Far From the Tree — the documentary adaptation of Andrew Solomon’s landmark study of difference within families, coming to the Doc NYC festival this week — explores the porous, ever-shifting line between “illness” and “identity.”
In the 2012 book, Solomon talks to over 300 families in which the children differ from their parents in some fundamental way: deaf children born to hearing parents, gay children born to straight parents, dwarfs born to parents of average size. Far From The Tree explores how families come to grapple with difference, as well as the new peer communities formed by people with these “horizontal identities,” his term for when “someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group.”
As Solomon points out, being gay used to be thought of as an illness; now it has become an identity with its own distinct culture and community. The film profiles a number of people with forms of difference — including dwarfism, autism, and Down syndrome — to ask an important question: What do we decide to celebrate?
In one particularly affecting section of the film, we are introduced to a community of dwarfs at the annual Little People of America conference, who explain how they see new scientific attempts to “cure” and subsequently eradicate dwarfism as an assault on their community and an invalidation of their identities. In the exclusive clip below, the film offers a window into the life of dwarf couple Joe Stramondo and Leah Smith, which, contrary to popular belief, is not beset by the desire to be “normal.”
“I love his dwarfism,” says Leah.
“I think there is this cultural understanding that when you see people like me, the core of the experience is negative,” says Joe. “And when people have very low expectations, it’s surprising to them when I indicate somehow that I’m not suffering.”