Far From the Tree – Can you be a really good parent and still have a kid who commits a crime?
All week we’ve been taking an in-depth look at a fascinating new book called “Far From the Tree” which examines the complexities of being a parent to children in some of the most trying of circumstances.
Indicative of the enormous scope of his book “Far From The Tree,” Andrew Solomon doesn’t just focus on the physical difficulties of certain parent-child relationships, as with the deaf or with dwarfs, or just the intellectual difficulties, as with autistics, or schizophrenics, or prodigies. He provocatively moves beyond those categories to examine the parenting issues that arise from two kinds of trauma – traumatic origins in the case of a child conceived in rape, and traumatic actions in the case of a child who commits crimes. As with the other cases he studies, these children also can severely strain a parent’s ability to love them.
And unlike the parents of children with physical or intellectual disabilities who tend to garner sympathy from all corners, parents of criminal children have to combat the blame game.
“So it used to be that we thought that homosexuality was caused by overbearing mothers and passive fathers and we used to think autism was caused by refrigerator mothers and that schizophrenia was caused by parents who nurtured a wish that their child would not exist,” says Solomon.
“As we’ve looked at all of those categories we’ve stopped blaming parents, but in crime we continue to say, ‘I brought my children up properly and they didn’t do anything like that.’ When I researched the chapter I thought, ‘OK criminality feels often more like an illness than any of the illnesses we’re looking at.'”
“I wanted to examine that idea that actually you could be a really good parent and have a child who commits a crime.”
Solomon acknowledges that the causes of crime are enormously complex, that, as he puts it, “the genetics of decency are well beyond our primitive science.” But some people, he says, seem to be born without a moral center, much as some people are born without a thumb. They appear to be beyond the reach of even the most boundless parental love and support.
Solomon came to this conclusion after getting to know Tom and Sue Klebold, by far the most famous (or infamous) of all his interview subjects in the book. They are the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters who systematically mowed down 12 students and a teacher in the worst (at the time) school shooting in American history. Solomon tells me he was unprepared for what he discovered.
“It was an extraordinary experience because I went out to meet them thinking, ‘OK I’ve persuaded these people to talk to me and when I get to know them I’ll see what they did that caused this.” Solomon says. “The more I got to know them, the more I liked them, the more I felt that I’m basically very fond of my own parents, I would have been happy to be brought up by these people. The more I thought there really is no more explanation for how they caused the crime than there is for how some other mother caused her child’s autism.”
Solomon talks about Tom Klebold’s bullish optimism that would seem capable of lifting the spirits of just about anyone. And, with an unexpected resonance for readers of Solomon’s book, Sue Klebold has spent her life working with the disabled. Sue tells of a client of hers who was blind, had only one hand, had just lost her job, and had a troubled home life, who told her – this was after Columbine – that she wouldn’t trade places with her for anything in the world.
Sue says that she used to think she could understand people, that she could read them pretty well. No more. After her son’s actions at Columbine, she says she realizes she doesn’t have a clue what another human being is really thinking. The Klebolds are constantly asked, “How could you not know? How could you not know?” They say they don’t know how they couldn’t know, but they didn’t. And it haunts them.
“I think that they almost can’t forgive themselves for having that experience,” Solomon says. “Dylan’s mother said to me at the end of our first weekend of interviews when we had spent something like 20 hours recording interviews, we were all exhausted. We were sitting around the kitchen table having dinner. I said to Sue and Tom, ‘If Dylan were here now do you have a sense of what you’d want to ask him or what you’d want to tell him. His father said ‘I sure do. I’d like to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing.’ His mother kind of looked at the floor, she thought for a second and then she looked back up and said, ‘I would ask him to forgive me for being his mother and never knowing what was going on inside his head.'”
I imagine that’s the deepest fear of every parent – to not really know what your kid is thinking.