On difference

We all find it very difficult to deal with difference. Often this is what brings people to therapy. There is something about themselves they or others can’t accept. They are tormented twice over, not only by the original issues, but also through feeling they ‘shouldn’t’ be like that.

Andrew Solomon’s wonderful new book ‘Far from the tree: a dozen kinds of love’ explores the issue of difference where it can be most painful: between a child and a parent. We cherish our children when they are like us, but it can be very hard to deal with their unfamiliar needs. Parenthood ‘abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.’

The book came partly through Andrew Solomon’s experience of being gay, and his parents loving him, but never accepting him, a crucial difference. He finds similarity between the difficulty his family faced and those where the child has Down’s syndrome, is deaf, a dwarf, autistic, transgender, extremely gifted, schizophrenic, or conceived through rape. The stories of the length that parents go to help their children, though sometimes in misguided ways, are extraordinary. I also found the stories opened my eyes to experiences I could never conceive of. Often we don’t want to think about other people’s suffering.

The book also poses some fascinating questions. Is being deaf or a dwarf an identity or a disability? Previously homosexuality was thought of as illness, now it is mostly seen as another form of identity. The question can be important in practical ways. In the US, to take one example, a deaf person could find themselves in a difficult position. They may hate the disability label, after all aren’t we all disabled in different ways? But it allows them access to social support and income, which otherwise may be hard to find.

Should we try to ‘cure’ someone for example who is deaf, and who is the cure for? Some of the parents in the Andrew Solomon book faced the choice of whether to insert conchlear implants into their child to give him a semblance of hearing. The difficulty is that the operation is invasive, and that the child may end up caught between two distinct worlds, those of the deaf and the hearing. Are such attempts to ‘normalise’ someone just as invasive as the limb lengthening which is still used on dwarf children? These involve repeated and painful operations, smashing bones and then rebuilding them. They give the child a few extra inches of height, which may prevent teasing, but at what cost?

Aren’t there risks in our obsession with ‘normality?’ In the 18th century many people had obvious physical disabilities, so there wasn’t such a rigid distinction between what is normal or not. Surely we will all lose if we attempt to stamp out all kinds of difference.

©2021 Fiann Coombs

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