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Under the slogan “ideas worth spreading,” the annual TED conferences began in 1990, and have showcased a clutch of Anisfield-Wolf winners. The latest is Andrew Solomon, the 2013 winner for nonfiction, who took the stage in April at TEDMED, an annual program of medical innovators and thought leaders under the TED banner. His talk, “How Does An Illness Become An Identity?” drew from his book Far From The Tree, in which Solomon examines how families adapt – or not — to their children’s unique identities.

He begins by noting the seismic shift of societal attitudes toward homosexuality within a generation. Being gay was called “a pathetic, second-rate substitute for reality” by Time magazine in 1966. Today, marriage equality is endorsed by the president of the United States.

In “Far From the Tree,” Solomon explores ten other conditions, including dwarfism, deafness, Down Syndrome and autism, and asks whether they are illness or identity. The answers are multi-faceted, and stay close to families grappling with children who are radically different. Some reject and harm these offspring, but some find a means of love that allow children and families to gain a new, collective identity.

For Solomon, this is not theoretical territory. He says:

I decided to have children while I was working on this project. Many people were astonished and asked, “How can you decide to have children while you’re studying everything that can go wrong?” And I said, “I’m not studying everything that can go wrong. What I’m studying is how much love there can be even when it appears everything is going wrong.”

Let us know: Have you read Solomon’s Far From The Tree? What do you think of the themes he explored in this talk, with regard to society’s increasing acceptance of conditions (dwarfism, Down Syndrome, homosexuality, etc) that were previously deemed inferior?