LitStack Review: Oddly Normal by John Schwartz

by Sharon Browning
Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His SexualityOddly Normal
John Schwartz
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Release Date:  November 8, 2012
ISBN:  978-15-924-0728-6

John Schwartz, national correspondent for The New York Times, is also the father of three children.  His youngest, Joseph, was intelligent with an amazing grasp of language from a young age, but early on it became evident that he was also challenged with various medical and psychological issues.  But it was Joe’s attempted suicide at age 13, right after he had come out as gay to his classmates, that made his family realize the full impact of having to battle societal attitudes and prejudices regarding children who are “different”.

John and his wife Jeanne had long suspected that Joe was gay; he had exhibited signs since even before preschool of being a “girly boy”.  They did not resent his penchant for playing with dolls with his older sister or his lack of interest in the more masculine sporting pursuits that meant the world to his older brother, but they did worry about the impact that being gay might have on their youngest as he grew.  So they started researching early the effects of homosexuality on developing children, believing that in order to support Joe fully in whatever direction his life may take, they needed to be as informed as possible of not only the biological and psychological aspects of that identity, but also what they needed to do as parents to ensure that Joe grew up in a loving, positive environment.  Yet even with this early jump start, the journey was not easy – which was the impetus for writing this book.

Jeanne and I are telling you about our bumpy ride in hopes that it will help other parents of gay kids – and maybe, parents of any kid who is different, who is mistreated by others, or who just may not accept himself – to know that they can find their own way to help a developing child handle the pain that can come from not fitting in.  To help us all to relearn the most important parenting advice ever written, by Dr. Benjamin Spock:  “Trust yourself.  You know more than you think.”

What makes this book exemplary is not only the honesty with which it was written – Joe is not portrayed as an angel; an intelligent but somewhat belligerent child at times, he exhibited behavioral problems from an early age which already had him on rocky footing before his alternate sexuality was expressed – but also because of the wealth of research and information that the author lays out for the reader.  Perhaps because John Schwartz has made a living from being a journalist, he is adept at organizing and sharing clear and concise summaries gleaned from a myriad of disparate – and sometimes conflicting – resources.  Alternating insights from his own personal experiences, written in a casual and genial manner, with chapters documenting the progression of medical and psychological studies affecting childhood behavioral diagnoses as well as the stresses and pressures aligned with alternate sexualities, allows us as readers to benefit from a broad presentation of one family’s progression in understanding.

But beyond a personal understanding, the Schwartz’s had to work with a steep learning curve on how to insist on appropriate treatment of their son within the framework of medical personal, psychologists, psychiatrists, and especially, the many layers of influence and authority within the education system.  Teachers and school administrators played a key role in Joseph’s development, sometimes as advocates, but unfortunately also at times as didactic and unyielding barriers to his positive self image.  Thankfully, Joseph had tireless crusaders in his parents; not all children are as lucky.

Still, with all the efforts that John and Jeanne Schwartz made on his behalf, 13 year old Joseph came home from school and took an overdose of pills, also intending to slit his wrists to “finish the job”.  Earlier in the day, he had angrily denounced a group of boys for “rating” girls, and in doing so, had divulged that he was gay.  Their reaction, and his underlying feelings about exposing a part of himself that he had tried to keep hidden away, was more than he could handle.  His reaction was not a cry for help; this was a child who was overwhelmed by the sense that he was not worthy of living.

How Joe and his family struggled back from that drastic afternoon is equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Luckily, as he grew older (mainly, making it to high school), more support services and resources became available to him, and Joe seems now to be more or less on solid ground regarding his sexuality and his outlook on being a young adult who is different.  But the scary thing is that there are many children in Joe’s situation who do not have the support and backing of unified parents, or a viable advocate who can work within systems, and evaluate not only the viable, but also the harmful and the well meaning but off base information swirling around notions of childhood sexuality.  Children who have no one with whom to establish a personal relationship, as mentor, as touchstone, to guide a young person seeking answers to questions that they are perhaps afraid to ask.  Someone who can help diffuse anger or to assure those children that it is indeed perfectly fine to be fabulous, or to simply give out hugs when a child feels unhuggable.

I decided to read this book not because my kids are gay but because I wanted a better understanding of what other families, what other children, had to go through, not just at the point of crisis but before it as well.  I strongly believe that the more we know about the people around us, the more empathetic we can be to those who live lives different from our own, and that is the key to our survival in this modern world.

I feel that Oddly Normal gave me that understanding, at least in this instance, for this situation (and John Schwartz makes this point multiple times – this is the story of his son; not an overview of every kid who is gay).  It gave me a glimpse into challenges and variables to be balanced against that of which I was not even aware, and this broadening of my understanding is welcome.  But I also left the book after reading the final page more aware – or perhaps, having it reinforced – that each child’s journey is so different, so fraught with peril from so many different directions regardless of their similarities or differences, that it is incumbent on each of us that we do what we can, if even in little ways, to make their journey easier, especially those who feel they don’t “fit in”.  It doesn’t matter if Joe isn’t your son – he’s someone’s son.  All the Joe’s (and Jo’s and Jose’s and Josaphine’s) of this world, deserve that from us.

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