What “It Gets Better” has done to help LGBTQ youth, author John Schwartz is looking to do for parents of those same kids with Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality, one of the featured books at this year’s Vancouver Jewish Book Festival.
“Dan Savage has done miracles through the It Gets Better Project, but my wife and I felt no one was telling parents that,” explains Schwartz. “For my wife and me [writing the book] was about telling a parent of any kid who is different, and who is miserable about being different, that we can embrace, support and help them to be happy with themselves.”
Embracing and supporting their own gay son came through a near tragic 2009 suicide attempt by their then 13 year old son Joseph and with it a need to understand and heal. As a reporter for the New York Times, Schwartz turned to the best way he knew how.
“Writing the book helped make everything gel for us,” says Schwartz. “Everything we had been through was still very raw: the problems that Joe had in elementary and middle school, the incidences of bullying, not fitting in, but then also the upswing as things got better, as he started to find himself and feel more comfortable about who he was.”
Recognizing these incidents for what they might mean, Schwartz and his wife had a suspicion that their son was gay at an early age, but it was Joe’s reticence to talk about it, coupled with advice from friends, that stopped them from fully addressing it at the time.
“Joe from the age of ten on would tell us he had a secret, but he said he couldn’t talk about it. So for us we were trying to figure out how to best approach him. I went to friends that were gay and asked them what they would do.”
Enlisting the help with what Schwartz calls the “league of gay uncles”, the advice he and his wife received was to let Joe come out on his own terms. “They said that unless he appears to be really suffering, this was his secret that he would reveal in his own way and on his clock. They said not to rob him of that moment.”
Along with heeding that advice, Schwartz and his wife also took to heart Dr Benjamin Spock’s advice to trust in their ability to deal with issues as parents, something he says other parents should take note.
“The main thing I would tell parents is trust yourself,” says Schwartz. “You know more than you think you do. This child is the same child who was your baby, the same child before coming out and the same child after coming out. It is up to you as parent to be a parent; supporting, loving and do what you can do to help that child be happy.”
No doubt a cathartic retelling of a difficult time, Schwartz puts the book and this immensely personal period in his family’s life into surprisingly simple perspective.
“The point of the book is not that we had this terrible experience when he was 13, but that we still have him at 18 and he is out and a happier person and we’re a happier family.”
An excerpt from John Schwartz’s Oddly Normal One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality:
“You have to come home,” Jeanne said on the phone. Her voice was urgent, shaking. “Joe has taken a lot of pills.”
Jeanne, my wife, had stepped into the house that late-spring afternoon to find our son Joseph stumbling around the bathroom in a daze. The room was scattered with pill bottles and bubble packs.
Joseph, then thirteen, is our youngest child, the last one still at home.
He had tried to take his own life.
We didn’t know why he had done it; we didn’t know whether the dozens of pills he had taken could cause a lethal overdose. We didn’t know anything but our anguish.
Jeanne and I quickly talked out what needed to happen next. She had called the poison control center about the kinds of pills he had taken, and was told to get to a hospital right away. We decided not to wait for me to get home; she would drive Joseph to a nearby emergency room, taking the empty pill bottles with her. I would meet them there as soon as I could get across the Hudson River from my job in Manhattan.
In that instant, the story I had been struggling to finish—so important! The Second Amendment in the appellate courts!—meant nothing. I walked over to my editor to tell him about Joe. “Go,” he said.
It’s not easy to dash from New York City to New Jersey without a jetpack. Taxis were out. It wasn’t the money that made me dismiss that option, though the trip would have cost more than my shoes. It was the beginning of the evening rush hour and the streets were jammed. I remembered the agony I had felt twenty-one years before, when I’d tried to cab over to Mount Sinai Hospital while Jeanne was giving birth to our first child. She had gone to the doctor’s office for a routine appointment, the first one I’d missed. Of course, it turned out to be the big one: the doctor found a problem with the baby’s heartbeat and decided to send Jeanne directly to the hospital. The doctor called to tell me to head over to Mount Sinai, adding in her calming voice that there was time to pick up our things from home. Once Jeanne got to the hospital, however, things had moved quickly, and the medical team scrambled to conduct an emergency caesarean section. Where was I during Jeanne’s crisis? Stuck in traffic. It’s the kind of experience that stays with you.
So: mass transit.
As my train rumbled out of Pennsylvania Station, under the Hudson River, and west across the Garden State, I thought about how much stress Joseph had been under lately, and how he had told me that he was occasionally seized with dark thoughts. He’d put it this way on a walk we had taken a few weeks before: “I am my subconscious’s bitch.” I’d asked if he wanted to see a therapist, but he’d said he didn’t—that he’d be okay. Now, two weeks later, he was on his way to an emergency room.
What we didn’t know was that Joseph had recently been dropping hints, gradually letting kids at school know that he is gay. And somehow, that day things had come to a head.
He had only let us in on his secret a week or two before, and it was welcome news. Frankly, we’d been waiting for what seemed like forever for him to work up the courage to tell us what we already knew. Coming out to us went well, but his second act, at school, had gone very badly. Then Joe had come home to an empty house. Jeanne, who works part-time as a crossing guard for our little suburban town, was working half a block away at the top of our street. Joe had gotten off the bus and passed her without a word; Jeanne saw that he looked upset but couldn’t get home for another hour and a half. By then, he had gathered up the pills, stepped into the bathroom, and taken them, changing all of our lives.
This all happened a year before the nation would hear about a Rutgers University freshman named Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly captured video of his encounter with another man. It was before the columnist and author Dan Savage kicked off a series of uplifting “It gets better” videos that encourage gay and lesbian kids to keep it together through their teen years, with a promise that life improves.
We didn’t know enough about the research suggesting that LGBT youth are far more likely than straight kids to experience harassment, feel unsafe in academic settings, drop out of school, and more. It would be a year before a United States government report, “Healthy People 2010,” would state that “gay male adolescents are two to three times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. Back in 2009, all we knew was that we had one very unhappy son.
After a couple of weeks in the hospital and then in the locked ward of a psychiatric treatment center, Joseph would come home to us. In the time since then, we’ve learned a lot about helping our boy become comfortable in his own skin; more important, Joe has learned a lot about it, too. The process has involved a lot of love, a lot of talking, and a few sessions with a hair colorist in the East Village.
Jeanne and I are telling you about our bumpy ride in hopes that it will help other parents of gay kids—and maybe, parents of any kid who is different, who is mistreated by others, or who just may not accept himself—to know that they can find their own way to help a developing child handle the pain that can come from not fitting in. To help us all to relearn the most important parenting advice ever written, by Dr. Benjamin Spock: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think.”
To let parents know that it gets better for them, too.
Besides, somebody’s gotta pay for the hair dye.
Author John Schwarz appears at the 2013 Vancouver Jewish Book Festival on Sunday, November 24, 2013. Tickets are available online.
Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality is available through Amazon.