Keynote Address: Andrew Solomon
By: Sara Grossman
There is a difference between love and acceptance, said journalist and author Andrew Solomon at the beginning of his keynote address. Most parents love their child from the moment he or she is born, Solomon said, but acceptance is a “process that takes time.”
“It happens in every household, because I have never met any parent whose child was what they set out for him or her to be,” he said. “Too often in conversations about otherness and belonging we hear numbers, but there are also stories. If we stick to only numbers and not stories, we have a very narrow experience of the world.”
In his speech to a sold-out audience, Solomon shared insights he gained while writing his acclaimed new book, “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.” Much of Solomon's speech centered around finding great profoundness in abnormality, using a framework of the parent-child relationship to explore questions of non-conformity, disability, and difference. He offered examples of children with Down Syndrome, Dwarfism, deafness, or non-normative sexualities or gender identities.
“It seemed bizarre to me that so many people were expressing joy over children no one else wanted,” Solomon continued. “It’s the case that all of us have children who are flawed. But if we had the opportunity to trade our child in for child who is 'better,' we would cling to our own children. We not only take care of our children because we love them, but we love them because we take care of them.”
He told of one mother whose child had Down Syndrome, but felt her life had been made “richer” by her child’s differences, and that she wouldn’t give up her experience for anything in the world.
In another gripping story, a mother who had adopted a transgender child, Kelly, was forced to split her family apart and move to another city after facing violent threats following the announcement of her child’s new gender identity.
When Solomon talked to the mother, she was living in a trailer park, in poverty, with her three children. “She told me, ‘You can't grieve all the time when you've got a kid and you see how far they've come,’” Solomon said. “I miss the things that were in my old life, but if I knew this happen I would still adopt Kelly. If it weren't for her, I would never have entered this bigger, more generous world.”
The award-winning journalist said he encountered a wide variety of such seemingly “strange love” while writing his book. “For a while I thought all these families were fools, trying to create identity out of misery,” he said. “That day I realized I was ready to join them on their ship.”
Solomon spent years trying to get the parents of Dylan Kiebold, one of the shooters in the Columbine massacre, to talk to him. Finally, they agreed, and in their first weekend together Solomon recorded 20 hours of interviews.
After hours of talking, Solomon asked them if Dylan were here now, would they want to ask him anything. Dylan’s mother thought for a moment and then replied, “I would ask him to forgive me for being his mother and not knowing what was going on in his head. Life is full of suffering and this is mine.”
“There is a process by which people end up grateful for lives they would have otherwise not wanted,” Solomon concluded. “I think people who have any of these individual differences might feel isolated. But if you look at negotiating difference as a fundamental aspect of parenthood, it is what unites us.”
In an audience Q&A with Haas Director john a. powell following his speech, Solomon responded to a question regarding how we can change society to celebrate difference.
We must create a more integrated society, Solomon said, adding that there is sometimes a tendency for someone whose group has already been accepted to think they don't want anyone else to be accepted.
“They establish their place in the mainstream by othering others,” he said. “It's a matter of making lives visible.
Watch the entire video below.