Three years ago, John Schwartz, a national correspondent for the New York Times, got the call that every parent hopes never to receive: His 13-year-old son, Joe, was in the hospital following a suicide attempt. Mustering the courage to come out to his classmates, Joe had delivered a tirade about homophobic and sexist attitudes that was greeted with unease and confusion by his fellow students. Hours later, he took an overdose of pills. After a couple of weeks in the hospital and in the locked ward of a psychiatric treatment center, Joe returned to his family. As he recovered, his parents were dismayed by his school’s inability to address - or reluctance to deal with - Joe’s needs. Determined to help their son feel more comfortable in his own skin, Schwartz and his wife, Jeanne, launched their own search for services and groups that could help Joe know he wasn’t alone. In Oddly Normal, Schwartz writes of his family’s struggles within a culture that is changing fast - but not fast enough. Interweaving his narrative with contextual chapters on psychology, law, and common questions, Schwartz shares crucial lessons about helping gay kids learn how to cope in a potentially hostile world. From buying rhinestone-studded toddler shoes to creating a "Joseph manual" for Joe’s teachers; from finding a hairdresser who stocks purple dye to fighting erroneous personality disorder diagnoses, Oddly Normal offers a deeply personal look into one boy’s growing up. Joe, far happier today than he was three years ago, collaborated on this work.
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I ordered Oddly Normal from the library on a friend’s recommendation. When I got the call that it was my turn and ready to be picked up, to my surprise it was a compact disc.
After finishing other weekend errands and pulling into my driveway, I found myself unable to get out my car for hours. The CDs were gripping in telling many harrowing events, yet finally had me cheering and laughing at this remarkable, often funny, and ultimately joyous family story.
(I later learned that Mr. Schwartz’s nuanced presentation was not by happenstance. For an illuminating article, also by him, on the production and recording of audiobooks, see, “Sound Check”, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and online at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/books/review/sound-check.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 )
I was so galvanized. Before even getting out of my car I thought – many friends, but most especially my dear friend Paul, need to know about this book -- punched in his number -- he answered -- you have got to get this book! -- and he did.
What follows is Paul's email response to me (which he is happy to have reprinted here) on Oddly Normal’s and the Schwartz family’s significant and considerable contribution to not just him but all of us.
Paulette P., New Orleans. ___________________________________________________________________ Paulette,
Apologies for not responding more quickly to you about my observations on Oddly Normal. Because of my great affection and deference for you I wanted the time to respond in as honest and as personal a fashion as possible. Thanks for the gentle "nudge" to put some thoughts down.
As a 55-year-old gay man, most of my experiences with my father involved constantly present feelings of shame, the embarrassment that I brought him (by being different, effeminate and looking so very much like his former wife - my mother) and a pervasive awareness that I was an abrupt and unwanted interruption to his new (second) marriage. I don't think Joe had these experiences.
My father did his medical residencies in both psychiatry and neurology at Tulane University Medical School. He had quite a successful professional career that spanned five decades. He was late in his acceptance of the DSM III's findings that homosexuality was indeed not a personality disorder. As a teenager in therapy (under his ever vigilant eye) I was bombarded with theories that I could and should change this “choice”.
There were many moments when reading Mr. Schwartz's book that I broke into tears. On one Sunday afternoon, towards the end of the book, I had to put the book down. I knew that it would have an end. I knew that I would have to say good-bye to the father I would so very much liked to have had. I did finish the book of course. You know how precious and dear I found his observations, and how much his unyielding loyalty and love for his son touched me. I have and had no personal reference for that kind of parent. What a remarkable and outstanding man Mr. Schwartz is. What an equally dynamic and admirable woman is his wife. What a brave and noble fellow is our little Joe.
As you well know, my childhood was profoundly different. After five years of a highly volatile marriage my parents were divorced in 1958 when I was six months old. While I did not have the stabler home life of Joe, I did have an advantage of sorts. I was "tossed about" from grandparent to grandparent, all hopelessly in love with a highly precocious and well-socialized toddler. I am told that I was a "beautiful" little boy. I learned early on to cover up the sad feelings for fear of being abandoned yet again. My strongest feelings of safety came at my paternal grandmother's (Deaniemo's) house surrounded by an African American cook (Trudie) and my Deaniemo's primary housekeeper (Ollie Bee) and a houseman named "Red". I have digressed from the real purpose of this e-mail. Part of the "magic" of reading the book was making comparisons between my childhood and Joe's. Mr. Schwartz seems to have "nudged" me as well - to heal, to let go, and move on and be well.
This book was profoundly important for me for the following reasons:
1. It encouraged me to look again at some of the painful aspects of growing up as a little gay boy, a young adolescent gay boy and a college aged young gay man in a much earlier generation.
2. It let me realize that it really was ok that I too loved playing with my little sister's Barbie dolls, loved pretty things, pretty rooms and learning French. Like little Joe, I too preferred the company of girls and especially liked the company and attention of older more dazzling girls and women.
3. It has also made me realize that the self-destructive and suicidal impulses (that I still wrestle with from time to time) were not and are not my creation or choice. My own self-destructive impulses started later (college) but were far more violent - a drug overdose that left me in a coma for a week and several wrist slashings, two that resulted in hospital stays.
4. When my psychotherapist (of 19 years) asked how my life might have been different if Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz had been my parents, I sobbed for several minutes then responded that I would have known what it would have been like to have been touched, listened to, encouraged to be exactly who I was, and, above all else, to have learned, that, most emphatically, yes “IT DOES GET BETTER!".
I have now been in a 31-year relationship with the same man. We have a loving and committed union. We have in some ways grown up together. He has also been a father, brother and protector to me. I can only hope that I have contributed half as much to his life as he has to mine.
I am by no means a book reviewer. I do, however, feel that I owe a great debt of gratitude to Mr. Schwartz. He had the great courage and grace to share some profoundly personal and painful truths about himself and Joe. He had the courage to be his own man. He had the strength of character to reach out for help, advice and encouragement, from specialists and friends and family to do everything he and his wife could to help their little boy. He was never afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, methods, or approaches to aid his son. He is unyielding in his unabashed love for and pride in his Joe.
When I had completed the book, many weeks ago, I wanted to e-mail him (something I never do - as you well know). I wanted to thank Mr. Schwartz for helping a 55 year old gay man feel a connection with a real father or as we say in the south a real "Daddy". I wanted to thank him for his tender observations and vulnerable expressions - in word and in deed. I am sure that he has always been referred to as a "Mensch”; he is.
I would recommend his book to "EVERY" parent, as well as any gay fellow, and anyone sensitive, evolved and tender, as is Mr. Schwartz. With love, Paul.
Anybody who has, or had, a child who is not quite at the statistical mean will appreciate this book. John Schwartz writes about putting a creative kid, who shows some of the human species' variability, through a one-size-fits-all school system and social structure - and coming out whole on the other side. Millions of parents go through a version of what John and his wife did, whether their kids are gay or straight, and would benefit from his insight. And his narration adds an entertaining element. Never underestimate the power of a Texan storyteller.