How Do Our Worst Moments Shape Us?

Aug 1, 2014
Originally published on July 1, 2016 10:14 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Growing Up.

About Andrew Solomon's TED Talk

Writer Andrew Solomon dives into his childhood to describe moments of great adversity, and how they helped him build identity.

About Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon writes about politics, culture, and psychology. His newest book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, tells stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children, but also find profound meaning in doing so. He writes about families coping with deafness, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, severe disabilities, and many other challenges.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR, I'm Guy Raz. On today's show, growing up. Stories and ideas about the making of who we are. And for writer Andrew Solomon, finding out who we is has been at the heart of everything he does.

ANDREW SOLOMON: I'm the author of a number of books, most recently "Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity." The topic of all my work is resilience and hope, and I think the world is full of both of them.

RAZ: Here's Andrew on the TED stage.


SOLOMON: When I was in second grade, Bobby Finkel had a birthday party and invited everyone in our class but me. My mother assumed there had been some sort of error and she called Mrs. Finkel, who said Bobby didn't like me and didn't want me at his party. And that day my mom took me to the zoo and out for a hot fudge sundae. When I was in seventh grade, one of the kids on my school bus nicknamed me Percy, as a shorthand for my demeanor. And sometimes he and his cohort would chant that provocation the entire school bus ride, 45 minutes up, 45 minutes back - Percy, Percy, Percy, Percy. And I graduated high school without ever going to the cafeteria, where I would have sat with the girls and been laughed at for doing so, or sat with the boys and been laughed at for being a boy who should be sitting with the girls. I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. But I didn't know then and do know now is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you've forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you've come to be and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.


RAZ: What do you think it is about - about experiencing something traumatic or something that just sort of sears itself into your memory early in life that then sort of shapes who you become?

SOLOMON: I think those early experiences are very powerful and can be very determinative that you end up developing an image of yourself, an image of what your strengths are, an image of your weaknesses, an image of the ways in which the world is going to limit you. And I think for me, I had a sense very early on - not that I was gay because when I was a little child, I didn't even know what gay was, but that I was different from other children. And I think I struggled with that sense of what to do about how different I was starting at a very early age.


SOLOMON: So our struggles are things we're born to - our gender, our sexuality, our race, our disability. And some are things that happen to us - being a political prisoner, being a rape victim, being a Katrina survivor - identity involves entering a community to draw strength from that community and to give strength there too. Forge meaning, build identity, that became my mantra. Forging meaning is about changing yourself. Building identity is about changing the world. All of us with stigmatized identities faced this question daily - how much to accommodate society by constraining ourselves, and how much to break the limits of what constitutes a valid life? Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right, it only makes what was wrong precious.

RAZ: I mean, how did you come to a place where you thought about things, you know, this way?

SOLOMON: That was a long and slow process. But I think that it was unfolding at some level over an extended period of time. And I think I was always interested in this idea that if you were stuck with experiences you didn't want, there were things you could do with them and things you could make out of them. But the point at which that emerged into my consciousness was sort of when I was in my 30s. I mean, when I was a little kid, I hadn't yet come to that feeling. And even when I was an adolescent and kept thinking how can I take these painful experiences I've had and make something of them - I hadn't yet formulated that that was what I was doing. The language for it came much later on.


SOLOMON: In my own adolescence, I went to extreme lengths to try to be straight. I enrolled into something called sexual surrogacy therapy, in which people I was encouraged to call doctors prescribed what I was encouraged to call exercises with women I was encouraged to call surrogates, who were not exactly prostitutes, but who are also not exactly anything else.


SOLOMON: My particular favorite was a blonde woman from the deep South, who eventually admitted to me that she was really a necrophiliac and had taken this job after she got in trouble down at the morgue.


SOLOMON: These experiences eventually allowed her to have some happy physical relationships with women for which I'm grateful, but I was at war with myself and I dug terrible wounds into my own psyche. We don't seek the painful experiences that hue our identities. But we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe that it's purposeful. Ease makes less of an impression on us than struggle. We could have been ourselves without our delights, but not without the misfortunes that drive our search for meaning. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, St. Paul wrote in Second Corinthians, for when I am weak, then I am strong.

RAZ: Hearing the story, hearing it now in the context of where we are today, it's hard to imagine, but like, that was what you knew, right? I mean, because you understood that what you were was not right? What did your parents think about that? I mean, how did they feel about it?

SOLOMON: Well, my parents certainly never knew that I was going into sexual surrogacy therapy. That was something that I had found in the back pages of a magazine and that I did secretly. And if you had told me at the time that thirty years later, I would be standing up on a stage and announcing it to the larger TED audience, I would've thought you were insane. So they didn't know about that. I think they did know at some stage that I was gay, but I didn't tell them for a long time. But I think when it came to the idea of my actually being gay, that that was sort of a bridge too far for my family. And in some way, it was a bridge too far for myself.

RAZ: Do you think that part of your parent's difficulty with that whole period in your life had to do with maybe the idea that they couldn't - like there was no way for them to protect you from the pain, the arrows or all the things that were going to come your way?

SOLOMON: My parents saw, I think accurately, that the way I was was a way that was not necessarily accepted by the larger society and that the way I was going to cause me quite considerable pain. And they wanted to protect me from that experience of pain because they wanted to give me a happy life and insofar as they could, an easy life. And that made a lot of sense. Now, they also wanted to protect themselves and their self image didn't include having a gay child. And my being a gay child, or my being different in any of the ways I was different, had an effect on their identity. Ultimately, I think the identity of parents and the identity of children are incredibly tightly intertwined.


SOLOMON: It took identity to rescue me from sadness. The gay rights movement posits a world in which my embraces are a victory. Identity politics always works on two fronts to give pride to people who have a given condition or characteristic to and cause the outside world to treat such people more gently and more kindly. Those are two totally separate enterprises but progress in each sphere reverberates in the other. Identity itself should be not a smug label or a gold medal but a revolution. In 2007, six years after we met, my partner and I decided to get married. Marriage soon led us to children and that meant new meanings and new identities, ours and theirs. I want my children to be happy and I love them most achingly when they are sad. As a gay father, I can teach them to own what is wrong in their lives but I believe that if I succeed in sheltering them from adversity I will have failed as a parent.

RAZ: Do you ever, like, experience anxiety, like, I don't know, just worry that, you know, your kids might one day experience the kind of pain that you did?

SOLOMON: I experience anxiety all the time. I mean, I was anxious in the car on the way down to this radio interview. I'm sort of given to anxiety. But I do worry particularly all the time about how to protect my children from some of the kinds of difficulty that I went through. It's the problem of parenting that I think we all know how we would be good parents to ourselves and we have to learn how to be good parents to the children we have. So my children probably won't go through the exact same difficulties that I went through, they're different people and it's a different time. And what have to be awake to is not how to protect them from the exact pain I had, which is easy, but how to protect them from the exact pain that they're going to have, which is much harder to figure out. And I feel like that's where the anxiety comes in.

RAZ: How has your own upbringing, the decisions that your parents made about the way they raised you and maybe the mistakes they made, sort of changed or informed the way you do it?

SOLOMON: You know, I think the most fundamental thing is to deal with the struggle between what you change in your children and what you accept in your children. I think all parenting involves doing both. Some things obviously need to be changed and some things obviously need to be celebrated. And a great deal falls in a foggy, middle territory where it's very difficult to know whether to change it or celebrate it. And as I find myself struggling with that I recognize that it was a struggle that my own parents went through as well.

RAZ: Yeah. I'm constantly worried about whether I'm doing it wrong, you know, just the other day my 5-year-old was really upset about going to camp, day camp, he just didn't want to go. And I just thought to myself, should I just let him stay home? But then, like, my mother's voice is in my head who would always say to me, get the car you're going to camp. Where it's like, I understand why she made me go.

SOLOMON: It rings so unbelievably true to me. Both as the experience I have with my child and as the experience I had as a child. And that balances of pushing them and embracing them is very difficult. And I often think of the work of a British psychoanalyst named Roszika Parker who talked about having to steer between the cila (ph) of intrusiveness and the coribdess (ph) of neglect. And I think that's often the issue - how much do you want to sort of hold them back and hug them and say, it's OK, which is the protective part of parenting. And how much do you want to say, you have to go into the world and do things, which is the other part of parenting. And Parker says, that we all in fact experience serious ambivalence toward our children and that as a society we have somehow glamorized the part that's holding on and we have stigmatized the part that's pushing away but that good parenting requires that you that you do both. And what you're constantly doing is negotiating the relationship between them and that the ambivalences of parenthood are often the engine of determining how you balance the holding on and the pushing away.


SOLOMON: I sometimes wonder whether I could have found such fulfillment in marriage and children if they'd more readily. If I'd been straight in my youth or were young now - in either of which cases this might be easier. Perhaps I could, perhaps all the complex imagining I've done could have been applied to other topics, but if seeking meaning matters more than finding meaning, the question is not whether I'd be happier for having been bullied but whether assigning meaning to those experiences has made me a better father. I tend to find ecstasy hidden in ordinary joys because I did not expect those joys to be ordinary to me. In October, it was my 50th birthday and my family organized a party for me and in the middle of it my son said to my husband that he wanted make a speech, and John said, George, you can't make a speech you're four.


SOLOMON: Only Grandpa and Uncle David and I are going to make speeches tonight. But George insisted and insisted, and finally John took him up to the microphone and George said very loudly - ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please, and everyone turned around startled. And George said, I'm glad it's Daddy's birthday, I'm glad we all get cake. And Daddy, if you were little I'd be your friend. I thought that I was indebted, even to Bobby Finkel, because all those earlier experiences were what had propelled me to this moment and I was finally unconditionally grateful for a life I had once would've done anything to change.

RAZ: I love this moment. I can't imagine, like, all the emotions you must have experience when that happened.

SOLOMON: It was an unbelievably lovely moment. And I really do kind of think whenever I'm feeling negative about experiences that I'm having I do think over and over again about that moment. And I think OK, whatever else is happening, whatever else is going wrong, this child whom I love so much also loves me and sees me in some profound way. I get choked up even talking about it now.

RAZ: I get choked up hearing you talk about it.

SOLOMON: It was such a joy to me and in that moment with George I just sort of thought, this is what it's all about. The only question it leaves me with is where do we go from here?

RAZ: Writer Andrew Solomon, you can see both of his Ted Talks at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.