The Think Piece Interview: Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon is the antithesis of glib. When he speaks, or writes, it’s with precision, depth, and a singular voice. He doesn’t do pat answers. He’s much more interesting than that. In 2002 he wrote a masterwork with his exhaustive and deeply empathetic examination of depression, the 576-page The Noonday Demon. And then he went away to study how families define and value the genetic traits of their members, such as ethnicity and religious identification, or what he calls vertical identities, and the non-transferable qualities that distinguish children from parents, such as sexual preference or autism, or what he calls horizontal identities. He spent 11 years interviewing hundreds of families and put it all into the 956 pages that is Far From the Tree, which came out last November. We asked him what drives him to go so far in his work, if it gives him peace, how he handles the intense reaction he gets from readers, and what he’s working on now.

TP: In Far from the Tree, you speak of vertical identities and horizontal identities. Can you tell us where you got those terms?

AS: I am doing a Ph.D. at Cambridge in psychology, and my supervisor is Juliet Mitchell, who wrote a book about siblings, and she referred to sibling relationships as horizontal and to parental relationships as vertical. And so that’s where I encountered the term. When I read them, I thought it was a striking way to describe those two relationships, and I just gradually came to the idea that I might be able to use those terms to describe the identity issues I was already studying.

TP: You wrote what many people consider the defining book on depression in 2002 with The Noonday Demon. People usually have a choice to make when going through depression: to spend time studying it and understanding it in hopes of managing it, or choosing not to think about it because it’s too upsetting. Of course there is no one universal treatment, but do you have a conclusion about your sense of what would likely be the healthiest course for most people?

AS: The irony to me is that people who say they’ve had a depressive episode, that it was horrible, they got through it, and they’re never going to think about it again—they’re the ones least prepared for the almost inevitable ambush of the next depressive episode. It’s a process of denial that is increased by the presence of stigma and can lead to really destructive events. And then there are people who are willing to really look at and study and get to know and almost make friends with this field of depression and gain insight into what depression is like and how it works and how it will resurface. It’s not that they’re less likely to have another depression, because depressions and suicidal thoughts just come, but they’re likely able to cope with it much better when it occurs again. I think that the more insight you have, the easier it is to go through a depressive episode because you understand what’s happening, you can say, I’m in control of what’s happening to me. It’s awful and I have to endure it for a while but I ultimately will be able to triumph over it. I think that the people who never want to think about it again are the people most frightened of it. The people who are thinking about it, who are bringing more emotional resources to it, are often the ones who become less frightened of its reality.

TP: You spent a year cutting more than a thousand pages out of Far from the Tree, which lays out chapter by chapters questions of condition and identity. It’s such rich material with so much research and analysis, and I have to imagine the cut pages are filled with insights that have value to clinicians and a lay audience. Do you plan to publish the cut material somewhere else?

AS: Various people have said to me, “Surely you can put that all together and publish another book,” and I thought, That’s a surefire bestseller, the stuff that I didn’t like enough to keep in the original book [laughs]. I feel like the book is stronger for being shorter. There are particular anecdotes and episodes that I cut that I wish I had been able to keep in, but it was too rambling and too long, and in the editorial process we tightened it up a great deal. The stories that convey the biggest ideas or are the most moving stories made it into the book. I suppose if someone wanted to make use of the material one day as part of a research project and wanted to dig through it, they’d be welcome to, but I don’t plan to put it out into the world.

TP: You’re known in your books for your exhaustive research and detail. Have you decided that anything less than absolutely drilling down just doesn’t interest you?

AS: I’m always afraid of not really knowing enough to support the arguments I’m making. It’s almost a neurosis to research and research and research and try to understand something as deeply as I can. With this book, a lot of it involved me interviewing families. The more interviews I did, the more I thought I really understood well enough to be able to make my own ultimate synthetic point, which is that all of these experiences have something in common. And I thought that I just can’t touch two deaf people, two schizophrenics, and two transgender people and say, “Oh yes, they’re all having the same experience.” I have to really go deep into each of these topics. There were times, of course, when it was utterly overwhelming. It really was like writing ten or eleven different books because I was involved with that many different topics, and getting through those different topics was a challenging project. I think if I understood when I set out how much obsessive research it would take, I might have been discouraged from doing it, but ultimately I felt it was what I needed to do. I needed to plunge very deeply into them.

TP: How does time affect your view of your depression and your writing of The Noonday Demon? Does it feel similar to you today as it did at the time of the writing of the book, in how you think of it and manage it? Have your ways of treating the condition in essence helped you form a new identity in relation to it?

AS: It took me a long time to understand the elements that were consistent in my authorial voice. My first book was about a group of Soviet artists and how their lives changed during glasnost. My second book was a novel about my mother’s illness and death. Then there was the depression book. And now there’s Far from the Tree. People kept saying to me, “You jump around from topic to topic,” but I finally thought, I don’t really jump around from topic to topic. My topic ever since I began, and I started work on my first book when I was twenty-four, has been the large question of how people are able to turn the experience of adversity into triumph. And how people transform the perception of their own life experience in order to achieve that point of view. A lot of that work is about pain. It’s really about what people do with pain. It’s about the idea that when you have an experience that is sad or painful, you needn’t say that life is over and there’s no point in going on. You can rather say, “I wish I didn’t have this experience, but I’m going to try to build something out of it.” And I feel like the books themselves enact that idea. The depression book in particular allowed me, because I wrote that book thinking it would be helpful to people, to take what I experienced initially as a completely barren, awful stretch of my life and build something of worth and value from it. It was published in 2001 and it’s now 2013 and a lot of things have changed—I got married, I have children, I’m a different person in all kinds of ways—but I still have mental illness, I still have relapses, I still have moments of relapse. I felt the stress of publishing the most recent book. It triggered something in the depression that was very difficult and painful to have to deal with, but in the end, the larger framework of my interests has been consistent.

TP: In Far From the Tree you do explain that there is an outlier that stands alone among identity definitions and it’s one that no one feels is a gift and that’s schizophrenia.

AS: The biggest challenge for me was to find out if people who had a condition would say, “I’ve had such an interesting life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” My dwarf friends say they can’t imagine a different life. Same with people in the deaf community, although their condition is isolating. I didn’t meet anyone with schizophrenia who said, “I feel so grateful that I have this. It’s made my life richer.” Everyone I talked to said, “Oh my god, if I could have a life without this, things would have been so much better.”

TP: I’m curious about the nature of the feedback you get from readers. It must be intense—and lovely—I imagine people tell you that you saved their life—and that must feel good—but can it be a bit much?

AS: The part of it that’s pleasant is receiving praise, of course, receiving that external validation. But the part that’s intense is there are many people who read the book and want to share their story, and I find that very moving. I’ve had a lot of people write to me in very beautiful ways. I also think if I only could interview them all, it would make the books richer, if I could insert this after-the-fact information. But it also does sometimes get overwhelming. I have days where I wake up and there are 15 e-mails from people all telling me painful, personal stories, and I think I just can’t get through all of this today. I have a stressful day of my own. There are times when I feel almost paralyzed by it. But I wouldn’t want in any way to be unwelcoming to readers. I want people to be able to talk to me about their lives.

TP: You must have to establish some boundaries.

AS: The idea of boundaries has been so thoroughly explored by therapists and they’re very clear: I give you 50 minutes, and after 50 minutes you leave and you come back the next week. The work that I’ve done invites an almost therapy-like confessional mode, but there is no external process setting what the boundaries are. They have to be figured out over and over and over again. Sometimes it’s exciting figuring them out and sometimes it’s not.

TP: Have you decided what your next project will be?

AS: Yes. The emergence of maternal identity, what the changes are that women go through when they become mothers. I’m doing research as part of my dissertation, which I turned in in September, and I have to defend it next month. I have to do more interviews with the women who are part of the project, and I hope I will be able to turn that work into another book.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing