Film & TV

When Parents Don’t Get Their Dream Child

Andrew Solomon and Howard Solomon in Far From the Tree (Sundance Selects)
Far from the Tree looks honestly at families in challenging circumstances.

As parents, we picture our children turning out exactly like us, except maybe better. That dream we could never quite attain? Maybe it will fall easily into their grasp. But as the poet said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. To be a parent is to get punched in the face. Repeatedly.

Sometimes it means getting punched in the heart as well. In the moving documentary Far from the Tree, we meet several families in which the children turned out very differently from how their parents imagined. Autism, dwarfism, homosexuality, Down Syndrome: The mothers and fathers seen here weren’t expecting any of these conditions. One set of parents interviewed has had to come to grips with knowing that their son is murderer. Yet all of them adapted, and the film is stirringly humane.

The parents of Andrew Solomon, who wrote the book of the same title that inspired Far from the Tree, for a long time could not accept his homosexuality. They seem simply to be products of their age, not malicious, but their reaction, especially that of his late mother, caused him considerable distress, and it’s heartbreaking to think his path might have been very different had he been born a generation later. “My parents really didn’t want a gay son,” he says in the film. His mother once told him she would never have invited gay people to their home if she had thought it would give him the idea that “that was an acceptable way of life.” Desperate to fit in, Solomon tried “sexual-surrogacy therapy.” It didn’t work.

Other subjects of the film face much more daunting circumstances. “It was overwhelming,” says the mother of a boy named Jack Allnut who has a case of autism that proves debilitating for him and exhausting for his family. We see Jack being unable to communicate with his parents and growing violently frustrated with circumstances. Music therapy, oxygen therapy, a gluten-free diet — his parents tried everything. Jack’s mother, Amy, blames herself for somehow damaging him during her pregnancy. But in a scene straight out of The Miracle Worker, a therapist teaches him to identify letters and communicate by pointing at them in sequence. “I just went, ‘My God, he’s in there,’” recalls his father, Bob. Now a teenager, Jack communicates via an electronic speaking aid into which he types words. (Sample thought: “I want lots of cookies.”)

Jason Kingsley, who is in his 40s, has Down Syndrome, but in the 1970s the experts advised his parents that he would be unable to do much of anything, even to speak. Instead, he became a celebrity and actor (he appeared on many episodes of Sesame Street, for which his mother was a writer). Today he’s a Frozen superfan who has a job delivering mail, and he lives with two friends who also have DS, but his mother worries about his ability to deal with practical challenges. How well will he be able to cope when she’s gone? She can’t get through to him because he’s obsessed with going to Norway to meet the Frozen characters.

Leah Smith and Joe Stramondo, married dwarves, have learned not only to accept their condition but to appreciate it, to such an extent that when she gets pregnant, she wishes for a little person. (It isn’t clear whether any child of hers will share her anomaly.) Joe notes dryly that someone once told him, “If I were you, I’d probably kill myself.” Instead, he is a philosophy professor, at San Diego State University, and his life with Leah is replete and rewarding. “It’s surprising to them when I indicate somehow that I’m not suffering,” he says.

The film’s thesis is that acceptance of difference brings a kind of stability to even the most horrific situations. The parents of a teenage boy who laid in wait for, and slit the throat of, an eight-year-old will forever be burdened by his act. But the film makes it clear that they still love their son: Being human, we don’t have a choice in such matters. Even in their case, the family finds a routine that includes visits with and phone calls to their son in prison, where he is serving a life sentence.

The director, Rachel Dretzin, allows the chapter about the murderer to slip into the background because it doesn’t really fit in with the others; there is nothing resembling a happy ending on the cards. Instead she strives for an uplifting mood in the closing minutes (when we learn that Solomon, whose mother warned him that he would never be able to have a family, is today one of six parents sharing four children). It may not be the case that any challenge can be overcome, but without ever confronting the matter directly, the film is pro-life. Appreciation of the diversity of human experience begins with accepting that, imperfect as each of us is, all of our lives have value.

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