One of the best things about John Schwartz’s memoir/guidebook, “Oddly Normal,” is how remarkably dated it should be in 20 years. Subtitled “One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality,” it provides a candid snapshot of many assumptions and truths that some gay teens face, circa 2010. It is, in the author’s words, “a book about raising a gay child in the age of Tyler Clementi, Proposition 8, and ‘Glee’ ” — which is different in many ways from where we were in 1990 (pre-Matthew Shepard, pre- Lawrence v. Texas , pre-“Will and Grace”).
Schwartz charts this progress and the shift in attitudes of the American populace from majority revulsion to majority acceptance. But mostly he focuses on a situation inseparable from the age and at the same time part of the ageless rites of parenting — the hard choices involved in raising a vulnerable child.
In a book that otherwise shows an admirable lack of melodrama, Schwartz decides to start with a bang: His wife, Jeanne, is on the phone, telling him he has to come home because their 13-year-old son, Joseph, has tried to overdose on pills. “What we didn’t know was that Joseph had recently been dropping hints,” Schwartz writes, “gradually letting kids at school know that he is gay. And somehow, that day things had come to a head.”
We then flash back. To Joseph as a happy preschooler. To when he starts to act out. To his horrible run-ins with his merciless fourth-grade teacher. Then, more ups and downs. Days of hyper-articulate creativity, followed by explosions of rage or annoyance. Years of attempts to diagnose the reasons he explodes. Therapists, guidance counselors, assistant principals and very few friends. The growing certainty — in both Joseph’s mind and his parents’ — that he’s gay. Then, finally, a sideways acknowledgment of this fact. Followed by the suicide attempt and recovery — with a good amount of healing coming from an escape to (spoiler alert) drama camp.
All of this is meticulously observed — sometimes too meticulously observed. This is not to accuse Schwartz, a reporter for the New York Times (and formerly for The Washington Post), of reportorial remove. On the contrary, he writes with an achingly genuine sincerity, even as he painstakingly cites the documentation that underlies each and every scene in the book. He cares about his son, and he makes us care about his son.
The trick lies in the subtitle. This is not actually a book about one family’s struggle to help their teenage son come to terms with his sexuality. It is, in fact, a book about one family’s struggle to help their teenage son come to grips with his depression and his possible PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified). The intersection of identity and depression is always a murky stew of cause and effect; trying to sum up Joseph’s conflicts solely by his sexuality leaves us with a very incomplete definition.
One of the binds of secondhand memoirs such as this is that the central player can get a little lost. Even though I have no doubt that Joseph’s parents see him foremost as their son, period, here he is drawn as their gay son, defined mostly by his darker days. He gets in some clever quips (“I am my subconscious’s bitch” is his astute self-diagnosis), but he can’t escape the box the book is putting him in. Although it comes from a loving place and is perhaps unavoidable in this kind of endeavor, it strangely mirrors the box everyone in the book is trying to free him from. At the end, we get a few words from Joseph, in the form of a picture book he’s written. I would have loved more.
Schwartz acknowledges at the start that “if you are a parent of a gay child and you are reading this book, you will no doubt see that our gay child is not the same as your gay child.” The book is nevertheless aimed squarely at the parents of gay children, and in this regard it could prove helpful, even if it would be a mistake to universalize the Schwartzes’ story too much. Besides the account of Joseph’s childhood and adolescence, Schwartz grapples with the current (and sometimes not-so-current) data about gay teens, and presents research-paper-ready accounts of some recent events in LGBT history. He more ably demonstrates the challenges that not just parents but also schools and communities face when boys get clued in earlier and earlier to their gayness and aren’t afraid to be honest with themselves and with others about it.
Implied in the phrase “it gets better” is an acknowledgment that sometimes it’s remarkably hard. It’s a strange thing to say about an author and his subject, but I think it’s a safe bet that John and Joseph Schwartz will be thrilled if, 20 years from now, “Oddly Normal” is a time capsule from an earlier day in the exponential evolution of gay rights and gay life in America. If we do get there, it will be on the strength of parents and children like this, and the strength of their allies. Books like this can only help. For many gay teens, it’s the path out of hell that’s paved with good intentions.
One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality
By John Schwartz
Gotham. 290 pp. $26