Friday, November 16, 2012

Horizontal Identities

I was reading a review of a book by Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree, in the November 19 issue of The New Yorker, that describes identities that separate children from their parents. [In full disclosure, I did not read the book yet, only Nathan Heller's review.]

Shared experience in families, says Solomon [via Heller] "flows naturally down the generations" via "vertical identity." I guess we could say this is tied to genetics and socialization. It is more likely, but not inevitable, that you will find mathematicians in a family of mathematicians, musicians in a family of musicians, writers in a family of writers, or at least you will find some people in a branch of the family with certain talents that will be recognized and encouraged. As Heller says, "It's a conduit through which the benefits of shared experience--empathy, hindsight, a sense of who you are--can travel." This is what is cut off, via adoption, is it not? Shared experience, mirroring?

"Horizontal identity" is specific difference. Solomon talks about deafness in a family of hearing people, for example. Or little people/dwarves (sorry if I am not using politically correct terminology here) in a family of people of otherwise unremarkable height. There is a list that Solomon apparently discusses in his book: "Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disability, early genius, conception through rape, criminal behavior, transgender life." In each circumstance, Solomon looks at families and how difference/horizontal identity affects the families' ability to cope and function, while also thinking philosophically about "difference" and how it is handled in families and in society at large.

Although Solomon wasn't specifically talking about adoptees, this "horizontal identity" immediately sounded like something that applies to adoption. Indeed, in one case, a couple gave up a child with horizontal identity for adoption, saying, "I'm not the right mother for this child." Which seems a little backward, because in giving up a child for adoption, you're creating another situation of horizontal identity, at least in cutting the child off from her roots.

I find it telling that adoption is so normalized that it doesn't figure as "difference" to the writers of book and the review, and that a parent gave up on her own child, as different, saying that another family could do better, as though adoption solved a problem by providing better families. Except that there's no guarantee of anything "better," as the news tragically tells us on a daily basis.

I was fortunate, perhaps, in that I was placed with a family whose vertical identity was not at odds with me in some aspects: love of travel, history, education, etc. While I don't share their genes, obviously, my aparents told me I could do whatever I wanted, achieve what I wanted, be whoever I wanted to be. I know, however, that having a good match is like winning the lottery, and when you lose, there can be tragic outcomes. And before anyone feels the need to tell me, I am well aware that there can be enormous differences of identity in biological families, as well (Solomon's book is based on biological families, after all).

Why is, or isn't, adoption an aspect of "horizontal identity" in your opinion? Or more important, have you read Solomon's book?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Adoption would describe horizontal identity to me...

Dad was older and his family had longevity running through their genes, so he knew most of his relatives born around 1850's, he was also a great storyteller. Every story in-depth and descriptive of character traits, and what they were good at. Every one of those stories of his ancestors described dad - to a tee. His strengths and abilities were theirs as well.

I don't know if that made me yearn for the same, or not, but I loved to hear those stories. It was amazing to see how inheritance works more than just the obvious physical characteristics.

Vertical identity is least for some families.

Great post.