Falling Far from the Tree: Horizontal Inheritance

far from the tree cover bookAndrew Solomon in Far from the Tree, makes a distinction between vertical and horizontal inheritance or identity. Vertical inheritance is determined by the DNA you receive from your parents. Horizontal inheritance kicks in as we identify laterally with others who are not necessarily related to us.

Horizontal identities thus supplement vertical ones imposed on us or expected of us by our parents. Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. Many born into such situations forge bonds of common culture with peers that take them farther from the family tree into surrogate families.

We have witnessed this phenomenon with ancestry tests. One sibling will be more oriented toward Native American or Romani or Jewish than another even though both have the same DNA inheritance from their parents. Similarly, one sibling will readily accept an unusual ancestry (such as Melungeon) while another adamantly denies it. The sibling who embraces the offbeat identity often experiences the same sort of “coming out” anxiety as a gay or gifted person. The horizontal inheritance derived from friends and support groups becomes more important than blood ties.


Amazon.com Review of Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2012: Anyone who’s ever said (or heard or thought) the adage “chip off the old block” might burrow into Andrew Solomon’s tome about the ways in which children are different from their parents–and what such differences do to our conventional ideas about family. Ruminative, personal, and reportorial all at once, Solomon–who won a National Book Award for his treatise on depression, The Noonday Demon–begins by describing his own experience as the gay son of heterosexual parents, then goes on to investigate the worlds of deaf children of hearing parents, dwarves born into “normal” families, and so on. His observations and conclusions are complex and not easily summarized, with one exception: The chapter on children of law-abiding parents who become criminals. Solomon rightly points out that this is a very different situation indeed: “to be or produce a schizophrenic…is generally deemed a misfortune,” he writes. “To…produce a criminal is often deemed a failure.” Still, parents must cope with or not, accept or not, the deeds or behaviors or syndromes of their offspring. How they do or do not do that makes for fascinating and disturbing reading. –Sara Nelson

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