John Schwartz, New York Times’ national correspondent, was at work when his wife, Jeanne Mixon, called to tell him that their son, Joe, tried to kill himself. She found 13-year-old Joe “goggle-eyed” and naked in the bathroom. Empty pill bottles were all over the floor, and a paring knife was sitting in the bathtub.
This attempted suicide — every parent’s nightmare — opens John Schwartz’s memoir, Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle To Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality, a deeply moving account of Joe’s journey to embrace his sexuality, as well as his parents’ efforts to shield him from homophobia and help him endure a school system that marginalise (and even pathologise) children who are ‘different’ and need special understanding.
John and his wife suspected Joe was gay since he was 3 years old. He loved the colour pink, rhinestones, Barbie dolls and everything fabulous. For Halloween Joe asked to be “a disco yady.” Joe himself knew he was gay from the age of 8. But knowing who you are isn’t the same as being comfortable with who you are. He called the burden he struggled with “the secret”, and for a long time he refused to name it, even to his parents.
John and his wife were strong advocates for their son, spending thousands of dollars for therapy that their insurance didn’t cover, and regularly confronting teachers and school administrators with their concerns about how their son was treated in the classroom. John tells how he and Jeanne grappled with how best to help their son come to terms with his sexuality. In addition to dealing with his “secret”, Joe had trouble with impulsiveness, anger, and certain teachers. His parents got advice (sometimes conflicting) from psychologists, researchers, and all kinds of therapists — who sadly were more interested in diagnosing Joe with labels from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which reflected psychological trends rather than attempting to understand his sexual orientation.
Luckily, John and Jeanne also sought help from an ad hoc group of friends and colleagues, who John refers to as The League of Gay Uncles (perhaps a saving grace?).
One of those “uncles” is rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who brought a sense of calm and wisdom on their journey towards better understanding their son’s sexuality. The rabbi gave valuable Faith insights to help answer questions about the religious texts that explicitly speak against homosexuality. This was important for John because he is a proud member of the Reform tradition, which says that Judaism is a living faith. Coming out is a tough (and stressful) decision for any gay person, mostly because we fear that the moment we show our true selves we’ll not only be ostracised from our communities but also from our Faith. Rabbi Mark maintains that subjecting someone to a life of misery and shame and humiliation and lying is not the way the Torah intends for people to live.
Even though they tried to help their son in his struggle, John and Jeanne may inadvertently have made it harder for Joe to accept who he was. When Joe started kindergarten, for instance, Jeanne quietly put away all his Barbie dolls and their spectacular outfits. She worried that if Joe talked to children at school about his love of all things “prettiful” (Joes favourite word), he’d be teased. Joe wondered where his treasures had gone, but his parents told themselves that at least they’d let their son’s plastic castle draped with beads, his trove of costume jewellery, and his “prettiful” crystal globes remain in his room, so he could enjoy them in private. They meant well, but as Schwartz ruefully writes in retrospect, “We had built his first closet.”
Oddly Normal carries a lesson for all parents — even well-intentioned, open-minded ones. And it’s a lesson that Jewish institutions, leaders, and teachers should heed as well, as they wrestle with notions of inclusion, acceptance, and tradition. Being tolerant doesn’t necessarily mean being helpful.
Even though Oddly Normal describes one family’s journey towards accepting and embracing their child’s sexuality — an experience that cannot be generalised — it also advocates how great the impact of two compassionate, committed and empathic parents can be. John Schwartz set out to write a memoir to help others, but he achieved much more. He created a go-to manual for Jewish parents whose child doesn’t quite fit in because he or she is “oddly normal.“
Oddly Normal is as emotionally moving as a Hollywood tearjerker and as diligently researched as a lead story in the New York Times. Few writers possess the rare combination of being able to speak from the heart while simultaneously investigating and reporting, but in this engaging, informative and engrossing memoir, Schwartz accomplishes both. The book skilfully transitions from heart stirring accounts of raising a challenging child to the history, facts and social implications of what it means to grow up gay in 21st century. Most importantly, Oddly Normal offers hope that our society is moving toward a better future for LGBT people and their heterosexual peers alike. Brilliantly written and meticulously researched this is a memoir that informs as much as it captivates.
Oddly Normal, was published in November 2012 and is available on Amazon and Kindle
*** Article Illustration by Andrea Tsurumi