Parenting is arguably one of the most important … is it a job? a task? a vocation? … that any of us will ever undertake.
And yet, what education or training do we receive to prepare us to do it well? Of course, we have the example of our own parents, but sometimes that is more a cautionary tale to counteract than a golden path laid before us. It’s daunting even when your child is herself golden. But how much more daunting when the child under your care is profoundly different from you and nearly all her peers?
This is the challenge that Andrew Solomon, Columbia University psychology professor, writer, and public intellectual, addressed when, following his powerfully thoughtful book about depression, “The Noonday Sun”, he wrote the bestseller, “Far From the Tree”, now an incredible documentary film by Rachel Dretzin.
What makes both “The Noonday Sun” and “Far From the Tree”, in both its literary and cinematic forms, so direct and powerful is the presence of Solomon himself. He wrote about his depression to open up the topic of depression (and visa versa); and he wrote about exceptional children and their parents because he was an exceptional child and is now a parent, thus allowing him to view the phenomenon from both angles. His particular uniqueness, besides his brilliance as a thinker, speaker and writer, is his homosexuality, remembering how when he was growing up just a few decades ago that being gay was considered an illness or infliction. The struggle of his parents to accept and understand his orientation, and Solomon’s own struggle, is what makes up his portion of the film’s story, but it is beautifully interwoven with several other remarkable lives:
There is 41-year-old Jason Kingsley, who has Down syndrome, and his elderly mother. Jason shares a home with two other men with Down syndrome, fashioning themselves as The Three Musketeers, and has a deep identification with Elsa from Frozen.
There is 23-year-old Loini Vivao, who was born with dwarfism, and travels to a Little People of America convention to find a friend who can truly understand her.
There is also Leah Smith and Joseph A. Stramondo, both Little People, who met and fell in love at such a convention. They are embarking on the path to parenthood and must consider the possibility that their children may be full sized.
There is Jack, a young boy with severe autism, and his parents, as both undertake heroic measures to hear each other.
Finally, and most heartbreaking, are the parents of Trevor, who when a teenager, brutally and randomly murdered an 8-year-old child. Here the focus is on the parents, who struggle to understand the actions of their child and their own culpability.
Any one of these stories would make an intriguing and powerful film, and one would think that combined them would overpower a single 93 minute film, but Rachel Dretzin does a masterful job of weaving them together. She does this, not by building to a dramatic or thematic note, than transitioning to the similar or like note in another story, but rather by moving from story to story in the natural rhythm of life, which is a seeming randomness that becomes meaningful on reflection and in context. And that reflection and context is provided by Solomon. Whenever we return to his story, and hear how clearly and insightfully he articulates what he experienced, the light of his understanding and wisdom, illuminates all the other narratives; the universal and human truths shine and heal.
I loved this film in so many ways, and on so many levels, that a single review could never say it all, for every day since seeing it, the truths it spoke rise up in me like reassurances of hope and humanity. Solomon once wrote about heroic kindness, and this film is an example of that noble trait. It is a gift to everyone who was ever a child. It is a gift to every parent. It is an act of love.
And as Solomon wrote, “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.”