on November 8, 2012
This book succeeded on several levels. First and foremost, it's engaging and well written. I started with the Kindle sample, bought it immediately, and finished it in one setting. I think this will appeal to any parents who have watched their children struggle with being different, those who work in the education system, and people specifically interested in topics of sexuality and developing identity.
I was struck by the honesty of the author in telling his family's story. I wouldn't recommend reading this book in public like I did, because I teared up several times. The book is powerful in its truth and relatability. Even if you haven't been in this family's exact situation, anyone who grew up different or watched a child grow up different will resonate with the author's words.
In the book, the author interweaves his family's personal experience with research on sexual orientation with mixed results. The research touches upon historical, psychological, and legal domains. Sometimes the sudden rush of research jolted me out of the narrative, but it did deepen the educational quality of the book.
If you're familiar with the research on this topic, those aspects of the book are easily skimmed. The real worth comes from the family's narrative, especially the author's honesty about their failures as well as successes. For parents who need to advocate for their child in an education system, the experiences of the Schwartzs provide a helpful guide for what to do, and not do. Schwartz also acts as a voice of grace towards parents who "miss the signs". His own reflections on how it happened normalizes how hard it is for parents to know everything that's going on with their kid.
I liked that the author drew upon several voices to tell this story. It provided a richer perspective on the events. He used emails from the "gay uncle club"--a collection of gay friends--who helped advise him and his wife, teachers and school administrators who knew his son, and several of his own family members. Fittingly, the last chapter is a story by Joe--the titular teenager--himself.
"Oddly Normal" is a quick read, and well worth the time.
on December 4, 2012
Full disclosure: I appear very briefly in the first few pages of the book as a college freshman, Jeanne's former boyfriend. I'm dealt with graciously -- perhaps too graciously -- so anyone reading this very positive review may find reason to dismiss me as biased for that reason. I'm alert, I think, to where my biases are, though, and so I don't think my review is biased for that reason, or even biased by the fact that I've known John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon for 35-40 years, depending on how you count. They are my friends, and among my very best friends. And I know their older two children reasonably well, although I don't know Joe Schwartz from anything but this book.
Still, I don't write reviews for every friend who writes a book. I feel compelled to write one for this one, though, because of one bias I will admit to -- I strongly admire, and strive to emulate, loving parents who commit themselves to being advocates for their children, who commit themselves further to learning everything they can about how to be an effective advocate.
*If I were teaching a class about how to be as good a parent as one could be, I would put this book first on the reading list.* It's that good.
What makes it good? I'll list a few things: First, it has been designed and written by a very good reporter with a good reporter's insistence on getting the facts right and treating the facts fairly. In this respect, the closest book that comes to mind when I read ODDLY NORMAL is David Carr's THE NIGHT OF THE GUN, in which the author uses his journalistic skills to document a tough period in his own life. Like Carr, Schwartz is unsparing about his own failures -- for example, when John and Jeanne tried to protect a very young Joe by hiding the Barbies he loved (for fear he'd get ridiculed about them by his very young schoolmates), he writes perhaps the saddest retrospective line in the book: "We had built his first closet." Anyone who's given attention to being a parent knows the pain of making a parenting mistake, and how hard that pain comes back to bite you when you recall your mistake. This is a lesson that every parent should learn early -- that you're never going to be perfect at it.
Second, Schwartz is both a veteran science reporter and a veteran legal reporter -- a perfect combination for someone writing about LGBT issues, which have both profound scientific dimensions and profound legal dimensions. There is a technical descriptive term for someone who can write clearly and powerfully about legal issues, scientific issues, and family issues, and do so in an accessible, engaging style, with frequent humor; that term is "world-class."
Third, Schwartz made the book about his family a family project: Jeanne Mixon (who could be quite accomplished writer herself if she were inclined to be) contributes countless cogent observations, and also demonstrates her own capability for the wry remark. And Joe Schwartz's own contributions (including a mini-children's-book at the end) demonstrate that (I hope to god Joe will forgive me this little joke) the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree.
Fourth, even if you think you know about law, or technology, or families, or writing (I sometimes fancy that I know something about these subjects), I can guarantee that you will learn something from ODDLY NORMAL -- and probably a lot. I've known John and Jeanne for so long, and known most of their family for such a long time too, that I didn't expect to get much from ODDLY NORMAL that I hadn't already gotten from personal knowledge. I was wrong. Not only did the book bless me with a lot more information that I never had before, but it did something marvelous with that information: it turned it into art. So, I'm writing this review mainly because I'm so grateful for this book -- and I've already given copies to three people I love (including my daughter, a budding writer). I expect to gift many more copies of ODDLY NORMAL in the coming months and years.
on November 12, 2012
This is a brave and big-hearted book, one that could well be a life raft for any family coping with the experience detailed here -- lovingly raising a child who, in the eyes of conventional society, is "different."
But it would be a tragedy if "Oddly Normal" did not reach a much larger audience -- the vast population of people who help create the society that presents such obstacles to people like Joe Schwartz and his parents.
Wise people know that abolition frees both the slave and the master. Similarly, tolerance liberates both the bully and his target. And this book is a moving manifesto for tolerance, one that will enrich anyone who reads it -- and everyone should read it.
A universal truth of human society is that there is a constant tension between the security of "fitting in" and the adventure of "standing out." It takes different forms -- fitting into a gang culture or standing out as a scholar; fitting into a loving traditional family role or standing out through some demanding role outside the home; fitting into a supportive office society or standing out by being ambitious. Or, of course, fitting in by conforming to some middle-school notion of "a normal boy" or standing out by being oddly normal, whether that means being gay or a chess prodigy or a precocious reader or a klutz at sports.
This is a book for everyone who has wrestled with that "fitting in/standing out" tension or tried to help others in that struggle. In short, a book for all of us.
You can disregard any canard about "exploitation." The author makes it clear that this book would never have been written if young Joe, its hero, had not wanted his father to write it -- indeed, he helped his father to write it. No one who meets Joe and his parents in the painfully honest pages of "Oddly Normal" could ever suspect otherwise.
Full disclosure: The author of this book is a colleague of mine, although I did not know about the ordeal he and his family were experiencing until I read about it in his book. Indeed, as someone without children, I might not have picked up this book if he had not been a colleague. So I consider that connection a blessing. (Dozens of books have made their way into the world from the ranks of my colleagues without an accompanying Amazon review from me, so you know these comments are from the heart.) This is an extraordinary, important, potentially heart-changing book, and a joy to read.
on January 30, 2013
I have finished reading the book "Oddly Normal" by John Schwartz. It is the best book on growing up gay, (and coping with the Mental Heath System), I have ever read. It follows the life of young Joe from his birth through the present where Joe is a high school student. The author is Joe's father who alternates beetween gripping chapters on the life of Joe and chapters with research and practical information about the issues raised in the story unfoldening in the alternate chapter. The book is extensively researched as one would expect from a journalist from the NY Times. I kept uncovering instances whe the book mirrored either memories from my childhood and adolescence or my latter work as a Public Health Professional and an advocate for LGBTQ Youth for 25 years or so.
on December 24, 2012
The author cautions at the beginning of this book that it is a memoir of his family's experience dealing with his son's struggle with his sexuality. I am cautioning any readers that this is more than just about dealing with his son's sexuality. His son had a lot of problems beyond "coming out", including learning disabilities and social problems that seem, to me, unrelated to being homosexual. Take away the homosexuality, and his son still had many problems to deal with. Nonetheless, this book is touching, well-written, and affecting.
on December 8, 2012
I found this book compulsively readable. It's an honest, gripping account of two parents who struggled to provide a good environment for their son, who was in constant trouble in school and who pushed all kinds of buttons in the mainstream society for his early gay identification. All of this was great. As a parent myself, I found myself in awe of the sheer courage, effort, and drive of these parents to get public schools to help their son instead of box him in, repress, and stigmatize him.
All the same, I found myself withdrawing from their very negative comments about kids with Asperberger's syndrome. They passionately want to believe their son's problems arose from being gay, a theme they stress on almost every page. (I say "they" even though the book is written by the father, because the mother's views are also incorporated.) OK, so the kid is gay. Wouldn't almost every liberal parent today be able to come to terms with this? Or if not almost all, aren't there are large number who could respond positively? I almost felt reading this book that this was so socially acceptable that the father (author) was determined to drive this into the ground while aggressively rejecting any contrary diagnosis. This didn't seem like the whole story to me, though. The kid seemed ill at ease, intermittently aggressive, and highly socially unskilled. Maybe these traits resulted from being odd one out in terms of gayness--but it seemed to me that this kid was just odd and the parents preferred to emphasize one aspect of his being. They were comfortable being his advocates in terms of his gayness and never stopped telling the school/therapists/camp counselors that this was the issue. When their son was diagnosed by one therapist as having Asperbergers, though, they freaked out and accepted the ridiculous statement that such a child could never go to college--at least, they totally rejected the diagnosis for their son but accepted that other kids who were correctly diagnosed with Asperbergers faced thsi fate. Come on! Tons of Asperbergers kids go to college and are highly successful there.
I would have hoped they would have had a broader view of the kinds of problems kids have instead of maintaining prejudices about Asperbergers kids while totally going to town defending their son as, in their view, a gay kid who was being discriminated against. Open your eyes! Be kinder. See that your son has other problems and that they might bleed into those experienced by the Asperbergers kids you recoil from. Along the same lines, I couldn't understand why the parents were so anxious that their son come out. Why not make this his business? Let him figure out how to manage his life. Instead, the parents went crazy trying to secure a statement from him that he was gay. Please--let him evolve toward this instead of making this a pivot of his life--and of the book.
on October 24, 2013
In the end, this was one family's story of intersectionality--discovering that mental health problems are not always caused by LGBT issues, and that the personal feelings of LGBT people are not the root cause of every social problem of any particular LGBT person. Found it interesting and enlightening, but probably of limited use for those who are not teenagers or parenting teenagers themselves; the focus is so tightly drawn on the author's family that the lessons learned are not universally applicable to others. This was, to its credit, acknowledged in the book itself; questions of class and race are discussed without shying away from how these factors impact both mental health and LGBT life.
on July 25, 2015
John Schwartz brings his journalistic skills to his writing about the problems of teenagers coming out of the closet. His own son struggled with these issues for years before attempting suicide at age thirteen. We see the struggle as the family attempted to understand their son and navigate the school system and help them understand as well. There is a chapter (written in 2013) where Mr. Schwartz analyzes the right of gays to marry, and the issues this brings up for the future. How nice that I read this book one week after the right to gay marriage was passed by the Supreme Court!
on July 4, 2015
My only complaint in this beautifully written book is that it contains a bit too much statistical information. As you finish an immersive chapter about Joe and his family, you jump immediately into dry statistics resultant from numerous studies. Some of those statistics are important and very relevant; I just wish there had been more memoir, less numbers and studies.
I do have to congratulate Joseph and his parents for their mutual support, with love and acceptance obvious in every written word.
on December 7, 2012
I found the story well written, but as I read and after I finished, a number of issues arose. First, there is way too much simple listing of support resources; those resources are important but a quick Google search will locate almost all of them for anyone who is interested. Also, in a few years many of those references will change and then the book's lists will be far less useful. However, they do add pages to a thin volume.
This is perhaps a comment more relevant to the author than to the book, but far too often I felt that the parents were more concerned with their being correct than with what was going on in their son's head. When you say to a psychologist to whom you are sending the boy for help "we think he may be gay", the psychologist responds "what a horrible thing to say." In my opinion the proper response is not to worry that you might be wrong about your son's sexuality but to be horribly upset that you have sent your beloved son to someone who thinks being gay is "horrible." Yeah, that will make him comfortable with himself real fast.
In the same vein, it often seemed to me that the parents believed that there is some one "right" way to get through life and their job was to make sure that Joe found it. But guess what, human life is not that simple.
Much, if not most, of the story revolves around getting various schools to give special treatment to their son. We are told what various people in the public education system did or did not do to the parents' satisfaction. If people in the educational system are able to and wish to offer extra effort in helping the son through this difficult period of his life, I believe that is indeed wonderful and commendable. But I do not understand why it should be the inherent responsibility of public educators or a public education system to attend so delicately and especially to the problems of this specific boy. As a gay man who found my teenage years to be full of fear, anxiety, and depression over my closeted sexual orientation, I did not then and do not now believe that it was the responsibility of my schools to resolve my problems. However, to be sure, I do strongly agree that schools must provide a safe environment for all students. But surely teachers and education administrators have more than enough to do merely trying to instill a minimum level of mandated learning in their students without also having to accommodate themselves to the personal details of every child's life.
By the end of the book I felt that I knew the parents, but I had only a faint image of Joe. I would have much preferred that the author replace the lists of resources with more personal information about Joe. Would I like Joe if I met him? Why or why not? Would I care about him and what happens to him more specifically than I would for any suffering person? To that end, I welcomed finding Joe's comic strip included in the book.
Overall I found the book interesting, easy to read, and a pleasure to read. It seems a reasonably honest account of how John Schwartz has handled the issue of his son's sexual orientation. I do recommend it to others.