Friday, November 16, 2012

Jill Krementz covers Far From The Tree

Andrew Solomon and John Habich with their son George, born on April 6, 2009 at 9:51PM, "weighing 7 pounds, 12 ounces, measuring 20 inches, and already evincing a plentitude of fierce opinions and considerable impatience for good service."
Far From The Tree
Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.

by Andrew Solomon
Published by Scribner on November 13, 2012

Andrew Solomon opens Far From The Tree with an autobiographical chapter detailing his experience as the gay son of heterosexual parents. At the time of his youth, homosexuality was considered an illness — and a crime. It nevertheless became a cornerstone of his identity. As he tells us, illness describes something biological; identity is a word for something social.

Postage stamp on Scribner's invitation for party honoring Andrew Solomon and his new book, Far From The Tree, at The Temple of Dendur.
We use the word illness when we wish to disparage a way of being, and identity when we wish to celebrate the same way of being. This consideration of the tenuous balance between illness, identity, and the parent-child dynamic led to his research on 10 different kinds of exceptional children: deaf children, children with dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, multiple severe disabilities, or prodigious genius; schizophrenic children; children conceived in rape; children who commit serious crimes; and children who are transgender. These individual differences, when considered collectively, unite much of humanity.

In twelve astonishingly acute and compassionate chapters, Solomon tells stories of children who have been heartbreakingly tragic victims of intense prejudices — but also stories of parents who have embraced their children's differences and tried to alter the world's understanding of their conditions. Solomon's humanity and erudition — and the eloquence he discovers in the voices of his subjects — are transformative.

Together the categories he explores compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles are heightened versions of a universal experience. The courageous and profoundly affirming stories of many of these families point a way for all of us to expand our definition of the human family and to increase tolerance. Far From The Tree is a masterpiece that will rattle our prejudices, question our policies, and inspire our understanding of the relationship between illness and identity. Above all, it will renew and deepen our gratitude for the Herculean reach of parental love.

As Andrew convinces us, people who can celebrate these children have a happier life than they who think it's a curse and an affliction. Holding your children to standards has to be determined by where your children lead you.

You will read this book and embrace your children and in embracing them you will celebrate their diversity. You may not feel responsible for your child but in the end you will innately know that you are responsible to your child. And you will realize that good listeners are better than good talkers.
I was grateful to begin my Andrew Solomon Photojournal by watching Brian Williams' weekly program, Rock Center, that aired on NBC on November 8th.

The segment, reported by Kate Snow, kicking off the launch of Far From The Tree, served as a crash course, so to speak, on a very complicated Solomon/Habich family tree. It was also a great introduction to some of the families included in this staggeringly good book.
Andrew and John's family tree. You will want to refer to this from time to time as you try to keep track of everyone in my photojournal. I even had to refer to it.
George reading with Andrew and John.
Checking out his various siblings.
The mothers, Tammy and Laura, of John's first two children, Oliver and Lucy.
Andrew with Blaine Smith.
One big happy family.
Brian Williams and Kate Snow. (click here for excerpt).
Next big event was was a conversation with Paul Holdengräber at The New York Public Library on Monday, November 12th at 7PM.
If you're going to accumulate a pound a year for ten years, better that it be between covers of a book than around your hips. Andrew Solomon, no kidding, spent a decade interviewing more than 300 families and then whittled down 40,000 pages of transcripts to the roughly 1,000 pages (and ten pounds) of perfect prose.
First to arrive was Andrew's husband John Habich Solomon with the mothers, Tammy and Laura, of his first two children, Oliver and Lucy.

You might want to go back to that family tree.
Andrew's father, Howard Solomon, chairman of Forest Laboratories. Sarah Billinghurst Solomon (Andrew's stepmother) is assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
Siddhartha Mukherjee and Nan Graham.

Dr. Mukherjee is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies. Nan Graham edited Mukherjee's book as well as Andrew's last book, the best-seller Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, and his new one, from now on referred to as FFTT.

Graham edits many of my favorite books.
Tatiana Martushev, formerly Andrew's "chief of staff," with John. She is now a craniosacral therapist. Brooke Berlind was smart enough to buy Andrew's book before the conversation. Brooke is on the board of the World Monuments Fund with Andrew.
Polly Shulman.

"We've been friends since Andrew was a freshman at Yale and I was a lofty sophomore. Back then he was an enchanting amalgam of Christopher Robin and Oscar Wilde, known for his opera cloaks and astonishing stories. His stories are still astonishing, and they've grown astonishingly deep and wise over the years.

"Nowadays I write novels for children — most recently The Grimm Legacy (Putnam) and its companion novel, The Wells Bequest (forthcoming in June 2013 from Nancy Paulsen Books/Putnam), about some kids who have adventures in a magical library."
Bunny Beekman, a sculptor, and her husband Bill, a lawyer (with Debevoise & Plimpton) and a serious collector of Virginia Woolf material. The Beekmans have been friends and admirers of Andrew Solomon since the time he was working on his book about depression.
Blaine Smith, Dr. Richard Hubbard, a neurosurgeon and Blaine's partner, and Sarah Billinghurst Solomon.
Nancy Novogrod and Vogue's Amy Fine Collins. Novogrod, the editor of Travel + Leisure has worked with Andrew forever. "He's been a contributing editor for 20 years, first at House and Garden and now
at T+L."
Bradley Collins teaches art history at Parsons. He is married to Amy Fine Collins, who is an art work herself.
Randall Bourscheidt, Johnnie Moore, and Ashton Hawkins.
Peter Duchin and Wendy Goodman. Judy Auchincloss.
Andrew off stage waiting to join Paul Holdengräber. Before the conversation commenced we all got to watch a wonderful video about several of the people profiled in FFTT.
Nick Davis is a superb film-maker. I have known him since he was 15 years old and was one of 19 young people featured in my book, How it Feels When A Parent Dies. His mother Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, a novelist and writer for Time Magazine, was killed by by a taxi when Nick was nine.

Since we are are talking about a book called Far From The Tree, let me say that Nick fell close to his own. His father, Peter Davis, made the Oscar-winning film Hearts and Minds. Nick's maternal grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, co-wrote the scripts for Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz.
Click above to watch trailer from the book. That's Clinton Brown III.
Susan Weinreich, an artist who lives in Mt. Kisco, is in the chapter on Schizophrenia.
The beautiful trans woman is the film-maker Kim Reed ("Prodigal Sons"), who is featured at length in the "Transexual" chapter, at the end. Before her transition, she was the QB of the football team at her high school in hometown of Helena, Montana. When her movie came out, she was invited to give a sermon there at her family's church, which arranged a screening.
Bill Davis and his autistic son, Christopher.

Retrospective diagnosis, albeit shaky science, suggests that Mozart, Einstein, Han Christian Anderson, Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton and a great many other visionaries would now be diagnosed on the spectrum.
Jackie Roth, who is deaf, is a real estate agent at Douglas Elliman. Jackie grew up as the child of deaf parents. Deaf children of deaf parents frequently have a higher level of achievement than the deaf children of hearing parents.
The conversation begins.
To close the evening, Andrew read aloud from his book. The passage he read was in part a response to the writer William Dean Howells's famous disparagement that "what the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."

"This book seeks the nobility buried in Howells's disparagement. It is predicated on an even more optimistic notion, which is that the happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies, that they not only transcend the mawkishness to which Howells alludes, but also produce a contentment more cherished than one untempered by suffering. Sometimes, people end up thankful for what they mourned. You cannot achieve this state by seeking tragedy, but you can keep yourself open more to sorrow's richness than to unmediated despair. Tragedies with happy endings may be sentimental tripe, or they may be the true meaning of love."
At the end, a standing ovation.
A final bow!
Lucy, John, and Oliver are beaming with pleasure as Andrew joins them.
Blurb on book:

"This is one of the most extraordinary books I have read in recent times — brave, compassionate and astonishingly humane. Solomon approaches one of the oldest questions how much are we defined by nature versus nurture? and crafts from it a gripping narrative. Through his stories, told with such masterful delicacy and lucidity, we learn how different we all are, and how achingly similar. I could not put this book down."
— Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of all Maladies
Andrew's agent, Andrew Wylie, with Anthony Marx, President of The New York Public Library.
Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim, is a godparent to George, Andrew and John's youngest son.

Sheena Hill traveled to NYC from Baltimore for the evening's lecture. Ms. Hill is a certified parenting consultant who was interviewed for the book
Brian Hammerstein lives in Chelsea in Manhattan. He and Andrew roomed together at Yale College.

Mr. Hammerstein is currently the General Manager of Rokamat North America, and resides in and serves on the board of Mutual Redevelopment Houses in Chelsea, the largest cooperative housing complex in Manhattan.
Nan Graham, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Howard Solomon.
Barbara Holdengräber and Jennifer Homans, dance critic for The New Republic. Ms. Homans wrote the critically acclaimed Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet. Johanna Bober, an editor of In Style, with actress Megan Ketch. Ms. Ketch appears in CBS's Blue Bloods.
Flash Rosenberg, artist-in-residence for LIVE from the NYPL, with Katie Roiphe, author of In Praise of Messy Lives, a recent featured speaker at LIVE on October 10, 2012.

Rosenberg creates what she calls "live drawings" during the conversations and what follows are three from the Holdengräber/Solomon evening.
Andrew Solomon quotes his mother, "Good listeners are more interesting than good talkers," in response to Paul Holdengräber's request to define himself in 7 words.
"The opposite of suffering is boredom." — Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon was asked by the mother of a young Tutsi woman in Rwanda who had been raped during the atrocities, "How can I love my daughter more? Every time I look at her I think of what happened to me."

"Look at how much love there is in the question itself," Solomon observed.
Andrew with Nora Johnson, who went to Smith College with his mother. Nora wrote The World of Henry Orient and is the daughter of the great screenwriter Nunnally Johnson.
The ecstatic author. Mary Libby works at Christie's Auction House.
Andrew with his cousin Mary Marks, who lives on a little farm in Virginia "with my chickens, my horses, my bees, and my three cats."
On November 13th, Howard and Sarah Solomon hosted a glamorous party celebrating the publication of FFTT with drinks, food, music and dancing at The Temple of Dendur.
The entrance way to the The Temple of Dendur in the Met's Sackler Wing.
Andrew with his father, Howard Solomon and stepmother, Sarah Billinghurst.
Mary Krueger with her partner, Andrés Saavedra, of Carmona Design transformed the Temple of Dendur with exotic flowers, colorful cushions, votive candles, and palm trees projected on three walls (to reference the "Tree" in the title of Andrew's book).

They call themselves Fete Visualists.
Carmona Design's Mary Krueger.

"We were trying to create the feeling of a marvelous luxurious barge floating down the Nile."
Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.

"Far-reaching, original, fascinating — Andrew Solomon's investigation of many of the most intense challenges that parenthood can bring compels us all to reexamine how we understand human difference. Perhaps the greatest gift of this monumental book, full of facts and full of feelings, is that it constantly makes one think, and think again."
Susan Horton and her husband, Eric Rayman. Mr. Rayman provided legal counsel for Andrew while he was writing FFTT. Joyce Cowin, whose daughter Dana is the editor of Food + Wine magazine, and one of Andrew's closest friends.
Ann Gussow lives just down the street from Andrew and is the widow of New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow, who was Howard Solomon's cousin. Kent Carroll, publisher at Europa Editions, which translates select international literature for the American market. He is former editor-in-chief of Grove Press and founder-publisher of Carroll & Graf.
Now here's a guest who doesn't feel he has to smile for the camera.
Jason Kingsley. With another boy who had Down syndrome, Jason co-wrote the book Count Us In, in which he described the doctor who told his parents that he'd never talk or even recognize them. He earned a high-school diploma. Emily Perl Kingsley, former Sesame Street writer, who wrote the oft-quoted "Welcome to Holland," likening the experience of having a child with a disability to a trip on which one has planned to go to Italy, but ends up in Holland instead. It can be a bitter disappointment — unless you realize that Holland is a place with different kinds of lovely things from those in Italy.
Cousins Emmett Solomon, "almost 12," and Oliver Scher, "almost 13." Philip Gourevitch and his wife, Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer for The New Yorker.
Cindy Spiegel is publisher of the Spiegel & Grau imprint at Random House. As founding editor of Riverhead Books, she edited The Kite Runner and The Color of Water. Writer-philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is the author of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, and the partner of Henry Finder, Andrew's longtime editor at The New Yorker.
Allesandro Ricciarelli is writer and a music therapist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Carla Blumenkrantz is the editor of N+1, a literary magazine. Allesandro
met Andrew when they were both at Yaddo.
Bill Davis's son is in the chapter on autism. They are also featured in the promotional video for the book.
Painter Cornelia Foss, the widow of composer Lukas Foss, has painted portraits of both Andrew and his son George. Edith and Harold Holzer. Holzer, V.P. of the Met, is the foremost Lincoln scholar. Asked what he thought of Spielberg's recent bio-pix about our 16th President, Holzer replied: "I was a consultant on the film so I'm biased. The revelation for me is that Sally Field really is Mary Lincoln. I've never seen Mrs. Lincoln brought to life the way she has been in this film.
Francine du Plessix Gray's most recent book is The Queen's Lover, a historically based novel about Marie-Antoinette and her Swedish lover, Count Axel von Fersen. (published by Penguin Press and edited by Ann Godoff)
Deeda Blair is co-founder of the Alexandria Conference, a yearly invitation-only summit of leading scientists and thinkers to shape directions in life-science research. Andrew will speak at this year's Alexandria Conference on neuroscience in December.

Olivia Flatto, a scientist, is also chairman of the American Friends of the Paris Opera & Ballet.
The evening began with a toast from Andrew's editor, Nan Graham.

"This truly transformative work is spectacularly generous — to the people in the book whose stories of courage and resilience and abiding love have never been heard, to the people who read the book whose minds and hearts will be forever changed by it, and to the many many who will unknowingly be affected in the years and decades to come as it alters our policies, our embrace of difference, and our humanity. No one but Andrew Solomon could have dared to conceive this work; no one but Andrew has the intelligence and tenacity and imagination and grace and seemingly infinite compassion to execute it."
Howard Solomon:

"If Andrew's mother were alive today, I can hardly imagine how proud she would be. She taught her dyslexic son how to read and write. She worked with him every day, every day until he became literate — and he has indeed become very literate, in part because of his mother's devotion.

"This remarkable book will change the lives of many, many thousands of people, change them for the better, assure them they are not alone, assuring all of us of their humanity, perhaps assuring that none of us, all different, are alone if only we open our eyes and peer deeply around us and into ourselves. I suppose being Andrew's father I may tend to exaggerate the virtues of his book, but to me it's a masterpiece."
Andrew Solomon:

"Someone asked me this week how publishing this book felt different from publishing the last one, and I realized that when the last one was published, it was everything, and I felt if it didn't succeed, my life was purposeless. But publishing this one, I have a husband, and beautiful children, and the love of the mothers of those children, and while I'll be furious and distraught if this book doesn't take off, I won't be despairing."

At the end of Andrew's remarks he told us that he had, only hours earlier, been elected to the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum.
Emily Wilson and her wife, Anna Adelson. Anna is in the book. Behind them is John Rafferty, a retired partner at Ernst & Young, and the husband of Met Museum President Emily Rafferty.
Andrew and John.
John with his son, George.
Tom Campbell, Director of the Met museum with his wife, Phoebe.

Andrew's long affiliation with the Met began when, as a high-school student, he was hired to wear a unicorn costume for an event at The Cloisters. Nervous about the job, he asked his supervisor what he should do, and was told, "Grant wishes and kiss virgins."

A few years later, he won an internship at the museum and served as an editorial assistant to the legendary Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute.
Nick Davis with his wife, Jane Mendelssohn, author of American Music and I Was Amelia Earhart

In Nick's words: "Andrew has been a friend of my wife's since childhood, and he's been an inspiration to me since we met, almost twenty years ago. His generosity of spirit and amazing compassion are matched only by his tremendous vitality and incredible erudition.

"It was a total pleasure to make the 'book trailer' (a bastard art form, with a terrible name — but that's another story!), and I hope everyone buys the book, since of course it's about all of us."
Two mothers talking. Charlotte Clark introduced herself to Emily Perl Kingsley saying "I'm the middle of the Schizophrenia Chapter." Mrs. Kingsley replied, "I'm the beginning of the chapter on
Down syndrome."
Bunny and Bill Beekman, who were both at the NY Public Library the previous evening, are honorary aunt and uncle to George Solomon. Geraldine Laybourne sold Oxygen to NBC and is now Chairman of Alloy Inc.

"I am elated women did so well in the last election!"
Blaine Solomon and George spent a good part of the evening enjoying their makeshift slides.
Susan Weinreich, who is in the video and talks in the book about her experience of schizophrenia, with Clinton Brown III, one of the stars in the chapter about dwarfism. Bunny Harvey and Frank Muhly are the parents of composer Nico Muhly, a musical wunderkind profiled in the "Prodigies" chapter. Bunny is a painter who won the Prix de Rome and currently has a one-woman retrospective on view at the Newport Art Museum through Dec. 30.
Film-maker Nick Davis with three of the stars of his promotional video: Susan Weinreich, Catherine Featherstone, and Clinton Brown III.

To make the book trailer for Far From The Tree, Nick enlisted top documentary colleagues like cinematographer Tom Hurwitz (Valentino, Queen of Versailles) and used the Interetron technique, to allow the interviewees to speak directly to camera.

"We chose colored backgrounds to suggest, I hope not in a Benneton-y way, the infinite variety and color of the diversity of the human experience. We did interviews with seven of the people featured in the book, as well as a lengthy interview with Andrew.

"For the trailer, we tried to distill the essence of the interviewees into a simple story of obstacles, persistence, and transcendence. We used music by one of interviewees, NIco Muhly."

(Excerpts of all the interviews can be found on the book's website,
Andrew and Blaine Solomon. Broadway and movie costume designer Suzy Benzinger, costumier John Schneeman, and John Habich Solomon. Schneeman designed and made Habich Solomon's suit, as well as all the costumes for the children who were wedding attendants at John and Andrew's wedding in 2007.
Cora Cahan is chairman of the New 42nd Street, and husband Bernard Gersten has been executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater since 1985. Kimball Chen, Chairman of Energy Transportation Group.

"We advise national governments and international agencies regarding sustainable energy policies and climate change."
Photographer Adam Fuss, who took the photo on the cover of FFTT.

Fuss is renowned for his unique cibachrome photograms. "I place the baby in a shallow tray of water (in which photographic paper is also placed, below the baby) because water is a metaphor for life and birth itself. It's a simple, life-size composition (simplicity and depiction of images at their true scale are characteristics of photograms), because I want it to be iconic and timeless. The blackest areas in the babies' silhouettes represent where their skin met the tray."

The baby portrayed on FFTT is, of course, George Habich Solomon.
Kathleen Seidel was Andrew's research assistant for three years. A graduate of Columbia University, she is the mother of a son who transitioned from a female at fifteen and who has Asperger's.
Andrew's niece Abigail Solomon, 9, with her mother, Sarah Long Solomon. Christina Harper, assistant to Sarah Billinghurst.
Jackie Roth was Miss Deaf America! Clinton Brown III with his girlfriend, Sofiya Perez.
Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ms. Egan has just moved from Knopf to Scribner and is working on another novel for Nan Graham.

"Far from the Tree is a landmark, revolutionary book. It frames an area of inquiry — difference between parents and children that many of us have experienced in our own lives without ever considering it as a phenomenon. Andrew Solomon plumbs his topic thoroughly, humanely, and in a compulsively readable style that makes the book as entertaining as it is illuminating."
Oliver dancing with Sue Macartney-Snape, who is a noted English artist-illustrator.
Virginia Vitzthum's interview with Andrew was published in Elle magazine. Lithuanian photographer Aurelijus Varna flew to NYC from London to take photographs
for Andrew.
Camille Massey is vice-president for global strategy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She and her partner, the artist Gillie Holme, are the parents of 11-year-old Lucia Massey.
Adrian LeBlanc and Dr. Stuart Lewis.

Ms. LeBlanc, a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, is the author of the best-seller, Random Family, published by Nan at Scribner. Dr. Lewis was a physician of the late Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face. Adrian and Stuart met at a book party for Ann Patchett (where I photographed both Ann and Lucy).

By this time, my evening at the Met was reaching an almost scarey six-degree-ishness.

LeBlanc is working on a book about standup comedians. When I later saw her leaving the party, she was wearing Lucy's coat, bequeathed to her.
Melissa Rasmussen, an event producer, and Tatiana Martushev with a whole new look from the previous evening. My friend Oliver. They are all holding bouquets of Coral Charm Peonies, a favorite of Andrew's late mother.
Jocelyn Alleyne has been a Met security guard for 24 years. She had been on her feet since 9AM, first working in the Islamic Galleries and then walking over to The Temple of Dendur. A bouquet of Coral Charm Peonies, and some Purple Iris from California.
Novelist Thea Goodman and art historian Claudia Swan with their bouquets, Coral Charm Peonies from New Zealand and Hybrid Delphiniums from Holland.
Good night sweet Princes. Sweet Dreams!
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact Jill Krementz here.