Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Far From the Tree

Andrew Solomon's most recent book, "Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity" caught my eye on several occasions at my eldest daughter's house. The Yiddish expression
"dos epele falt nit vayt fun beymele" means the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, or rather, that children follow the example of their parents. But what happens when that is hardly the case? Solomon's book offers a thorough and sensitive examination of how families learn to accept and embrace children who are vastly different from themselves. Chapters follow the lives of families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down's syndrome, disability, autism, schizophrenia, transgender issues, children born of rape, criminality, and musical child prodigies. In all cases, the families' lives are made richer and more rewarding through their unusual journeys. There are more similarities than differences these families collectively share, in terms of societal biases and conflicting emotions. "Far From The Tree" grew out of Solomon's determination to forgive his parents for having been openly disappointed with his being gay and for having tried to "fix" him.

Although it's difficult for me accept comparison of a musical prodigy offspring to the plight of families coping with one of the above challenges, my main argument being that prodigiousness is usually a trait that one gloats about, Solomon emphasizes that "being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying. Like a disability, prodigiousness compels parents to redesign their lives around the special needs of their child."

While recounting the story of pianist Evgeny Kissin's childhood, one can't help but acknowledge the blending forces of nature and nurture. When asked how Evgeny, called Zhenya by those who know him, had managed to avoid burnout typical to many wunderkinder, he said, "Simply this; I was brought up well...When I would return from school, I would, without taking my coat off, go to the piano and play. I made my mother understand that this was just what I needed." And when Zhenya would make lists for his teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor from the famed Gnessin School in Moscow, of the things he wanted to learn: "If I was asking for a difficult piece, I would put in brackets, 'Lenin said that difficult doesn't mean impossible.'"

In many cases, parents have burdened their offspring with unrealistic goals or have projected their own unfulfilled dreams onto their offspring. Violinist Jascha Heifetz described prodigiousness as being " a disease which is generally fatal," and one that he "was among the few to have the good fortune to survive." I seem to recall, during my studies with Heifetz, that the word prodigy was never spoken. Solomon asserts that the perfectionist, highly critical parent creates a lasting imprint of perceived failure for the child. I feel that anguish at times.

Since I attended Juilliard Pre-College in my youth, I well remember pianist Ken Noda, whose own account of his difficult childhood spent with an over-bearing mother and violent father in "Far From The Tree" offers a candid view of the dark side of stage parents. Noda, whose prodigious musical ability was likened to Mozart, garnered much attention from Juilliard faculty and was the envy of other parents. I recall wondering as a child whether or not Noda really might have been a reincarnation of Mozart; back then I never would have guessed that his childhood was tormented.
Ken Noda says of his mother: "I kept working so she'd love me, at least sometimes. You see, I was born with two umbilical cords; the physical one that everyone is born with, and another that was made of music."

Finding the right balance is crucial. Andrew Solomon writes, "While some parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns, others fail to support a child's passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed. You can err in either direction. The pushing error is more obvious and more present in our culture, but the other can be equally dire."