Far from the Tree Documentary

I lug the book Far from the Tree, all 962 pages of it, around with me to family meetings and client sites at children’s hospitals and disability organizations.  It is a meticulously researched and beautifully crafted book on parenting, and more importantly, on love and acceptance.  Andrew Solomon has written a masterpiece.  This book has moved me so much that I titled my essay that I wrote for the New York Times Far from My Tree. (It is a piece written about my punk rock son, inspired by Solomon’s work).  Solomon has helped me dig deep about parenting all three of my children, who are different from me in their own unique ways.  It made me ask:  did I really have children to create versions of Mini-Me?  Or was it my job to unconditionally love, support and accept them to be full versions of their fine selves?

I’ve been scrounging around to find a way to bring the Far from the Tree Documentary to Vancouver.  GREAT NEWS.  It has been released on Netflix Canada.  If you love or work with someone with a disability, please take 90 minutes of your time and settle in and watch this exquisitely crafted film by Rachel Dretzin.

Solomon has broken the fourth wall to tell his story as an author and what writing a book about parents, children and the search for identity meant to him.

Writing this book set me free.  It broke me out of the narrative from my childhood. -Andrew Solomon

His parallel story as a gay man is gently presented along with stories from Jason, Jack, Trevor, Loini, Leah and Joe.  Jason is 41 and has Down syndrome, like my 15 year old son.  I watched the segments with Jason closely. He’s the son of Emily Perl Kingsley, who famously wrote the essay Welcome to Holland.  (Anyone who has a child with a disability has been gifted this essay by well-meaning friends).  Jason speaks many truths.

Here in reality, everyone is different. -Jason Perl Kingsley

Jason is right, of course.  We are all different but us typically-developing people are terrified of difference and shun this reality. Far from the Tree examines this paradox with little commentary and judgment.  The stories are strong and stand on their own.

I especially loved the film for the space it gave to the people with disabilities to do the talking. Us parents normally take up a lot of airtime, when we should be making room for our loved ones to speak in any way that they can.  I’m learning this lesson slowly as my son gets older.  His story is different than my story.  He lives with disability.  I do not.

Joe is a philosophy professor, has dwarfism and is eloquent with his words.  “What body you are in has everything to do with your perspective in the world,” he says.  “It surprises people when I indicate that I’m not suffering.”

Far from the Tree offers up a lot to think about.  As Joe points out, physicians see normality as the end goal.  But why is that?  To what lengths do we chase the normal?

The dad of Jack, a young man who is autistic and non-verbal, tearfully says about his son,  “He’s abnormal in a really good way.”  Far from the Tree rightly challenges the concept of normal and offers up the question:  what makes us human?

I’ve always thought the disability community and its allies could learn much from the LGBTQ2S world.  As Solomon asks, drawing a comparison between the two worlds:  Is defectiveness a matter of perspective?  How does illness become a celebrated identity instead?

How do we decide what to cure and what to celebrate?  -Andrew Solomon

I wept at the tenderness of this film: the scene of Jason at the museum with his mom, the image of him sitting on his back deck with his two roommates.  Andrew Solomon walking arm in arm with his father, Trevor’s family gathered around the video screen to talk to their incarcerated son.  Loini meeting people like her for the first time at the Little People’s convention, Leah and Joe dancing quietly together on a rooftop.

I thought about my own instinct to protect my son to the point of overprotectiveness. I thought about all the therapy we subjected him to in his early years.  I thought about how hard he tries to fit into the regular world, and what joy he finds with other people with Down syndrome.  I thought about fixing and curing vs. love and belonging.

Far from the Tree, the book, and now the movie, has made me think about all this in a good yet hard way.  I thought about my son and how, as the movie says, he has his own mountains to climb, which aren’t my mountains – they are his mountains.  I thought about how I can support him to do that.  I thought about how it is also my job as his mother to set him free.

What am I looking for from any book or a movie?  I want to be surprised or validated.  Far from the Tree magically does both.  Through stories, it asks many questions that only you can dig deep and answer for yourself.  That’s what good art is all about:  to see another way of reality that is not your own and to help you question what you think you already know.  Far from the Tree is poignant storytelling at its best.  It touches hearts to change minds.

intelligent lives

The year after our baby boy was diagnosed with Down syndrome, colleagues at my husband’s workplace – a department at the Ministry of Health – were gathering donations in my son’s name for our local Down syndrome awareness walk.  Peggy, one of my husband’s co-workers, was asked if she’d like to donate.  She responded:

Why should I contribute to someone who contributes nothing to society?

Fifteen years later, that comment still stings me like a slap across my face.  As a new mom, I was naive as to how the world values – and does not value – people who have disabilities, including little babies like mine.  Peggy was my rude wake-up call.  (There is a tiny bit of irony that someone like Peggy worked for the Ministry of Health).

Peggy’s response begs these questions:  What determines a person’s worth?  Is it how much they contribute to the economy? Is it how smart they are? Is it their IQ score?

Last night, the documentary Intelligent Lives was screened by UBC’s Centre for Inclusion and Citizenship.  Dan Habib is a well known filmmaker and disability-rights advocate.  His youngest son Samuel  has cerebral palsy and was featured in his first documentary Including Samuel.  I watched this film almost ten years ago, when Aaron was five years old and it struck me then how much the inclusion of Samuel in the elementary setting benefited the other children in the class, not just Samuel.   Habib has a TEDx Talk on this same subject.  Research backs theory this up – for references, see my post What Inclusion Means to Us.

There are many people like Peggy in the world who feel that disabled people like my son are a burden.  Intelligent Lives challenges this ableist view in two ways – first by following the stories of three young adults with intellectual disabilities as they travel through their lives searching for belonging.  Micah, Naieer and Naomie’s stories are human stories, as they figure out their own identities along the way.  Woven in with their tales is actor Chris Cooper’s steady narration explaining the dark history of using IQ testing to determine potential.  As he says, low IQ was a one-way admission ticket to an institution.

IQ testing and scores have been used in the past to set immigration policy, determine a soldier’s rank, institutionalize people with disabilities and to support eugenics, including those policies in Nazi Germany.  What is particularly chilling is that IQ testing and scores are still being used today, in 2018, by our governments to determine need and ability.

I’ve been railing against IQ testing for people with intellectual disabilities for a long time.  In the Province of British Columbia, a child with Down syndrome cannot access respite funding or therapies or programs run by disability support agencies unless the families prove their child has an intellectual disability.  This is done through psycho-educational testing, which includes an IQ test.  Wait lists for this publicly-funded testing run from months to years or you can pay $3,000 out of your own pocket to have the test done by a private psychologist.

I have to prove to the government that my son with Down syndrome has an intellectual disability.  If he tests too high – over 70 – he will be turned down for services, even if he ends up with a score of 71.

Habib’s film strongly attests that IQ tests meaningless – and even worse – that IQ testing is racist and ableist.  The tests are not adapted or modified when they are administered to children with intellectual disabilities, which means my son takes a test where he is set up only to fail.  To me, IQ testing treads on my son’s dignity as a human being and is a stupid way to prove he needs therapies and that our family needs support.

IQ scores serve only to put people in boxes.  Intelligent Lives points out that people have multiple intelligences that we need to broaden our understanding of what intelligence actually is.

The deeper question for me is why do we have to prove that people with intellectual disabilities have value and worth in the first place?

If I could travel back in time, I’d march right over to Peggy’s cubicle and tell her this: Having an advanced education or a fancy job or even a high IQ does not make you a better person than my son.

My son has value because he is a human being and that’s simply enough.