We Need to Talk About Kevin, I thought several times about Andrew Solomon's book Far From the Tree, in which he writes about outlier children (i.e. children who are quite different from their parents, e.g. deafness, dwarfism, disability, genius, criminality, etc.). He discusses the difficulties that such children present to their parents, who have hoped to see their own unfulfilled promise attained vicariously through the lives of their children, and the great disappointment that can accompany the realization that their child is not who they imagined he would be (via Brain Pickings):
In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination. … [But] our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control.
The most directly applicable We Need to Talk About Kevin quote:
Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary.
Solomon also looks at the unique struggles of children who are born to parents that do not share the same defining traits. He first identifies the distinction between vertical identities, those we inherit from our parents like ethnicity or religion, and horizontal identities:
Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors. Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family. Physical disability tends to be horizontal, as does genius. Psychopathy, too, is often horizontal; most criminals are not raised by mobsters and must invent their own treachery. So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability.
(A quick note, I think the reference to psychopaths is hilariously demonizing, especially given Solomon's great care to withhold normative judgments of "bad" or "good" for the other outlier characteristics he discusses. To illustrate, imagine if he had used a similar negatively slanted statement for gay horizontal identity "most kids are born to straight parents, so must invent their own perversion.")
Solomon, who actually is gay with straight parents (but apparently feels that he did not invent his own perversion, unlike sociopaths), came up with his theory on vertical and horizontal identity when he noticed that he shared common identity issues with deaf children of hearing parents:
I had been startled to note my common ground with the Deaf, and now I was identifying with a dwarf; I wondered who else was out there waiting to join our gladsome throng. I thought that if gayness, an identity, could grow out of homosexuality, an illness, and Deafness, an identity, could grow out of deafness, an illness, and if dwarfism as an identity could emerge from an apparent disability, then there must be many other categories in this awkward interstitial territory. It was a radicalizing insight. Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.
I have noticed (and mention in the book) that there has been a lot of push back on labeling people, particularly the pathologizing of more than half the population. How could it possibly be that fewer people in the population are normal than abnormal?! But which seems more plausible -- that we are all cookie cutter neurologically the same? Or that we are all on a bell curve of myriad different human traits, our particular blend making us both completely unique (we actually are neurologically all special snowflakes, it turns out) and yet share identifiable traits in common across the entire swath of humanity. And that's a good thing. Charles Darwin remarked on the great variety of the human species:
As the great botanist Bichat long ago said, if everyone were cast in the same mould, there would be no such thing as beauty. If all our women were to become as beautiful as the Venus de’ Medici, we should for a time be charmed; but we should soon wish for variety; and as soon as we had obtained variety, we should wish to see certain characteristics in our women a little exaggerated beyond the then existing common standard.
Despite the many advantages of diversity, many families (and society) tend to treat horizontal identities as disorders that we would hope to eventually eliminate from the species:
In modern America, it is sometimes hard to be Asian or Jewish or female, yet no one suggests that Asians, Jews, or women would be foolish not to become white Christian men if they could. Many vertical identities make people uncomfortable, and yet we do not attempt to homogenize them. The disadvantages of being gay are arguably no greater than those of such vertical identities, but most parents have long sought to turn their gay children straight. … Labeling a child’s mind as diseased — whether with autism, intellectual disabilities, or transgenderism — may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child.
(Is Solomon correct here? I think there are actually a lot of people who think that white Christian men are superior to other races/genders/religions, gay people are an abomination, autistic and disabled people are a drain to scarce social resources (same for sociopaths), etc. And perhaps their beliefs are not wrong, or at least it would depend on what measuring stick and set of values you use to judge.)
But I don't think it's the labels that are harmful, necessarily. Indeed, labels can be a boon to all outsiders forming their own horizontal identities. Rather, the problem seems to be the xenophobic system of enforcing social norms that encourages expressions of repulsion and shaming at what is too foreign to be relatable, whether it is feelings of disgust regarding gay people (especially gay people who do not feel the need to hide or tone down their "gayness"), the practices of other cultures (especially things that our own western culture has outgrown, like arranged marriages and modest clothing for women), or the backwards beliefs of religious "cults" (whereas our own religious beliefs are seen as perfectly plausible and normal).
Finally, Solomon describes what eventually happens to the mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin (and a hopeful statement for all parents of sociopathic children):
To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality has been realized — how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.