Alumnus John Schwartz chronicles son's sexual identity struggle in memoir 'Oddly Normal'

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There are not a lot of books that explore a child’s coming out story from the eyes of his parents, but with parental love and a journalistic style, “Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality” tells the story about a father’s and mother’s uphill battle to help their son realize and accept his sexuality.

In the memoir, UT alumnus John Schwartz chronicles his son’s, Joseph, early childhood, young adolescence and current teenage years. Joseph received a series of different mental diagnoses and often had trouble in his younger school years, issues his parents believed came from a phenomena Schwartz describes as “minority stress,” or pressure felt by people who belong to often unaccepted minority groups. The story is not a happy one, as much of the memoir is a narrative building up to Joseph’s suicide attempt in 2009.

It should be noted that this is not a self-help book or a step-by-step guide on how to raise and help a LGBTQ child, and Schwartz makes that clear. Rather, it is an inspirational story about how Joseph’s parents struggled and tried to help their son.

Acceptance from his parents was never Joseph’s problem. Schwartz writes that from a young age, he and his wife thought their youngest of three might be gay and they assembled what they called a “League of Gay Uncles” to go to for advice. It was not his home life he struggled with. Instead, Joseph struggled with coming out at school to his peers and coming to terms with his sexuality himself.

Furthermore, Schwartz argues that Joseph’s middle and elementary schools were unprepared and did not want to deal with a gay student. “I feel like the school would rather he had autism than be gay,” Jeanne Schwartz, Joseph’s mother and John’s wife, comments at one point.

But the book is more than a linear narrative of events through Joseph’s childhood. Schwartz, a national correspondent for The New York Times, quotes research, statistics about mental illnesses and officials. He presents data that suggests gay teens may be more likely to suffer depression, but he also points out the data and study is still inconclusive. This, along with other factual and academic anecdotes, makes this book more effective than a traditional memoir. Joseph is not necessarily a special case and there are teenagers all across the world who are suffering through similar problems. And not all of them are lucky enough to have accepting parents like Joseph has.

Even the more memoir-focused parts of the book are told in a journalistic style. Schwartz quotes emails and jotted-down dialogue. His wife, who helped him with the book, spent weeks writing memories that Schwartz says he would never have thought to include.

And though much of the book is sad, it does posses a sense of wit. At one point, Schwartz writes, “It gets better for [parents] too ... besides, somebody’s gotta pay for the hair dye.” Though the memoir is centered around Joseph’s suicide attempt, the book is more hopeful than depressing. It does get better, for both Joseph and his parents. As the book ends, Joseph has found his place in high school, regularly attends the Gay-Straight Alliance Club meetings and sessions at the Gay Center in Manhattan and no longer has depression. The road is not always easy, but in Joseph’s case it is manageable.

The final chapter, written by Joseph, is the entirety of a children’s book he wrote for class called “Leo, the Oddly Normal Boy,” which is about a boy who likes a boy. It is a cute and an endearing way to end the memoir. Lacking more content directly from Joseph is the memoir’s sole weak point. Though Schwartz regularly quotes his son, he might have considered allowing his son to contribute more to his own narrative. But perhaps Joseph is still a little young for that.

“Oddly Normal” is a book any gay parent, gay child or ally to the LGBTQ community will thoroughly enjoy. The memoir advocates for acceptance through the story of one boy who represents a much larger group and an important, pressing human issue.

Printed on Monday, November 12, 2012 as: Memoir tells sexuality struggle