Disabled Children, Dedicated Parents, and the Uncertainties of Temperament

We are about to expound upon issues raised in the new book, Far From the Tree—Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. Unfortunately, we have not read the book (because we have been closeted away trying to make the final, or shall we say the final, final, final edits of our own book, Enough of Us.) We understand that this is the epitome of chutzpah, but let us explain.

Author Julie Myerson reviewed Solomon’s tome in the November 25, 2012 New York Times Book Review. We feel it suffices to rely upon Myerson’s review because it is so supportive of Solomon’s work – it ends with the phrase “this wise and beautiful book.”  As reported in Myerson’s review, Solomon’s work provides object lessons for potential parents who might be in denial about the possible exigencies of reproducing.

Solomon argues that “there is no such thing as reproduction.” There is only production, meaning parents produce new individuals who may bear traits quite different from those of their progenitors. Often, as we have pointed out many times in our current ebook and on this site, those differences entail very difficult lives for both offspring and their parents. Myerson begins her review, “How does it feel to be the mother of a teenage dwarf who’s desperate to start dating? What if you love the daughter you conceived when you were raped but can’t bear to be touched by her? And, as the father of a happy, yet profoundly deaf son who’s forgotten how it feels to hear, how do you deal with your memories of the times you played music together?”

Solomon, a psychiatry lecturer at Cornell University, spent 10 years researching his book, and interviewing 300 families with disabled children. He likewise delves into his own depression earlier in life, stemming at least in part from coping with his homosexuality.

Myerson writes in referring to Solomon’s work, “…despite the fact that we never know quite what — or whom — we’ll produce, it’s one of the least bitter truths of human existence that, regardless of what pain and anguish they put us through, we never ever regret our children. ‘It is not suffering that is precious,’ he notes when recalling the depths of his depression, ‘but the concentric pearlescence with which we contain it.’”

In researching our own book we have found quite contradictory instances. An extreme example is Lionel Dahmer, father of madman and serial torturer-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. Lionel’s book, A Father’s Story, expresses profound regret.And the younger Dahmer showed no childhood signs of his potential for hyperpsychotic behavior, so his parents had no idea how “far from the tree” their son had actually fallen.

Solomon enumerates just one disability that elicits no rewards – schizophrenia. “’The suffering of schizophrenics and their families,’ he writes, ‘seemed unending and singularly fruitless.’”

As Julie Myerson describes Solomon’s work, he makes the argument that in spite of the amount of sorrow, grief, anxiety, and the like, “most of the families Solomon describes are grateful for experiences they would have sacrificed everything to avoid.”

This reminds us of the classic horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which large pods from space land on Earth. The pods foam open and issue forth replicated versions of nearby humans.  Then, when the people fall asleep, the replicated bodies absorb their respective consciences, leaving the humans emotionless, uncaring, and unsympathetic to any situation

Kevin McCarthy about to torch a pod in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – Allied Artists, 1956

that would normally have elicited emotions that make us human. Those in fear of the pods would go to any extent to prevent their emotionality from being stolen. But for those whose sympathetic emotions the pods drained away, their new personalities are so ideal to them that they now proselytize the conversion of their souls and join their fellow emotionless acolytes in victimizing their neighbors.

In other words, Solomon’s conclusions about never regretting one’s children may beg the question. Not many people would desire a child with severe disabilities. We guess that most folks, if they knew that pregnancy would deliver them a child with a pronounced debility, would opt not to get pregnant, or to have an abortion, if the latter was not objectionable to their values. But, like the victims of the pods, once the child is born, they would, perhaps instinctually, embrace and love the child. After all, he or she would be their child.

The case we are making is this. Producing a disabled child is not some far-fetched unlikely occurrence. Mental and physical illnesses and disabilities occur all the time. Think of how many such instances you know of. Add to that the children who grow up to be drug addicts, criminals, ne’er-do-wells and losers in general. That should give anyone pause who isn’t ready to cope with the potential dramatic difficulties of raising a child, Solomon’s research and “pearlessence” notwithstanding.



  1. ChildfreeWoman says:

    I can assure you that if my father KNEW what I know about my sib and how she turned out like his in-laws at their worst (lying, vicious, possibly schizo) he’d have regretted her, suspect he did as it was though it was expressed at being worried about her and that only privately. And she isn’t known to the public as a problem, being quite bright though obviously selfish.

    Basically decent parents never express regret because their children will likely outlive them and know of the comments and if said parents are decent people they don’t want to leave their children sad in any way. It would have to be fully anonymous to have ANY fleeting hope of any honesty from the parents.

    Absolutely ludicrous book if remotely like the reviewer describes it. At least they admitted there is no upside to schizophrenia. I worked with a woman who had SEVEN children and the seventh one was schizophrenic. He called our office and said weird things to each of the females, said he’d like to do stuff to our boyfriends or husbands. I finally figured out who it was by the time my call came (given that he knew whether we were married or single at the time) and I told him if any of us ever heard from him again I’d tell his mother. We never did and he looked cautiously when he walked in to the office the next time too. I fear I should have reported that to several in the organization as he may have become dangerous but I was young and worried about keeping my job and didn’t really realize I should have reported that.

    • Thanks, “Childfree”:
      We appreciate your respoonse and we’re sorry it took us so long to respond to you. We are working on the final phases of publishing the print version of our book. By the way.Just to set the record straight, it wasn’t a book that made the case for decadence, it was a NYTimes coumn by Ross Douthat.
      Happy Holidays!

      • OOPS!
        Sorry “Childfree”
        Ignore the last senternce of our response. We had the comments confused. You were responding to the post on Andrew Solomon’s book. Boy, do we neede a vacation!

  2. Artemisia says:

    “…despite the fact that we never know quite what — or whom — we’ll produce, it’s one of the least bitter truths of human existence that, regardless of what pain and anguish they put us through, we never ever regret our children.”

    Talk about cognitive dissonance! I see around me unending examples of parents of perfectly healthy and normal children who regret that they had them, starting with my own mother. My birth ruined her life. She coped, she parotted the politically correct bilge described above, but facts spoke louder than words. She descended slowly into incurable depression and eventually commited suicide. It need never have happened if she had been able to organize the abortion she had wanted (illegal and unobtainable in 1956), and live the creative and productive life to which her talents gave right.

    Being unable to speak about the anger, disappointment and regret people feel over their children is a huge cause of dysfunction in families and of neurosis in individuals. It is the big lie, the elephant in the room. What I would like to see is a “wise and beautiful ” book with the honesty and moral courage to let this cat out of the bag.

    • I was about to argue against that line as well. So sad to see these things happen and then people completely ignoring it. I understand not telling your own kids that you regret them but there have been many who have anonymously said it out. This should be very well known, especially to prospective parents, that having kids is a decision not taken lightly!

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