Researching a magazine article on deaf culture in the early 1990s, writer Andrew Solomon began to feel a kinship with his subjects. Having grown up gay in the 1970s and ‘80s, he recognized the identity gap between deaf children and their parents, most of whom were hearing. He saw that these parents were generally unprepared for the challenge of raising children who didn't conform to their expectations. Instinctively, they often forced their children to adapt to hearing culture, rather than the other way around.
“I was struck by the way deafness was a culture to them,” Solomon says today, “and not a disability.”
A few years later, when an acquaintance had a child with dwarfism, Solomon began working in earnest on the nonfiction book that would become “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.” It's a compendium of stories of people with differences of nearly all kinds — from autism to Down syndrome to criminal behavior — and of the parents who struggled to raise them. Published in 2012, “Far From the Tree” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and then, last year, became the basis for a documentary directed by Rachel Dritzen, an Emmy-winning filmmaker known for her work at PBS' “Frontline.” Solomon will host a screening of “Far From the Tree” at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre Jan. 9. Also in attendance will be Dr. Michael Wigler, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who helped Solomon with his research into autism.
Like the book, Dritzen’s film includes a wide range of subjects. They include Jack Allnut, a non-speaking autistic boy who learns to type out his often clever and lyrical thoughts; Jason Kingsley, an adult with Down syndrome who lives independently with two roommates; and Loini Vivao, an East Patchogue resident with an rare form of dwarfism who discovers a sense of belonging at a Little People of America convention.
“I expected to find that there were some parallels between the experiences of people with different kinds of differences, but I was surprised at how similar their experiences were,” Solomon says of his research. “Everyone has to deal with children who are different in one way or the other.”
One of the film's most emotionally challenging cases is that of Trevor Reese, a Louisiana teenager sentenced to life in prison for killing an 8-year-old boy. When Trevor's father, Derek Reese, contacted Solomon after reading the book, the author immediately asked him to participate in the film. The Reese family — both parents and their two other nearly-grown children — can be seen phoning Trevor in prison to include him in family gatherings.
Though criminals may not initially seem to be in the same sphere as, say, those with autism, Solomon defends his decision to include Trevor Reese. “I intended to look at the resilience of parental love,” he says. “The family of someone who commits serious crimes has to deal with something that is completely bewildering and foreign to their system of values.”
Since the first appearance of “Far From the Tree,” society's attitudes toward minority groups of all stripes seem to be in flux. “I would say the country as a whole is in a crisis of compassion at the moment," Solomon says. "The book is about the value and even the beauty of lives that look, to you, to be too broken and too different to be tolerated."
WHEN|WHERE “Far From the Tree” screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington.
INFO Call 631-423-7611 or go to cinemaartscentre.org.