Sunday, November 18, 2012

Different ("Oddly Normal" by John Schwartz)

Before John Schwartz begins telling us his story--the story of his family, and especially the story of his son Joseph--he tells us something else: this is not a how-to book about raising a gay child. He's never liked how-to or self-help books, finding them impenetrable and pointless, and he cautions his readers against taking his experience--his successes and failures--and substituting it as their own, looking to turn his detailed and specific chapters into some sort of traceable set of goals and milestones. This is his family's experience alone, something to learn from rather than be guided by. And while he hopes that his book will teach his readers without explicitly instructing them, Schwartz's main goal is to tell a story, purely and simply, which is something he does with ease and skill.
Oddly Normal is the story of Joseph Schwartz, a precocious young boy whose parents understand from a very early age that he is gay. His personality and interests--he enjoys Barbies, glitzy decorations, playing with girls' hair, and other stereotypically feminine things--lead his parents to this conclusion, and they're immediately accepting but also cautious: they don't care one way or the other if their son is gay, though they also want to avoid labeling him at an age when society's gender norms mean nothing and he may simply be curious. (Schwartz points out that, after their first two children were born, they lumped dolls and trucks into a gender-less mass in the playroom, and their daughter naturally went for the Barbies while their son went for trucks.) However, as Joseph grows older, the possible becomes the obvious, the obvious becomes unavoidable, and soon his atypical interests and behavior make him not only an outcast at school but the target of some of his teachers' frustrations and wrath. Soon, John and his wife find themselves defending Joseph against careless teachers, lazy therapists, and a school bureaucracy that is more interested in blaming children than understanding them.
For me, this was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, not just because it was the conflict that dominated the first half--the second half being focused on Joseph's internalized conflict with himself and his emotions--but also because I'm a teacher who, even in the few years I've been teaching, has seen this play out firsthand. All teenagers go through this at some point--the feeling that they're alone and different, even among hundreds of other teenagers who are experiencing similar things in their own lives--but for gay teenagers, the feeling of loneliness and the idea that no one else possibly understands what they're going through, least of all the adults around them, is compounded. John Schwartz admits upfront that he and his wife tried their best to be good parents, and this book paints a picture of a mother and father who did indeed try their best, missed a few signs along the way, struggled, but ultimately raised a young man who is smart, confident, and well-rounded. But he also admits that, had Joseph been raised and taught in environments in which his uniqueness had been appreciated as a "gift"--as a part of him, not unlike hair color or height or gender--rather than a challenge to be corrected, he would have fared much better. Which is an issue still to this day: schools that feel accommodating students' differences, whether it be who they are or how they act, means doing nothing and hoping the "problem" goes away. It's this struggle that Joseph and his parents fight and, near the books' end, ultimately win.
This is not to say, however, that Schwartz's book doesn't have a few problems--namely, his need, perhaps based on his career as a journalist, to bring in research and statistics related to LGBT teens and current gay rights issues. There's nothing wrong with this, per se, and in fact it actually balances out well in their respective chapters: talking about a specific event in Joseph's childhood, then expanding out to see how it relates nation-wide, including the relationship between effeminacy and sexual orientation in boys, learning disabilities, and suicide. But the research is presented as just that--research--instead of being paraphrased down to fit with the rest of his book. At times, Schwartz's discussions of research feel like a lecture delivered in the middle of an otherwise engaging story, and it weakens the compassion and empathy we've felt towards Joseph and his struggle, almost as though Schwartz were trying to analyze his son's life to see how well it fit into the LGBT narrative...which, as Schwartz mentions more than once, isn't even a reliable narrative, as it raises up the stories of struggle ("it gets better") over the stories of hope ("it's better now") and presents the LGBT experience in teens as one of desperation, harrassment, and futility.
There's a moment in his forward when Schwartz says that, while he and fellow memoirist Joan Didion have very little in common, he would find more solace about death in her book The Year of Magical Thinking than in any self-help or how-to book, no matter how well-recommended they were. This goes back to his idea that, given the choice between dry advice and fluid story, he finds more to learn and relate to in story. It's a concept that I agree with wholeheartedly, and I only wish Schwartz had followed this more closely in the writing of his book. It's not that the research is bad--as I stated before, it actually adds to the story--but the story is much better, far and away.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Us and Them ("Lost At Sea" by Jon Ronson)

Ten years ago this December, a book called Them found its way into American bookstores. Written by a then unknown (to Americans) British journalist named Jon Ronson, Them introduced readers to what the author himself called "extremists"--a collection of men and women who saw the world around them in strange, different, hateful, and downright conspiratorial ways. There were those who believed the world was run by secret lizard-people who have served in the highest of public offices; a man who tries to reform a racist hate-group by making them, in the age of public relations, more appealing; a seemingly unstable Hollywood director who lobbies for creative control by bringing religious leaders to a production meeting; and so on. What made this collection of stories so unique was that, unlike other investigative journalists, Ronson never sought out his subjects to belittle or confront them, though more often than not he's forced into thost situations, sometimes through basic questions; instead, Ronson sought out and followed them in order to better understand them. Because, unlike most of society, Ronson doesn't consider these people to be the outliers that the title of the book suggests: he knows that, rather than being simply "them"--the fringe humans who we feel comfortable rolling our eyes, whose beliefs and behavior we excuse with derision and detachment--they're simply extreme versions of "us," and by trying to understand them, we can better understand ourselves.
Them was following in no short time by The Men Who Stare at Goats--the first of Ronson's books I ever read, and in my opinion still his best--two books on "everyday craziness" that are culled from his print articles, and The Psychopath Test, a look at the prevalence of psychopaths and sociopaths in everyday society, how we identify them, how we have failed to address their presence, and what that means for the non-psychopathic populace. (Spoiler: prisons don't help.) Lost At Sea, published late this year, is the most recent addition to Ronson's works...and where his past books were long-chaptered investigations of "thems," Lost At Sea is a collection of short-chaptered mysteries ranging from unusual murders and TV psychics to new-age hypnotists, faith-healers, cruise workers, and one assisted-suicide advocate who may find a little too much pleasure in the easing of others' pain. Them "thems" are still here, but now the boundaries between what constitutes "them" and "us" are increasingly blurred, and the effect is frequently--and perhaps purposely--unsettling.
In short, Lost At Sea still retains all the traits that make Ronson's writing so enjoyable. He approaches each subject with a mixture of curiosity, apprehension, and empathy--a need to understand tempered by a journalist's reason and a layman's sarcastic common sense--and often finds himself identifying with their struggles, as is the case with a group of Jesus Christians who look to better the world by abandoning material possessions and donating their kidneys to strangers; Ronson never once dismissed their charitable nature--giving an organ to a stranger is, after all, the height of Christian charity--but also finds himself put off by the leader's instability. (You almost wonder, in reading how Ronson is treated by the man, if the leader of the Jesus Christians thinks of himself as a Christ figure destined to be forever martyred.) At the end of the day, Ronson doesn't elevate any of his subjects to the status of outsiders who should be more mainstream, or to that of someone who is persecuted for no clear reason; every person he encounters has essentially, and often self-righteously, made themselves out to be unassuming victims, even as they continue to dig themselves deeper and deeper. (The clearest example of this is psychic Sylvia Browne, who comes off as so brash to cruise-ship attendees that she pushes away even the most willing followers. Ronson seems to see her as a hack cold-reader who is, above all else, just damn exhausted.)
The only disappointing aspect of Ronson's new book is its lack of depth. Yes, the book as a whole covers such a breadth of people and experiences that Ronson seems to be constantly crossing the oceans, meeting up in obscure locations, and going off on week-long excursions with the strange and gullible. (More than once I wondered if Ronson, who talks openly about his own home life, ever has time to be with his family...or if he's constantly off on some sort of investigation.) But the chapters are shorter than usual, and they're over before they should rightfully be. Each of his chapters could very well be their own short book of sorts, and some really should. But in trying to cover so much--to investigate the "them" and, in the process, teach the "us"--he doesn't give us enough to really understand anything. I've always loved Jon Ronson's books for their adventurous tangents--he's investigating one thing, then a tip or recommendation sends him off somewhere completely different, but always to the benefit of his research--but by tossing out those tangents in favor of short-form pieces, which read like half-finished articles at times, he makes himself as a writer seem posivitely...dare I say it?...normal.