Washougal resident and Clark College biology professor Steven Clark found himself drawn to the concept of what it means to belong after watching the “Far from the Tree” documentary, based on psychology professor Andrew Solomon’s award-winning book, “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” at the Liberty Theatre in Camas in 2019.
“The book struck a note with me because I thought of students who come into my office to talk about an assignment or something like that, and the conversation ends up being about the fact that they feel ‘far from the tree’ in some way or another, and often that is a source of uneasiness for them,” Clark said. “I think to myself, ‘I wish they didn’t have that burden in the slightest.'”
Now, Clark is trying to spread the book’s message to as many people as he can.
On Tuesday, March 10, Clark will host the final presentation of his three-part discussion series on the “Far from the Tree” book and its lessons.
The presentation begins at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, 2350 Main St., Washougal.
Clark said he read Solomon’s book, which explores the ways families accommodate children with physical, mental and social disabilities and differences, after seeing the documentary and found himself profoundly impacted by the book’s theories.
“Soloman says, ‘People who are far from the tree must first accept themselves, then feel like their family accepts them, and finally feel like society accepts them,'” Clark said. “I want my students to be able to say that they do feel accepted within the ecosystem of Clark College. If they have spent their formative years quietly soaking up a message from society that, ‘You’re the opposite of us, you’re not fitting in here,’ it’s really hard to undo it.”
The March 10 discussion will feature several guest speakers, including Becky Engle, an American Sign Language professor at Clark College; Yuen Chan, a family medicine doctor in Portland; and Michael Brown, a dean of libraries and academic success services at Clark College.
“I’m African American and gay, and growing up in a conservative town in west Texas, a lot of times I felt like I didn’t belong, and that I wasn’t worthy,” Brown said. “My development was influenced by the fact that I felt out of place and marginalized, but I was imposing those thoughts on myself instead of (embracing) my authentic self. When I learned to truly value who I was, I attracted a lot of positive influences into my life. I want to share those experiences be as honest and vulnerable as I can.”
Engle was born deaf to hearing parents. Chan survived polio as a child, but the illness left him with disabilities.
“I’m eager to hear about their journeys and to learn from them,” Brown said. “As Steven and I continued to discuss this, I realized that most people, in one way or another, don’t fulfill expectations that their parents have of them. We all struggle to find acceptance in the realm we’re in. Even though we’re different, we have a lot of commonality, mainly a desire to be part of a family and to have some kind of conviction that surrounds the reflection we leave. People who are afraid to be comfortable can recognize they have nothing to fear, even if they have a different faith or perspective or walk of life.”
Before writing the book, Solomon interviewed more than 300 families who had children with “horizontal identities,” a term he used to encompass all the “recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.”
“For example, it tells the story of a gentleman who refers to himself as a dwarf, and he said that when he was born, his mom cried for the next three days,” Clark said. “That really struck a note with me because I have a deaf daughter. It’s human nature to gravitate toward similarities. That doesn’t mean it’s constructive to do so.”
Clark said the book has “a powerful message” and provides “a beautiful glimpse into the way people are supposed to interact and the true basis for love of humanity.”
“The more we accept diversity, the more we enhance the ecosystem of love,” Clark said. “Just like biodiversity is good for ecology, diversity in humans is good for empathy and care. Think about your grandparents, about how they’d say something you’d wince at now. It feels like an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but they can. All these parents (in the book) did, even though they had soaked up poor messages from society that caused them to hurt people, even if they didn’t mean to.”