Memoir offers insights on raising a gay child

New York TimesDecember 22, 2012 

"Oddly Normal: One FamilyÕs Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality" by John Schwartz.

  • Nonfiction Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality John Schwartz Gotham Books, 290 pages

Joseph Schwartz has sophisticated, loving parents. When they noticed their son’s aversion to sports and attraction to dolls, they didn’t assume Joseph was gay; they just knew he was different. When Joseph referred to Saladin, the well-dressed 12th-century Sultan of Egypt and Syria, as “the fabulous Muslim leader,” they simply embraced their son’s panache. When his father, John, discovered pictures of naked men in Joseph’s Internet history – well, at that point Joseph’s parents did assume he was gay.

Still, John Schwartz and his wife, Jeanne Mixon, wisely waited for their son to come out on his own terms, which he eventually did, at the age of 12.

And at 13, surrounded by this unconditional love, Joseph came home from school, locked the bathroom door and tried to kill himself.

John and Jeanne’s struggle to help Joseph recover from his suicide attempt (and the years of turmoil leading up to it) make up the main thrust of John Schwartz’s meticulous and, at times, moving memoir, “Oddly Normal.” Schwartz is a national correspondent for The New York Times, and his reporter’s tool kit is evident in the book’s inclusion of concise, useful primers on the current state of gay rights as well as myriad research and statistics regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

His fastidiousness produces a clear accounting of events but occasionally keeps us on the exterior of the characters’ beating hearts for too long.

Still, his family’s story consistently reveals trenchant insights into the challenges of raising a gay child at a time when kids are coming out younger and younger and school systems are adapting fast, but not always fast enough.

Joseph’s outbursts started in the classroom. By the end of elementary school, Joseph’s restiveness had manifested itself in the form of tantrums, run-ins with bullies, heated confrontations with insensitive teachers and, most hilariously, a scathing book report on the children’s novel “Where the Red Fern Grows”: “I hated the dogs. I was glad when they died, because it meant that the book was over.”

At home the Schwartzes kept noting what they call the “big honking clues” regarding their son’s sexuality. But was being in the closet causing Joseph’s behavioral problems – or merely adding to them?

Schwartz takes an interesting look at the less obvious challenges of coming out in the age of “It Gets Better” videos. Things are vastly better, unquestionably, but for youngsters like Joe, it can also mean losing “the ability to hide in the ignorance of others” during the sensitive years leading up to the decision to come out.

At the end of seventh grade Joseph came out. At home it was a nonevent; at school it was a nightmare. Several students complained that his remarks about his sexuality had made them uncomfortable. Filled with despair, Joseph came home from school and hatched a plan to overdose on Benadryl, then slash his wrists in the tub. (Thankfully he only took the pills.)

Plunged into every parent’s worst nightmare, his father replayed what in hindsight seemed like telling moments, like when his mother noticed Joseph covertly throwing a scarf over a shower curtain rod and, more than a year later, “an angry red ring” mysteriously appeared around his neck. Joseph told them it was a cat scratch.

Understandable as their self-doubt may be, John and Jeanne prove to be remarkable parents in the way they fearlessly face the daunting question: What can we do to make Joe well? The dizzying array of conflicting diagnoses already proposed by school psychologists and medical professionals complicated matters: Could Joseph have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Asperger’s? Depression? Bipolar disorder? Sensory integration disorder?

With no panacea in sight, Joseph’s parents worked with doctors to create a multifaceted plan to match his varied needs: the prescription drug Abilify for controlling his moods and impulsivity; continued therapy to monitor his progress; theater camp and programs at the gay and lesbian center in New York City for socialization and normalcy. Slowly but surely, Joseph found allies. He even began to embrace his label as “the gay kid.” He even dyed his hair purple.

Schwartz’s book doesn’t purport to be a step-by-step guide in raising a gay child, but its candid discussion of one family’s emotional, medical and educational trials (and the inclusion of an appendix listing organizations dedicated to LGBT youth), makes the book as valuable a resource for parents of gay kids as any official handbook on the subject.

If there’s a slight hitch to this admirable memoir by an estimable father, it’s that “Oddly Normal” is the story of two parents’ struggles, yet Schwartz, ever a devoted dad, is more interested in exploring his son’s inner workings than his own. This leads to passages that, while always clear-eyed in their recounting of events, lack emotional pull.

To his credit, though, Schwartz winningly ends the book on an emotional high, through the inclusion of one of Joseph’s creative-writing assignments, an original children’s book he created when he was 15. Alongside Joseph’s savvy stick-figure drawings, we meet Leo, a boy who dreams of becoming emperor of the galaxy, but for now, earthbound, must deal with the pain of unrequited love. (Frederick just wasn’t that into him.) Mostly Leo wants to be loved for who he is. I’m pleased to report he lives happily ever after.

In real life, of course, Schwartz knows no father can guarantee his child will always be happy. But in sharing his family’s story, he may free up other kids like Joseph to be something greater: themselves.

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