Openly gay writer Andrew Solomon (best known for “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression”) has a simple but powerful dream for the new documentary “Far from the Tree” which opens today (Friday, Aug. 3) at the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.
“I’d like it to diminish the isolation of people who are different,” he says.
Solomon traces the roots of the film to “Defiantly Deaf,” an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 1994. “When I was working on that article,” Solomon says, “I learned that most deaf people are born to hearing parents and that those parents try to get them to function in the mainstream world as much as possible. They often discover deaf culture in adolescence and it comes as a great revelation to them.”
Solomon realized that this experience was similar to the experiences of LGBT people who are coming out. He observed it in other situations and started to see a pattern.
After a decade of research and interviews, Solomon revealed the patterns he discovered in his best-selling 2012 book “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.” Coming in at 962 pages, the book is an emotional and thought-provoking investigation of how parents deal with children who are different from themselves. These differences include sexual orientation and gender identities as well as other social and intellectual differences and cognitive and physical disabilities. He also talked to rape victims who have decided to keep their children and the families of criminals.
Solomon even includes a chapter on his own fraught coming-out process.
“I thought that the perspective of a gay man on all of these forms of difference would be a valuable one. When I was growing up, being gay was a crime, a sin, an illness. Now it’s an identity. The life I have now was unimaginable when I was a child.”
He adds, “I wanted the idea of the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in the lives of gay people over the last 50 years to stand as a model for the other kinds of transformation that I was investigating.”
In the end, Solomon realized that parents dealing with a wide variety of challenges end up having a great deal in common.
“If you think you have something in common with everyone who’s had to deal with a child who astonishes or surprises, who disrupts their parent’s expectations, then you’re dealing with most parents in the world. Our differences unite us,” he says.
The journey from page to screen started when straight ally Rachel Dretzin read the rave review of the book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. The acclaimed filmmaker and mother of three says, “I’ve made many films about families and about children and about growing up, so I’m kind of drawn to that matter to begin with. I read the book immediately and then I read it again and was really just possessed by the idea that I needed to make a film out of it.”
Once she got the job, Dretzin started her work by interviewing dozens of families for possible inclusion in the movie (only Solomon and his father Howard and the Kingsley family appear in both the book and the movie).
“We were looking for families that spoke to some of the themes in the book,” Dretzin says. “We were looking for families that were in the middle of something we could follow.”
Ultimately Dretzin decided to follow the stories of the Allnutt family, whose son Jack was diagnosed with autism; Leah Smith and Joseph Stramondo, a married couple with dwarfism who are trying to conceive a child; Loini Vivao who attends the Little People of America convention for the first time; and the Reese family, whose son Trevor has committed a crime.
Now that “Far from The Tree” is getting national distribution, both Solomon and Dretzin are at work on new projects. Solomon is starting research for a new book about our expanding definitions of family. Dretzin says she is “leaping into a very different world, a six-part limited series about the assassination of Malcom X.”