To what extent should parents be held responsible for who their children grow up to be? That’s the question raised by the new documentary Far From the Tree, which explores the lives of children who are somehow radically different from their parents. The movie is an adaptation of Andrew Solomon’s 2012 nonfiction book of the same name, and features him prominently. Solomon’s reporting, including the book, aims to understand how society decides which hereditary traits and conditions are considered illnesses and which are considered identities. The film, directed by Rachel Dretzin, tightens its focus to the home.
Solomon’s book, inspired by his struggle as a gay man born to parents who believed homosexuality was immoral, follows dozens of families. He talks to families in which a child, but neither parent, is autistic, schizophrenic, conceived through rape, extremely gifted, or transgender, to name just a few. The documentary version of Far From the Tree, which is now in theaters, follows just five families: That of Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome; of Jack, a teenager with severe autism; of Loini, a 23-year-old woman with dwarfism; of Leah and Joe, a married couple with dwarfism who give birth to a daughter of average stature; and that of Trevor, a young man who’s incarcerated because in 2010, at age 16, he murdered an 8-year-old boy.
If that last one strikes you as a little incongruous, you’re not alone. Early reviews of the film call Trevor’s story “slightly out of place next to the others” and “an outlier,” whose “feints at uplift feel forced and dubious.” Indeed, Trevor’s situation is a result of a conscious choice, while the others are not. Many of the other stories are heartwarming, while Trevor’s is harrowing, and involves a child who caused immense pain for other families besides his own. But the inclusion of Trevor Reese also functions as a reminder that a tendency toward violent behavior can be hereditary and innate, too. In the documentary, Trevor’s parents recall that in the aftermath of the murder, Trevor said “I don’t know why I did this.” A central message of Far From the Tree is that some differences just occur in nature randomly, and good parents learn not to expend their energy on blaming themselves for their child’s differences. Which is an easy message to swallow when the child in question has a learning disability or a condition that affects their appearance or mobility. Far From the Tree, however, asks the viewer to extend this understanding to kids with violent tendencies.
Several of the stories presented in the movie involve parents initially feeling guilty or personally responsible for causing their children’s conditions. Solomon talks about coming out to his mother and, as justification, mentioning a few family friends who were openly gay. She replied, according to Solomon, “If I had thought inviting them into our house would make you think that was an acceptable way of life, they would never have crossed the threshold.” Similarly, the mother of Jack, the autistic teenager, remembers wondering in Jack’s earlier, more troubled childhood years if she hadn’t been healthy enough during her pregnancy, if she shouldn’t have been taking certain medications. “I blamed myself, for all of it. Like I caused it,” she says. Blamed, past tense. The film itself doesn’t place blame or responsibility on parents for any of their children’s conditions, but it nonetheless offers absolution, in the form of showing the incredible lengths these parents go to learn about, connect with, and best serve their sons and daughters. Solomon explains in voice-over that his father eventually accepted his homosexuality (after the death of Solomon’s mother); Solomon’s father is seen giving a toast at Solomon’s wedding.
By the time the film gets to Trevor’s family, the last of the five families to be introduced, viewers already know Far From the Tree’s general outlook on the extent to which parents should hold themselves responsible for their children’s differences. By the time Trevor’s mother tells the camera in anguish that she wondered after Trevor’s arrest whether she should have breastfed longer, or whether she let her son cry too long in his crib when he was learning to sleep through the night, we can intuit where the documentary itself stands on this: It will tacitly absolve this guilt-wracked mother, too. This time, though, there’s a Greek chorus of sorts asking the parental-responsibility question, in addition to the parents themselves. “We raise our kids better than that up here,” says one admonishing member of the Reeses’ community in TV news footage. Trevor’s dad says he’s learned not to talk about Trevor with anyone he’s just met; in the past, new acquaintances have reacted negatively to the revelation. “If that has happened in your family,” he says, people think “there must be something wrong with your family, your parenting.”
In recent years, research has found that biology plays a strong role in determining which kids are prone to violent behavior. In 2017, Barbara Bradley Hagerty wrote about the existing treatment plans for kids with violent, psychopathic tendencies in the Atlantic story “When Your Child Is a Psychopath,” and wrote that although there are programs to help curb their behaviors, the outlook for many of those kids is bleak from day one:
Large studies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have found that this early-onset condition is highly hereditary, hardwired in the brain—and especially difficult to treat. “We’d like to think a mother and father’s love can turn everything around,” [Adrian Raine, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania] says. “But there are times where parents are doing the very best they can, but the kid—even from the get-go—is just a bad kid.”
On camera, Trevor’s dad recalls the time a psychiatric evaluation of Trevor came back inconclusive. Instead of a diagnosis, he says, “all they told us was, ‘Your son is broken.’” But Trevor’s family members suggest that they believe his condition was indeed hardwired and hereditary, lurking somewhere in their family tree. Trevor has two siblings—a brother, Tyler, and sister, Rebecca, now in their late teens—who the film depicts as socially well-adjusted. But “Tyler and Rebecca have both said neither one of them want to have kids,” Trevor’s dad says in voice-over. “They’re afraid.”
That Far From the Tree examines Trevor’s upbringing with a sympathetic eye, not a castigating one, sets it apart from another documentary released this summer that questioned the effects of upbringing on children with mental illness: Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers. When three identical triplets, separated at birth, are reunited as adults, their similarities in personality are shocking. In interviews, it comes to light that all three suffered instances of depression and other mental-health issues throughout their lives, but when one brother commits suicide, it’s heavily implied that that brother’s particularly strict and rigid upbringing is to blame. As one interview subject puts it, “nature” hardwired these brothers identically, but “nurture” played a role in where they ended up.
In the opening minutes of Far From the Tree, Solomon says, “In telling these stories, I was investigating the very nature of family itself.” Emphasis, it seems, on nature.