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'Oddly Normal': Coping with coming out

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Joe Schwartz's journey through adolescence is the subject of his father's memoir, Oddly Normal.
  • Joe Schwartz's journey through adolescence is the subject of his father's memoir, Oddly Normal.

John and Jeanne Schwartz are good parents. They've always supported their son Joe, helping him to cope with a learning disability and manage his behavioral issues when he encountered difficult teachers. And they welcomed his disclosure that he was gay, after long inferring this might be the case. But it was two things they didn't know about Joe — that he had recently, somewhat haphazardly, begun to come out at school, and that he struggled with depression — that contributed to his suicide attempt at age 13.

In his memoir Oddly Normal, John Schwartz shares that frightening day and his family's attempts to help Joe deal with coming out. He'll talk about the book and his family's story at the JCC's Ann Katz Festival of Books and Arts on Nov. 12.

Schwartz, a national correspondent for The New York Times, alternates each chapter between narrating the family's personal story and reporting on the issues it raised, including research on sexual identity and psychology, the social climate for gay kids, landmark legal cases, and the benefits and drawbacks of diagnosing behavioral issues.

"It was a big challenge," says Schwartz, "but it was the only way, it seemed to me, that writing this book made sense. Our personal story was compelling to us, but without context, it's just a personal story. My wife and I felt that combining it with reporting context deepens the story to give it significance. The reported chapters—which often incorporated work that I have done over the last ten years, because many of these topics have come across my desk—felt good to write. They helped me sort out my own thinking about what we had been through."

He's quick to note that he cleared the book with Joe. "It made sense to him to do this, not just because he's a teenager and he's on Facebook and he doesn't believe in privacy," jokes Schwartz. "That's only part of it; it's really this idea that he knows sharing stories means something, and helps."

Help is exactly what Schwartz hopes his family's experience and research might offer to others. And though their story is still unfolding, Schwartz's outlook is a positive, hopeful one. So is Joe's, as he finishes his senior year of high school and looks forward to attending college in 2014.

While the Schwartzes had suspected Joe might be gay from the time he was a toddler — he loved playing with Barbies and hated sports, asked for pink shoes, and requested to be a "disco lady" for Halloween at age three — they didn't want to make too many assumptions based on stereotypes and behavior that might change. It never did, and by the time Joe started school, the Schwartzes needed to focus on helping him cope with the social environment there.

A sensitive, bright, and extremely verbal child, Joe's preferences sometimes isolated him from his classmates, making him a target for bullies and exacerbating his response to stress. Over the years, teachers and administrators, some of whom were inflexible, inexperienced, or outright abusive, suggested diagnoses from ADHD to the autism spectrum to explain Joe's behavior.

The Schwartzes were reluctant to categorize Joe so easily, afraid that a diagnosis would result in a prescription for unnecessary drugs. One of Oddly Normal's strengths lies in Schwartz's ability to recognize Joe's experience as a web of interrelated factors, which he attempts to untangle in order to have a clearer look at each strand.

Schwartz explores the rush to diagnose and medicate kids to make sense of their behavior and facilitate compliance with authority and social norms. But he also points out that official diagnoses can be a great help to parents, since they are often required to access special services a child might need to help him or her learn, via the Individual Education Plans mandated by federal law for disabled students.

Oddly Normal author John Schwartz
  • Oddly Normal author John Schwartz

Joe did eventually receive some assistance, both for a writing disability, dysgraphia, which was largely overcome by his use of a keyboard in class, as well as sessions with private therapists and school counselors. Still, Joe's success at school could change from moment to moment. "Joe had this cluster of behaviors that were very difficult for him and set him apart, but underlying it all was the tension he felt from being different," explains Schwartz.

Research supports this viewpoint, demonstrating how multiple "minority stresses" that result from being different, including an expectation of rejection and the need to conceal an essential part of oneself, can add up. Perhaps as a result, gay teens experience more depression, anxiety and substance abuse than other teens. Other researchers feel these data may be skewed due to the subjects selected, and that the current outlook for gay teens is far brighter.

Schwartz examines both viewpoints, but notes that in Joe's case, "When he did finally come out and got past the crisis of that, and when he was on his way to being better, a lot of the difficult behaviors and problems he was having dissipated." He isn't implying that being gay caused all of Joe's problems, he says, but rather that "this issue was underlying so many of the other things going on, and made many of the other things more difficult."

Oddly Normal is also characterized by the objectivity an experienced reporter like Schwartz brings to his own story. Finding the proper ways to help Joe, and walking the fine line between being supportive or assuming a child can do no wrong, is always a challenge, says Schwartz. "If you read the book, you see very clearly that we didn't do it right every day. And that's why this is not a self-help book. We missed some pretty obvious signals along the way, and I hope we're not missing them now—but we do our best."

As they watched Joe and waited for him to come out at home, the Schwartzes sought out other resources for advice, including community centers with programs for gay youth and a group of gay friends and colleagues they dubbed the "League of Gay Uncles." Many of the gay uncles warned them of another stumbling block for closeted teens or those living in isolation: the lack of opportunities to model romantic relationships.

"If you don't have anybody to date, when do you start dating?" asks Schwartz. "And if you're not dating, when do you have your first heartbreak? When you're in high school and you can cry in your mom's lap? Or when you're in college and you might not have anybody to talk to?"

Encouraging his son's middle school to form a gay–straight alliance made administrators squeamish, says Schwartz, but parents need to understand that "it's not a sex club. It's a sexual orientation club. It's about acceptance." In other words, we're fine with Modern Family and Tim Gunn, but still uncomfortable with the sex in sexuality. But, says Schwartz, "If you accept who your child is, you've got to accept what your child is going to do, too."

Schwartz understands that not all gay kids have the same qualities and experiences as Joe. "I think there's a trap you can fall into in talking about this delightful kid where it seems like I'm talking about all gay kids. I write in the first chapter of the book: our gay child is not your gay child." But writing the memoir encouraged continuing conversation in his own household, says Schwartz, and he hopes that it will be useful to others helping gay kids understand that they're not alone.

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