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.