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For the last few weeks I have been reading ‘Far From the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon, which is my excuse for not writing a great deal. At 976 pages it is a fairly hefty read! But the pages fly by quite quickly – the writing is simple and vivid – and thank goodness, it turns out that the footnotes take up half the book!

Solomon is exploring what it is like to raise children that are different from you (and, sometimes, what it is like to be those kids). His idea is that we all have multiple identities, and some of those are vertical – inherited from our parents – such as nationality, religion, or red hair. But some are horizontal – unexpected traits that are not shared with parents – such as being deaf, dwarf, or autistic – and some of which, like his own account of being gay, may be rejected by parents. He tackles each of these categories in its own chapter, describing the unique challenges and strengths of the group, and some of the science, intermixed with people he has interviewed at length about their experience. It is the case studies that make the book: some of these characters leap off the page, and there are some extraordinary stories. Solomon makes a very sympathetic interviewer: he spends time with his subjects – not just an afternoon, but returning to visit again and again over years, building close relationships that often become real friendships. He stays in their homes, he keeps in touch, and it does feel as if some of his subjects – especially the most poor, isolated and discriminated against – gained a real sense of validation from his involvement.

Later in the book, Solomon deliberately moves away from what we all think of as “special needs” families. He looks at families where children are prodigies, or the product of rape, or become involved in crime. There were some good points here, and the interviews were thought-provoking, but I’m not sure he made such a good case for some of these categories. The chapter on children of rape, in particular, felt as if it needed a book all of its own. As Solomon admitted, the real connection here was amongst the mothers, not the children, and this group sat uneasily amongst the rest: a story to be told, yes, but perhaps in a different way. It didn’t help that while many of the families in the early chapters were similar to each other (mostly American), in this chapter, Solomon travelled to Rwanda to explore the subject of rape in war. Changing cultures so dramatically is pretty jarring – how can we relate these women’s experience to mothers in New York? This section felt very compressed, awkward and uneven.

But even just for the first half, I’d recommend Solomon’s book to anyone who has found themselves parenting kids who are “different”. Much of the time, parenting odd kids feels isolating and thankless, but this book is full of parents struggling to raise such children. Amongst these pages you find people you recognize, muddling along from day to day, sometimes showing amazing courage and tenacity, sometimes laughing at themselves, sometimes giving up and hiding under the duvet. But for most of these parents, amazingly, once they had got the hang of it, a lot of them seemed to gain from the experience. It was hard, and they grieved at first, but they no longer wanted their child to be any different.

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“You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by. To be sure, for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad: they are taken care of then. But you must not run into that.”

The indefatigable Mrs Cadwallader in Middlemarch. I love the fact that for her sanity is obviously something you have to work at, and seems to boil down to having the right vocabulary! As if insanity was a matter of having an unfortunate dialect.

Recovery has not been as easy as I imagined, and has not always gone in the right direction. I have discovered once again that patience is not so much a virtue as a necessary life skill. Good books help: I am glad I saved Middlemarch to my middle age, when I needed something to get me through these interminable afternoons (and when I was old enough to understand it).

However things are improving and I am looking forward to getting back to normal.

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Is teenage unique to humans? Are there teenage cows? David Bainbridge, in “Teenagers, a Natural History” says that our teenage stage is what makes us human.

Duncan is going through the teenage explosion at the moment. He is discovering the entire world simultaneously – novels, science, girls, music, politics. His world is a bewildering kaleidoscope of new ideas, new sensations, new meanings. Fifteen years old, and his world holds an infinity of possibilities.

His teenage is different from mine. I absorbed everything I could lay my hands on, mopping it up: but he wants to master it, to conquer it. Is this a boy thing? I read books because I wanted to escape to different worlds, he reads books because they are long (The Count of Monte Christo, 1400 pages) or have shock value. But whatever his reasons he does read them, he is amazed by them, he falls under their spell, he talks about them. “What’s a really difficult author to read?” he asks me. “Try Kafka.” I say, offhandedly, and a few weeks later he is insisting on reading yet another bit of Kafka to me, “Mum, you’ve got to listen to this.”

(I can’t tell him how much I loathe Kafka; next time he asks I must swear to him that Jane Austen is widely known to be the most impenetrable of writers; that it is a unique and highly regarded achievement to read all six of her novels and the juvenilia.)

He doesn’t just learn information, he wants to test it, to see if he can break it. There is no subject on which he does not have an opinion, often several opinions, the more outlandish and shocking the better. Next week he will have a different opinion, but he is not likely to have just accepted any given piece of information as settled fact. He will espouse every political shade of the spectrum, sometimes simultaneously, as long as he can provoke an argument. He is furious about quantum mechanics: how can the heart of matter, the truth about the world around us, be so weird, so incomprehensible? Watching television with him is a nightmare: he challenges every statement. (“How do we know his mum is dead? I bet he’s just saying that. Now there’s no way the judges can vote him off, even though he can’t f***ing sing!”)

Some weekend nights I let him stay up a bit later to talk. He’s a night owl – he loves that spooling out of conversations into the late hours. When he’s a student he’ll want to talk through the night with friends. I try to keep any arguments gentle, not too rough – I’m too old and tired for that. Anyway, I want him to learn how to argue, how to spar, how to disarm his opponent, not to bludgeon them over the head. But I also want him to think round and check his opinion is on solid ground, and be able to abandon it. That’s a good point, I say, but have you thought what would happen if…

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