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Arts & Life

Finding Happiness In 'Far From The Tree'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Andrew Solomon's 2012 book, "Far From The Tree," was a testament to how families love and sometimes don't, or don't without struggle, a child who is different from his or her parents, whatever form that may be - sexual orientation, as it was with Andrew Solomon himself, or developmental differences, including autism, physical differences and behavioral differences, including criminality.

The book is one of the best sellers of our times and highly praised. "Far From The Tree" has now become a documentary film directed by Rachel Dretzin. And we are joined from New York by Andrew Solomon, who's also a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. Thanks very much for being with us.

ANDREW SOLOMON: Thank you.

SIMON: And one of the stars of the film, Loini Vivao.

LOINI VIVAO: Hello.

SIMON: Thank you very much. She was in her mid-20s and a little person who meets others like her in the course of the film. The film includes some people who are in the book, but also people who were not - who, in a sense, found the book.

SOLOMON: You know, when you're doing a book, what you really want is to find people to whom something interesting has happened who can recount it for you in wonderful detail. And when you're doing a film, what you really need are people to whom interesting things are happening so that you can follow them as those events unfold.

SIMON: Loini Vivao, you say in the film when, we meet you, that although you were 23, you didn't feel like an adult. Why is that?

VIVAO: Well, mostly, a lot of average-size people look at me like I'm a 5-year-old child. And they treat me like a 5-year-old child. But in reality, I am actually 27 years old, and I am an adult.

SIMON: And when you say treated you like a child, recognizing this might be painful, can I ask you to tell me what that was like for you? What did they say? What did they do?

VIVAO: They didn't really say much. I just - a lot of people tend to stare and give me a lot of looks, which made me feel awkward and a little shy approaching other people. But I don't know. I just feel like they should have asked questions more than to assume that I was 5 or, you know, not an adult.

SIMON: We learn that you have a rare disorder that keeps you small.

VIVAO: Yes.

SIMON: MOPDII, I guess - type II.

VIVAO: Yes.

SIMON: And can you help us understand how that affects your life?

VIVAO: Well, being primordial dwarfism type II, it comes with a lot of heart problems and a lot of brain problems. And we get a lot of health issues that come along with it. So it definitely affects, you know, my life - and being in the hospital, in particular, since you were a baby.

SIMON: So it's not just a matter of the challenges of size. There are other physical problems.

VIVAO: Yes.

SIMON: Not even pretending to be a professional, like you are, Dr. Solomon, were you depressed, or were you depressed about something?

SOLOMON: Oh, I suffered from severe clinical depression. I mean, depression usually results from the meeting of a genetic vulnerability or a biological vulnerability and stressful life circumstances. So it is always attributable to both in some proportion or another. But I had a serious underlying biological complaint.

SIMON: And if I may, your - the difficulty your parents had - I'll refer to it as their difficulty - in accepting your orientation aggravated it?

SOLOMON: Yes. I think the sense that coming out was terribly difficult aggravated it. And part of the reason coming out was so difficult was because my parents were so disapproving and unsupportive at the beginning.

SIMON: And I should explain, your parents - enlightened, cultural, cosmopolitan New Yorkers, too.

SOLOMON: Yes. And they did come around to it. When I began, I really thought that I didn't understand the separation between love and acceptance. I now would say that love is something that is ideally there from the time a baby is born. And in my experience, though we hear stories of neglect and abuse, most parents, in fact, love their children. But acceptance is a process, and it takes time. And it always takes time to accept your child who isn't what you'd imagined before you had a child, even if your child isn't gay or doesn't have dwarfism or deafness or autism or any of the other conditions that I was looking at.

Acceptance is a process. And my parents had to go through that process. And I experienced their lack of acceptance as a lack of love. And in working on this book, I came to understand that they had always loved me, and there was only an acceptance that they lagged. And they didn't lag that much farther than most other people's parents did.

SIMON: Do you think this moved you to find and get to know and tell the stories?

SOLOMON: Absolutely. I wanted - I hoped to inspire people to accept their children more readily than they might have otherwise, not only by preaching moralistically that it was the better thing to do but by showing how much joy there could be in that process of acceptance once you initiated it.

SIMON: Ms. Vivao...

VIVAO: Yes?

SIMON: ...What was it like for you to walk into that little people's convention?

VIVAO: It was amazing. I felt just speechless and amazed that other people were just like me and I wasn't alone.

SIMON: Now you say in the film that you had seen other little people in films and in television, just hadn't met someone like yourself in real life.

VIVAO: Nope. But now that I see them up close and going to these conventions, I still love the feeling and going to all these conventions. It makes me part of a family.

SIMON: I feel I am moved to ask both of you, what's the most important thing to know if you want to be happy?

SOLOMON: You want to go first, Loini?

VIVAO: That you have family, that they love you - and a lot of faith, and just living your life. That's all I say.

SOLOMON: Well, I think Loini is right. I think love is the most important thing - to have both people you love and people by whom you are loved - ideally, to have those as reciprocal relationships.

I also think, in connection with the work I did in this particular area, that it's very important to know that what you now perceive as an illness may at another stage of your life come to function as an identity. And that a lot of what seems to go wrong in your life may ultimately help to construct you into a person you'll be happy to be. So that the momentary anguish of feeling like you have an illness and in feeling like people stare at you or feeling like people make fun of you or feeling like people are unkind to you, that can give way, ultimately, to a victorious sense of identity in which you can be deeply fulfilled.

SIMON: Andrew Solomon, author of the book "Far From The Tree," now a documentary film, and Loini Vivao, one of the stars of the film "Far From The Tree." Thanks so much for being with us.

SOLOMON: Thank you.

VIVAO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.