David Enyeart, events manager of Common Good Books, told the crowd at Macalester College last night that when Andrew Solomon's publisher called him up and told him they were publishing a 900-page book about families with difficult or problematic children, and they were sending the author on tour, and could Enyeart drum up a crowd for such an event, Enyeart said, No problem.
And judging by the size of the crowd last night, it truly was no problem. "I love living in a town where people are interested in those types of things," Enyeart said, and the audience of about 400 people applauded. And they certainly were interested; when Solomon took the stage and began talking about the genesis of his new book ("Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity"), and his years of research and reportage, and the stories of the people he profiled, the room was utterly silent--riveted.
He did, of course, start with a tiny stumble. 'It's a pleasure to be here in Minneapolis, where I did a lot of research for this book," he began, and then broke off when he heard mumblings and rustlings from the audience. "St. Paul!" he finally understood them to say. "St. Paul!" And Solomon cringed.He apologized. The crowd laughed. "Suitably chastened, I go on," he said.
Solomon was an eloquent and fascinating speaker. His new book looks at families with children who are very different from the parents--families with children who are deaf, or autistic, or transgender, or have dwarfism or Down syndrome.
In families, he said, there is "vertical identity"--race, ethnicity, and other attributes that children have in common with their parents. And there is "horizontal identity"--identities, he said, that must be learned from a peer group rather than from parents. "Things that people often try to cure or change."
And it's sometimes difficult for parents to know what to cure--such as dyslexia, which Solomon had as a child--and what to leave alone, such as homosexuality.
In his book, Solomon includes stories across the spectrum--from parents who love and embrace their very different children, and from parents who have simply been unable to cope. The stories that he told last night, though, were almost all uplifting. He talked about a young man named Clinton who was born with such severe physical deformities and dwarfism that the doctors urged his parents to let him die. Instead, they found experts at Johns Hopkins University who performed 30 surgeries on Clinton, who grew to be a gentle man who went on to become the first in his family to graduate from college.
"Clinton always had such a light in him," Solomon quoted Clinton's mother as saying. "We were the first ones to see it."
"The people who are able to construct meaning in their child's lives are better parents and have a better life," he said.
But he acknowledged that some people have a harder time than others, and that some children are harder to deal with than others. I won't pretend that any of this is easy, Solomon said.
Questions after his speech were fervent--at least one woman spoke through tears. And the line for his book-signing was long.
Clearly, the Twin Cities area (as Solomon was careful to call it after his initial faux pas) is, as Enyeart suggested, a place where people are most definitely interested in those types of things.