman, but that she loved and was loved well—that she experience passion, and the wonderful surprise of finding that someone feels about you as strongly as you do about them, lucky and full-hearted.

I wish I'd been accepted sooner and better. When I was younger, not being accepted made me enraged, but now, I am not inclined to dismantle my history. If you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes--and we become attached to the heroic strain in our personal history. We choose our own lives. It is not simply that we decide on the behaviors that construct our experience; when given our druthers, we elect to be ourselves. Most of us would like to be more successful or more beautiful or wealthier, and most people endure episodes of low self-esteem or even self-hatred. We despair a hundred times a day. But we retain the startling evolutionary imperative for the fact of ourselves, and with that splinter of grandiosity we redeem our flaws. These parents have, by and large, chosen to love their children, and many of them have chosen to value their own lives, even though they carry what much of the world considers an intolerable burden. Children with horizontal identities alter your self painfully; they also illuminate it. They are receptacles for rage and joy-even for salvation. When we love them, we achieve above all else the rapture of privileging what exists over what we have merely imagined.

A follower of the Dalai Lama who had been imprisoned by the Chinese for decades was asked if he had ever been afraid in jail, and he said his fear was that he would lose compassion for his captors. Parents often think that they've captured something small and vulnerable, but the parents I've profiled here have been captured, locked up with their children's madness or genius or deformity, and the quest is never to lose compassion. A Buddhist scholar once explained to me that most Westerners mistakenly think that nirvana is what you arrive at when your suffering is over and only an eternity of happiness stretches ahead. But such bliss would always be shadowed by the sorrow of the past and would therefore be imperfect. Nirvana occurs when you not only look forward to rapture, but also gaze back into the times of anguish and find in them the seeds of your joy. You may not have felt that happiness at the time, but in retrospect it is incontrovertible.

For some parents of children with horizontal identities, acceptance reaches its apogee when parents conclude that while they supposed that they were pinioned by a great and catastrophic loss of hope, they were in fact falling in love with someone they didn't yet know enough to want. As such parents look back, they see how every stage of loving their child has enriched them in ways they never would have conceived, ways that ar incalculably precious. Rumi said that light enters you at the bandaged place. This book's conundrum is that most of the families described here have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.

John [the father] kept saying, "You have a penis. That means you’re a boy." One day, Shannon noticed that her son had been in the bathroom an awfully long time and pushed the door open. "He had a pair of my best, sharpest sewing scissors poised, ready to cut. Penis in the scissors. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'This doesn’t belong here. So I’m going to cut it off.' I said, 'You can’t do that.' He said, 'Why not?' I said, 'Because if you ever want to have girl parts, they need that to make them.' I pulled that one right out of my ass. He handed me the scissors and said, 'Okay.

Life is enriched by difficulty; love is made more acute when it requires exertion.

Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children's faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.

Parents’ early responses to and interactions with a child determine how that child comes to view himself. These parents are also profoundly changed by their experiences. If you have a child with a disability, you are forever the parent of a disabled child; it is one of the primary facts about you, fundamental to the way other people perceive and decipher you. Such parents tend to view aberrance as illness until habituation and love enable them to cope with their odd new reality—often by introducing the language of identity. Intimacy with difference fosters its accommodation.

Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is that we give our children what we wanted, whether they want it or not. We heal our wounds with the love we wish we’d received, but are often blind to the wounds we inflict.

Some people are trapped by the belief that love comes in finite quantities, and that our kind of love exhausts the supply upon which they need to draw. I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones.

The Internet," [Judy] Singer said, "is a prosthetic device for people who can't socialize without it." For anyone challenged by language and social rules, a communication system that does not operate in real time is a godsend.

There is no contradiction between loving someone and feeling burdened by that person; indeed, love tends to magnify the burden.

There is something ironic in prejudice against the disabled and their families, because their plight might befall anybody. Straight men are unlikely to wake up gay one morning, and white children don't become black; but any of us could be disabled in an instant. People with disabilities make up the largest minority in America; they constitute 15 percent of the population, though only 15 percent of those were born with their disability and about a third are over sixty-five. Worldwide, some 550 million people are disabled. The disability-rights scholar Tobin Siebers has written, "The cycle of life runs in actuality from disability to temporary ability back to disablity, and that only if you are among the most fortunate.

Those who believe their suffering has been valuable love more readily than those who see no meaning in their pain.
Suffering does not necessarily imply love, but love implies suffering

To look deep into your child's eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood's self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality had been realized - how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn't care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.

Treating an identity as an illness invites real illness to make a braver stand.

When parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’ Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.