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What do you do if your son is your daughter (or a prodigy, dwarf or mass murderer)? Meet the inspirational families who are anything but average
More from UK
- Six stories of six very different families who could never be normal
- Andrew Solomon's book aims to find out how can we love children so damaged or despised they shock their own parents
- Book is a blow against prejudice forcing many children to society’s margins
By Andrew Solomon
PUBLISHED: 17:00 EST, 26 January 2013 | UPDATED: 05:23 EST, 27 January 2013
Andrew Solomon's bestseller, The Noonday Demon, defined depression for a generation and made him a publishing sensation.
Now, he has produced another monumental investigation on the question that no one dares to ask: how can we love children so damaged or despised they shock their own parents?
His new book is a blow against the prejudice forcing many children to society’s margins. Andrew has a compelling story of his own to tell, but he starts with one of the extraordinary families he met on his long journey of discovery…
KIM'S STORY: The transgender who transformed from a male quarterback into a woman with a long-term girlfriend
When Kim Reed was a boy named Paul, she was the quarterback for her school football team in Montana. She made the transition in her 20s, and became a beautiful woman, who now lives as a lesbian in lower Manhattan with her long-time girlfriend.
‘I had a paper round when I was ten,’ Kim remembered. ‘I used to cross-dress because I didn’t think anyone would see me.
‘Then I would throw away the clothes and pray that some power could dispel this thing that was making me unlike anyone else I knew of.’ Paul became a great athlete. ‘That was the recipe to be normal, and a way to shut off your brain,’ Kim said.
Change: Kimberly Reed was born a boy named Paul but now lives as a woman in New York with her girlfriend
‘If you’re uncomfortable with your body, you want to control that body, and sports are a really good way to do it.’
Paul was class president at his high school, where he was voted as the student most likely to succeed. Kim once said: ‘When I transitioned, I felt like I had climbed out of a wetsuit I had been wearing my entire life. Imagine that magnificent rush, the tactile sensations, as though your body had just woken up. But I also felt like this new person couldn’t go home, and I began to dismantle all my connections to Montana.’
For five years, he didn’t even see his mother, Carol. When his aunt died in 1995, however, Carol expected Paul to attend the funeral. Kim, who had been on hormones for more than a year, was a pallbearer, with only a ponytail to attract comment.
Loving arms: Kim Reed, left, as a boy, with parents Carol and Loren and brother Marc
Modern family: Kimberly as an adult with her mother Carol and brother Marc
Carol said: ‘It was a funeral. But he looked so sad, and I still had no clue. A month later, Paul called and said, “Did you ever wonder as I was growing up whether I was comfortable with my own sexual identity?”
‘I said, “I thought you were the golden child.” He said, “Well, I’ve been dressing as a woman.” ’
Carol was bewildered. ‘I felt very sad, for all that anguish he’d been going through that I didn’t even suspect,’ she said. Kim (pictured with her mother and brother Marc) sent her mother a stack of medical information.
‘I didn’t need to read any pamphlets,’ Carol said. ‘For me, it was, “I love my child; the intelligent, caring, humorous person is still there.” All I wanted to know was, “Are you happy now? Are you comfortable?” ’
I asked Kim’s mother: ‘Do you wish that Paul had just been happy to be Paul, and had stayed that way?’
‘Well, of course I do,’ Carol replied. ‘It would have been easier for Paul, and for the rest of us.
‘But the key phrase in there is “happy to be Paul”. He wasn’t, and I am just so glad that he had the courage to do something about it.’ She laughed, and then said with adoring emphasis, ‘And look what we got! Kim!’
VANESSA MAE'S STORY: The prodigy with a controlling mother who wasn't even allowed to cut bread
The violinist Vanessa-Mae’s mother Pamela controlled every aspect of her life: her bank account, her clothes, and the sexy picture for the album she released at 17.
Vanessa-Mae was not allowed to slice bread, lest she cut her hand; she was not allowed to have friends, lest they distract her.
Pamela told her: ‘I love you because you are my daughter, but you’ll never be special to me unless you play the violin.’
Prodigy curse: Violinist Vanessa Mae's attempt to bring peace between her an her mother eight years after she fired her, was rejected
Vanessa-Mae chose a new manager when she was 21, ‘desperately hoping for a normal mother/daughter relationship’.
Her mother has not spoken to her since. When the BBC asked to interview Pamela, she emailed: ‘My daughter is nearly 30. That part of my life is well and truly over.’
Vanessa-Mae is wildly successful, and worth about £38 million, but she says: ‘I felt older at 12 than I do now.
‘I carry that email with me, and if I ever have any pangs about what our relationship might have been, I read it and realise it is never going to be.
CLINTON'S STORY: The dwarf who inspired his parents who just 'loved him'
When Clinton Brown first saw his new-born son, he remembers: ‘I almost fainted.’
A doctor told him the baby, also called Clinton, was terribly deformed; the result of diastrophic dysplasia, and likely to die. Such profoundly affected children never walk or talk and are usually institutionalised. Clinton had a flat nose, cauliflower ears, and a cleft palate. He had a curved spine and club feet, and his legs were bunched up under him.
‘Some kids have a mild version of this, but he had every symptom possible,’ said his mother, Cheryl.
Million Dollar Dwarf: Clinton Brown is loving life as a college frat boy and won't let his disability stop him
When Clinton was almost three, he began to walk. He had surgery on his clubfeet, shin bones, calfbones, knees, hips, his cleft palate and intestines. He spent six months in a body cast, flat on his back, with a circle of metal fixed to his skull by four pins to immobilise his neck and spine. As an adult, he is 3ft tall.
‘You’ve heard of the Six Million Dollar Man?’ Cheryl said to me, pointing at her son. ‘This is the Million Dollar Dwarf you’re talking to.’ Clinton said: ‘My hips, knees and joints are real bad. There’s a lack of cartilage between the bones. The cold makes it worse.’
Despite this, I was impressed at how gracefully he could swing his body around. He can weave his unbending fingers around the handle of a fork or a knife.
‘I figured out a lot by myself. I used to pick up pizza or a sandwich and put it on the top of my hand. Writing, I use two fingers. I would love to walk like a normal person. But I’m dancing all night.’
During the long periods of immobility and surgery, Clinton was home-schooled. He worked hard, and was accepted at a university to study banking and finance.
‘I wish all life was college,’ he said. ‘I’m in the big, macho fraternity; I’m friends with all the girls on campus.’
Cheryl and her husband are in awe of their son. ‘I don’t think we did anything to make him into him,’ Cheryl said. ‘I loved him, that’s all.’
ANDREW SOLOMON'S STORY: Trying to accept homosexuality - how it all began…
When I was born in 1963, homosexual activity was a crime; during my childhood, it was a symptom of illness. When I was two, Time magazine wrote of it as ‘a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life, . . . a pernicious sickness’.
The realisation that what I wanted was out of step with the majority came so early that I cannot remember a time preceding it. I never traded a baseball card, but I did recount the plots of operas on the school bus. None of this made me popular.
I was popular at home, but I was subject to corrections. My mother, my brother and I were in a shoe shop when I was seven, and as we were leaving, the salesman asked what colour balloons we’d like. I wanted a pink one. My mother reminded me that my favourite colour was blue. I took the blue one. I can see how vulnerable my vulnerabilities made her.
Family guys: Andrew Solomon, right, with members of his own unique family, husband John Habich Solomon son George
In nursery, I spent playtime making conversation with my teachers. By seventh grade, I ate lunch most days in a secretary’s office. I graduated from high school without visiting the cafeteria. I thought that if anyone found out I was gay, I would have to die.
My mother didn’t want me to be gay because she thought it wouldn’t be the happiest course for me, but equally, she didn’t like the image of herself as the mother of a gay son. The problem wasn’t that she wanted to control my life – although she did; the problem was that she wanted to control her life.
At 13, I bought a copy of Playboy and spent hours studying it, trying to resolve my discomfort with female anatomy; it was much more gruelling than my homework.
When I was 19, I read an ad in the back of New York magazine that offered surrogate therapy for people who had issues with sex. Taking my savings to an office in Hell’s Kitchen, I subjected myself to long conversations about my sexual anxieties. I didn’t mention the busy sexual life I had with men.
I began ‘counselling’ with people I was encouraged to call ‘doctors’, who would prescribe ‘exercises’ with my ‘surrogates’ – women who were not exactly prostitutes but who were also not exactly anything else. I became curiously fond of these women, one of whom, an attractive blonde from the Deep South, eventually told me that she was a necrophiliac and had taken this job after she got into trouble down at the morgue.
Different: Andrew Solomon aged 18 with his mother Carolyn
I remember the first time a Puerto Rican woman climbed on top of me and began to bounce up and down and how I lay there, bored, wondering whether I had finally achieved the prize and become a qualified heterosexual.
My interest in profound differences between parents and children arose from a need to investigate my own sense of regret. While I’d like to blame my parents, I have come to believe that a lot of my pain came from the larger world around me, and that some of it came from me. I now accept that their primary experience was of having a child who spoke a language they’d never thought of studying.
I interviewed more than 300 families over ten years. I interviewed the irreligious parents of fundamentalist children; parents of addicted and bipolar children; the parents of giants with Marfan’s syndrome, of children with AIDS or cancer. I talked to the parents of supermodels, of bullies and of the blind. I will for ever remember Emily, victim of a rape that made her pregnant with a little girl.
‘Fix me,’ she said, as we sat on her office floor. ‘Why can’t I hug my daughter? I love her, but when she touches me, it feels like hundreds of razor blades scraping across my skin.’
Yet many of these parents said that they would never exchange their experiences. Having a severely challenging child intensifies life.
I know that who I was appalled my mother and concerned my father, and I used to be furious at them for not embracing this part of me. But now, I am not inclined to dismantle my history, happy as I am with my partner John and son George. If you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes.
Some parents conclude that they are in fact falling in love with someone they don’t yet know enough to want. As they look back, they see how every stage of loving their child has enriched them.
The conundrum is that most of the families I describe have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.
Andrew's happy ending…
My partner John had proposed that we get married, and I decided to honour the idea. We tied the knot in June, 2007, at a wedding in Northamptonshire.
I soon realised I wanted to bring up a child at home with John, and for that to be a pledge between us. For my birthday John gave me an antique cradle and said: ‘If it’s a boy, can we call him George, after my grandpa?’ Our close friend Laura offered to be a surrogate mother, and we accepted.
The day after George’s birth, the paediatrician told me he had not been drawing up his legs the way that babies should, which could reflect brain damage, and said she wanted to order a CAT scan. She noted that his head was unusually large, which could be related to hydrocephalus – fluid on the brain – or the presence of tumours.
Complete family: Andrew, with John, far left, with George between them, have found parental joy
From the time George was conceived until that day, I had kept thinking how ironic it would be if, in the midst of writing about exceptional children, I were to produce such a child. I knew how much I loved George by how hard I suddenly tried not to love him.
I felt two conflicting guilts: first that I had produced a child who might suffer, and second that despite all the stories I’d heard from parents who found deep meaning in bringing up exceptional children, I didn’t want to join their number.
The scanner room was grim, despite touches intended to make it cheerful and friendly, and we watched helplessly as George was positioned in the machine.
Fortunately, the scan was completely clear. George was fine. The whole thing was over.
During my research I had witnessed and learned the terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility, and recognised how it conquers everything else. Sometimes, I had thought the heroic parents I had encountered were fools, but now I was startled to learn that I was ready to join them.
DYLAN'S STORY: The mass-murderer who killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School
Loving a killer: Columbine gunman Dylan Klebold
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killed 12 students and one teacher on April 20, 1999, before turning their guns on themselves. At the time, it was the worst episode of school violence in history.
I went to Colorado to interview Dylan’s parents, Tom and Sue.
The better I came to know the Klebolds, the more deeply mystified I became. Sue Klebold’s kindness (before Dylan’s death, she worked with people with disabilities) would be the answered prayer of many a neglected or abused child.
In the middle of the day, Tom received a call and learned that Dylan (pictured above right and right) was a suspect. He called Sue. ‘I had a sudden vision of what he might be doing,’ Sue said.
‘And so while every other mother in Littleton was praying that her child was safe, I had to pray that mine would die before he hurt anyone else. I thought if . . . he survived, he would go into the criminal justice system and be executed, and I couldn’t bear to lose him twice.
‘I’ve spent so many hours regretting that prayer: I wished for my son to kill himself, and he did. When it first happened, I used to wish that I had never had children, that I had never married. But over time, I’ve come to feel that, for myself, I am glad I had kids because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life.
‘I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.’ While the Klebolds faced a great deal of hostility, moments of unusual love also surfaced.
‘Neighbours brought us food,’ said Tom. ‘And when I took my car in to be fixed, the mechanic said to me, “At least you didn’t change your name.” He respected that.’
Massacre: Dylan Klebold, right, and Eric Harris are shown in the Columbine High School cafeteria on the day they killed twelve students and one teacher before killing themselves on April 20, 1999
I was surprised that the Klebolds had stayed in the town where they had been party to so much anguish.
‘If we had moved and changed our names, the press would have figured it out,’ Sue said. ‘I would have been “the mother of that killer” in the eyes of everyone I met.
‘Here, at least, I had people who liked me as me, and people who had liked Dylan, and that was what I needed.’
Tom said bluntly: ‘If we’d left, they would have won.’
DAVID'S STORY: The Down's syndrome son whose parents have changed for the better because of him
Valued: David Robards, pictured with brother Christopher has Down's syndrome
The ethicist Joseph Fletcher wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1968 that there was ‘no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s “put away” in the sense of hidden in a sanatorium or in a more responsibly lethal sense’.
True guilt, he said, ‘arises only from an offence against a person, and a Down’s is not a person’.
It was only 15 years later that Tom and Karen Robards, hard-charging Wall Street types, had a son with Down’s syndrome.
David (pictured above with his brother Christopher) was 23 when I met the Robardses, and he had a girlfriend and a full-time job.
We talked about a cure. ‘There are people who think that to talk about a cure is to diminish the value of the people who are alive with Down’s syndrome,’ Tom said.
‘I would cure David in a minute, because I’d like to give him a happier, easier life. But if everyone with Down’s syndrome were cured, it would be a real loss.’
Karen said: ‘We’ve grown so much as a result of having to deal with this. For David, I’d cure it in an instant; but for us, I wouldn’t exchange these experiences for anything. They’ve made us who we are, and who we are is so much better than who we would have been otherwise.’
© Andrew Solomon 2013. Far From The Tree, by Andrew Solomon, is published by Chatto & Windus at £30. To order your copy for £25 inc p&p, call the Mail Book Shop on 0844 472 4157 or go to mailbookshop.co.uk. To learn more, go to farfromthetree.com