Andrew Solomon is a writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts; and an activist in LGBTI rights and mental health, as well as one of five parents to four kids. His book The Noonday Demon, 2000, won the 2001 National Book Award (US), was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, and was included in The Times list of one hundred best books of the decade. His Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, the Media for a Just Society Award of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, and the Wellcome Book Prize. He is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, and President of PEN American Center.
Dr Solomon, thank you for your time and agreeing to this conversation. Shall we take it from here: what is your definition of happiness and what is the link between happiness and depression?
I would start by saying that the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think people often suppose that what’s involved in being depressed is being very-very sad and that isn’t necessarily the case. And having said that, obviously, people who are depressed are not happy and there is a lot of sadness involved, but also a lot of closing down. I haven’t been to Bulgaria since I was 16, so I don’t know the specifics in Bulgaria, but I know that in general this problem of depression tends to be something that occurs in places where life, for one reason or another, becomes difficult or for some reason people feel as though they don’t have the ability to change what’s wrong with their lives. So individual cases of depression, of course, also derive in considerable part from a biological vulnerability, that’s the sort of starting point. But when you are dealing with people who have that biological vulnerability it’s often external triggering circumstances that bring it up to the surface. So, I don’t know whether it’s an economic question, or anyone’s sense of disappointment in the way the country has developed through its capitalist decades, I don’t know exactly what the situation is there.
People are vulnerable to depression, and that vulnerability can develop into a full-fledged depression. Happiness, however, is often something that it’s not the opposite of depression but can protect against depression. You can have a natural vulnerability to depression, but still having incredibly happy experiences and your sensation of happiness gives you some strength and faith in the face of that depression. When you don’t have those feelings of happiness, it’s easy for the depression to become the thing that’s running the show and the thing that’s in charge.
I think very profoundly that depression is a disease of loneliness and the experience of depression tends to be bad where people don’t feel that they are able to communicate with one another. And some times they can’t communicate because they don’t have the words, and sometimes because there is no one to listen to them, and some times because they are trying to keep up an appearance – there can be a million different reasons. I think the break down of communications makes depression much worse and when people say: What are the things that would help with depression?, I’d say: establishing better communication with people who are close to you: friends, family, carers, children, wife and husband. This makes a great difference.
Many studies suggest that depression is on the rise on a global scale, some even predict that by 2020 depression will be the second most disabling condition in the world after heart disease (e.g. a report of the World health Organisation from 2001). What is changing in the world that leads to this psychological reaction and what needs to be changed?
Well, I think part of what’s changing is that the world is getting very crowded and I think people have a difficult time with overpopulation; I think part of what’s changing is that many people spend their lives interacting with machines instead of with other human beings. There was a wonderful campaign done by a mental health organisation here for adolescents with depression and it showed someone sitting at a computer and it said: 5000 Facebook friends and no one to talk to. I think there are a lot of people in that situation who have that kind of ambient intimacy – the feeling of intimacy that comes from being in touch with people, but people don’t spend enough time in communication.
I also think the Internet has made people sleep less. The amount of people’s sleep went down with the invention of television, went down again with the introduction of the Internet; most of the population in much of the world is chronically overtired which is a stressor.
And, of course, I think there is a sense of being beholden all of the time to a sort of social demands. The case used to be, that if you live in a small village, the only people who you were interacting with were the other people in your small village. And now, because there is these means of global communication, which can be wonderful, but can equally be overwhelming, and very difficult for people to deal with the number of options they have. Also physical mobility – people have the sense that if my life isn’t perfect, should I move to another country, should I have cosmetic surgery etc. There are all these options for people, that are actually quite difficult and traumatic options, but the people, nonetheless, feel that they have to give them consideration too. So I think that all adds up.
In your book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, you explore what it’s like for parents of children who are profoundly different or likely to be stigmatised — children with Down syndrome, deafness, autism, dwarfism, or who are prodigies, become criminals, or are conceived in rape. How important is the parental acceptance for both the parent and the child?
First thing to say is that there is a distinction between love and acceptance. When I was a child, my parents didn’t fully accept me for who I was; I felt as though they didn’t really love me. In retrospect I can say that they loved me and they loved me well, it just took them a while to accept me. Acceptance takes people some time. But overall I think that it is enourmously important for anyone who is different in any way to experience their difference, even if it has some elements of illness also as an identity, because it is an identity and
once you begin to think of it as an identity you are sort of liberated from the sense that you are unfixably broken.
And the feeling that you should have is not of being unfixably broken, there are some things that are broken but you can repair, but then at a certain point you are who you are, and to have a sort of wonder woman/superman idea of what people should be, and to think that everyone who isn’t like that is defective causes an enormous amount of very unproductive sadness.
Acceptance operates on three levels: there is self-acceptance, family acceptance and acceptance of a larger society. Each of them enables the other – if you have good self-acceptance you are more likely to have your parents accept you , if they live in an accepting society it would be easier for them to do so.
The other thing is that parents drive themselves crazy trying to fix things that can’t be fixed, and in fact don’t need to be fixed; and they develop a sense of failure because they have failed to fix these things. And I believe very strongly that the shortest path to fulfillment, not only for the child, but also for the parents, is for the parents not to be so blinded by what’s wrong with their child, but to look at what’s right with their child. And if the parents can understand – my child is different, my child has an identity that I don’t share and perhaps I will never fully understand, my child has its own identity and my role is to help build that identity, that is very liberating for those parents, because then they have the new way to say – and by the way, my child is sweet, or my child is imaginative, or my child is beautiful, or my child is capable of love. As long as people hold off the identity model they lock their own capacity to love, and that’s sadness not only for the child but also for the parent.
How is one’s identity formed, how should it be preserved and how can the merge of disability and identity be prevented?
The first thing I think we need to realise is that these are not mutually exclusive terms. Something can be both a disability and an identity. And almost any characteristics you have can sometimes be a disability. There are contexts within which being an American citizen can be seen as a disability; there are places you go where people can be uncomfortable and not like you and say: What is going on with the elections in your country? On the other hand, I have met people with multiple, very severe disabilities, who nonetheless have a sense of identity attached to them, a sense of feeling about who they are. So, I think you have to start by saying that you are making this choice. You can say there are difficulties associated with this way of being, there are also ways in which it can define you, but this can be valuable and you have to cherish it and see it positively. And then, once you’ve established that, I think the process of building identity depends, first and foremost, on finding other people with whom you have something in common. One of my arguments in Far from the tree is that, if you have skeletal dysplasia*, you think you only have something in common with other people who have skeletal dysplasia. Actually, it turns out you have something in common with people who are gay, with people who are autistic, with people who are prodigies. If you take that broader view – you are not so isolated.
Building an identity has to do with finding other people, discovering what your shared experiences, are and making a real decision. It’s not that these identities are out there waiting to be found. You have to decide at some point – I might not have chosen to be born like this, but this is how I was born and this is how things developed and how things turned out, and since that’s who I am, I’m gonna see whether I can find some sort of strength and meaning in that.
In many societies the groups of people you talk about in Far from the tree end up being isolated and marginalised. What is the impact of this marginalisation on our societies?
It is really-really not only very sad for those people but for the society at large. I mean, you look at famous people like Oscar Wild and you think – if he hadn’t spent all these years rotting in jail and in misery, wouldn’t he perhaps be able to write more for us all to read, you think of Alan Turing, who invented the computer – we may be much further ahead if he hadn’t been driven to suicide. When you stigmatise ways that people are, especially ways that have to do with their biological and profound make-up, you cut yourself off from these people, you diminish the joy in the world and create a lot more unhappiness, which is not helpful to anyone.
I get emails from gay people from around the world who are just in such agony, and I think – they could be in love, and bringing up children,, and working productively – who is that benefiting to instil this misery on such a broad basis? What is the advantage to doing it? There is no advantage to doing it.
Despite that, it seems that our era is witnessing the birth and normalisation of alternative family structures, which, however, in many countries is widely criticised, mostly on moral basis. What is your response to that criticism?
A lot of the time those morals are derived from some sort of Christian language. I am not strictly religious myself but I have read the Bible, and it seems to me that the central message of Christianity is to love thy enemy and to turn the other cheek, and it is not to judge and castigate people. So far as morals go, I think that prejudice drives people into immoral lives. I find it very difficult to believe that the family that I have is somehow an offence against morality. I think we are good parents, we have a loving household, we are paying close attention. The lives of people who live in countries where they can’t get married and can’t have children and their identity is so stigmatised that they spend a lot of time and energy to hide it, those people end up being pushed to the edge of their society where immorality is much easier to happen. And I think that by embracing diversity and recognising the importance of allowing people various ways of living, will lead to the actual moral questions: Do you harm other innocent people? Are you stealing and exploiting? I think the moral arguments are a cover for people’s prejudice. The Bible is full of information about under what circumstances a woman should be killed if she commits adultery, and what the correct way is to treat your slaves and all kinds of other things, but the world has moved on and we no longer buy into all those literalism. The obsession with this particular moralism seems to me to be a kind of insanity.
You have lived experience of clinical depression. Do you know now what triggered your depressive period back then and what does your depression mean for you today?
So I hope I am mostly doing all right with it and well enough so that I don’t descend to quite the level that I was at my worst. I don’t want to have a scenario which sounds as though I was depressed and I did everything right and, therefore, I am now living my happily ever after. I mean, some of the time I am, but certainly not the whole time. I feel like while you are actively depressed it is really difficult to find much redemption, but after you have been depressed you get a lot of insight out of it, and I feel like after my depression I understood, in a way that never would have understood before, how incredibly overpowering the emotions can be, and I understood how people’s thinking gets distorted when they have other mental illnesses and why perhaps they do things that are so strange and so inexplicable to us. I understood that every day that I am not depressed is an enormous gift. And I understood that the brain is a very fragile instrument, and I think knowing that caused me to lead a slightly different kind of life. I came out thinking – there is a lot of pain out there, I have just had a little bit of pain, there are other people who are in pain who don’t have the resources that I do. So I came out of it with a sense that there is a moral imperative to try to address other people’s misery.
You now have a family of your own, and as you told The Guardian – you are one of five parents to take care of four kids. Could you tell us a little about your family?
What are the struggles that you are facing as a gay parent on a daily basis?
How are you feeling today?
*Skeletal dysplasia is the medical term for what many of us know as dwarfism.