“Forge meaning, build identity.”These words were a mantra repeated throughout Andrew Solomon’s opening address to the Sydney Writers’Festival.
The theme of the 2014 festival is ‘It’s Thinking Season’ and Mr Solomon – writer, activist and lecturer on psychology, culture and politics – encouraged his audience at the Sydney Theatre to think upon and question how life’s difficulties have forged who they are today.
“As a student of adversity, I’ve long been struck how some people, faced with major challenges, seem to draw strength from them,”he said.
Mr Solomon’s most recent book, the bestselling and award-winning Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, documents the experiences of over 300 parents whose children differentiate from themselves somehow, whether genius, disabled, transgender, deaf, autistic, criminal or schizophrenic.
He said what tied the people within his book together was their attitude, their ability to live with a perceived burden or disadvantage and yet be grateful for the experience. One story was that of 50-year-old Brenda, who fell pregnant after being raped in the back of a taxi when she was 16. The audience was moved as Mr Soloman recounted his conversations with Brenda, where she told him she no longer remembered her rapist with anger, but with pity.
“He has a beautiful daughter and two beautiful grandchildren. He doesn’t know that, and I do. So as it turns out, I’m the lucky one,”she said.
Meeting people who had turned their pain into something meaningful was inspirational, he said, and he spoke candidly of his own personal struggles as a gay man. Mr Solomon described his sexual identity as one that was often met with prejudice, hatred and, in his past, deep personal anguish. Throughout childhood and adolescence he was bullied and alienated from his peers. As a young adult, he entered sexual surrogacy therapy, where he had physical encounters with women in the hope to “cure”himself.
In his late 20s, Mr Solomon began to struggle with acute clinical depression. This formed the subject of his acclaimed book, The Noonday Demon. Since that book was published, he has been constantly approached by people who want to share their own stories of the illness. “Depression, it seems to me, is the family secret that everyone has. The ubiquity of depression is so overwhelming,”he said.
Those who deal with their depression best are the people who acknowledge its identity in their lives, rather than trying to run from it or suffer in silence: “You recognise your traumas as part of who you have come to be. You fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, [creating] a better self in response to things that hurt.”
He found the same was true for his sexual identity. “I had been in a closet and I was determined to never be in another closet ever again. That’s perhaps why I’m talking about this openly from a large stage in Sydney,”he said with a laugh.
Admitting his sexual identity relieved Mr Solomon from what was a life of isolation. He said the “Technicolor fiesta”of the gay rights movement saved him. “Identity is a matter of finding community. It’s a matter of gathering strength from that community and giving strength to that community,”he said.
However, he acknowledged his freedom to identify openly as gay remains a rare luxury in a world where so many like him are oppressed and persecuted. He particularly noted the trials of the transgender community, having spoken to many parents of transgendered children for Far From The Tree. He told the story of Anna and her transgendered daughter, Kelly, forced to flee their small town after its residents called for Kelly’s murder. Their family dog was disemboweled and nailed to their fence as a warning.
In the decade it took him to write Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon married his partner John and they had four children of their own. Becoming a father brought his life new meaning and new identity.
“I sometimes wonder if I would have found so much fulfillment in marriage and children if they’d come more readily, if I had been straight in my youth…”he said. “But if seeking meaning matters more than finding meaning, the question is not whether I’m happier for being a gay dad who got bullied, but whether assigning meaning to those experiences lets me be a better father.”
He left the audience with the sum of his experience: “Forge meaning, build identity. Then invite everyone to share your joy.