Far From the Tree

The other day was busy but boring – at least until I got the call I am going to tell you about. We were just doing EDPs, transfers and emerge-ifers (911s from nursing homes or medical clinics that go to the ED for evaluation). Then we got another EDP – a patient who had expressed suicidal ideations to a social worker. While my third rider was gathering the information from the social worker, a police officer and I were whispering to each other trying to figure out if the patient was a man or a woman. The social worker was referring to him as a he and he had a man’s name, but his voice was very feminine and he had a very feminine manner and complexion.

It wasn’t until we had begun transport and the patient answered my rider’s question about what medicine he took that I paid attention. The man said he was taking female hormones.

“You’re transgender?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Have you had the operation or are you planning to have the operation?”

“I having it next month,” he said.

“Really? So how would you like us to refer to you? Male or Female?

“Female. You can call me Jen.”

“Okay, Jen,” I said. “I will change that on our form for you.”

“Thank you. That’s very kind.”

“I just read a fascinating book about transgender people,” I said. “Is it true that you felt you were a girl from a very young age, but you just had a man’s body?

“Yes, it’s true,” she said.

“Fascinating.”

I proceeded to tell her and my rider about the book I had read. And that is why I am writing this post — to tell you all about this great book called Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.

When they say of a child, “the apple did not fall far from the tree,” they mean the child is like the parent. Thus “far from the tree” means the child is nothing like the parent. The book, which is mammoth, is about human diversity and the capacity of people to love. Each chapter consists of interviews with parents as well as descriptions of the science and cultures surrounding various disorders. There are chapters on deaf people, dwarves, Downs, schizophrenics, criminals, autistic children, severely disabled kids, and gifted children. In many of the chapters the parents say that if they were told when they were first pregnant that their offspring would be abnormal, they would likely have aborted them, but now, despite the hardships, most expressed deep abiding love and gratefulness for what the experience and their child taught them about themselves and about life. (Of note, the book includes a facinating interview with the mother of one of the Columbine shooters).

As a reader, I could not put the book down. It gave me great empathy and made me appreciate that we are not all the same tree in the forest, and that as a society we are likely better off for our diversity. It certainly gave me a window into the world of transgenders, schizophrenics, autistics, the deaf, and many of the other types of patients we encounter, as well as their families.

I remember many years ago complimenting a mother for keeping her severely disabled child, who was now in her early twenties, instead of putting her in a facility. “But how could we have sent her away?” she said to me, incredulously. “She is one of us. We love her.”

I didn’t really understand then, but I do now. Part of the reason I understand is I am older and have a family of my own now, but I think reading this book really helped me better understand it as well.

Humans are capable of deep abiding love and acceptance and this book testifies to that. I feel I am a better person for what I have read and come to understand.

Far From the Tree is one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2012 list.

I can’t recommend it enough.

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Peter Canning

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