John Schwartz, Oddly Normal; One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 290pp.
Joseph was the third child for John and Jeanne Schwartz, so they felt pretty good about their parenting experiences, "semi-pro at least." But early on they knew that Joseph was different. As a preschooler he loved pink shoes, played with dolls, and hated sports. "We knew we had a very girly boy," says Schwartz, an intuition confirmed by a gay adult friend. Being gay wasn't a problem in their view, but knowing it for sure, and knowing how to help Joseph with the ramifications, took several more very difficult years.
Joseph was not only gay. He was also extremely smart, physically clumsy, and socially awkward. He needed help from psychological, occupational, and speech therapists, all of which is expensive and confusing. One of their worst experiences was with a gay therapist. After conflicting advice from many experts, they decided that Joseph fit a diagnosis called PDD-NOS: Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified. And, of course, kids can be cruel. Every family experience is different. School bureaucracies can be complicated. Scientific research is often inconclusive. Experts disagree about diagnoses and treatments. As Joseph became increasingly isolated, both socially and emotionally, he internalized the rejection he experienced because of his differences. He edited, hid, and then rejected his different self by attempting suicide at the end of the seventh grade, right after he came out publicly at school.
This book is a powerful reminder of how hard it is to be different. Schwartz tells how he was helped by a gay friend who related his own story about a college experience. One day Brian was talking about a writing project with his professor, Betty Sue Flowers (who later ran the LBJ Library and Museum), and happened to mention that he was gay. He was shocked by her response: "It's a gift," said Flowers. "I would have never thought of that as a possible reply," said Brian. "Yet I immediately knew exactly what she meant. Because I was different, I would see things differently than everyone else, and that would be valuable to me in ways that I would only discover over time. I don't think it's too much to say that her words changed how I looked at my life."