'Oddly Normal,' by John Schwartz: A family's struggle to help their teen son come to terms with his sexuality

New York Times correspondent John Schwartz shares an excerpt from his book "Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality," which was released in a new paperback edition this week. The book is about his son Joe, who is shown in the snapshot above, outside the NYC LGBT Center.

"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.

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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.


This is an excerpt from the book "Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality," which was released in paperback this week. You can also purchase it as an e-book or hardcover. Photo of Joe outside the NYC LGBT Center courtesy of John Schwartz.



John Schwartz and his son Joe. Photo: Ethan Hill for The New York Times.


Published 10:42 am Fri, Sep 6, 2013

About the Author

John Schwartz is a national correspondent with the New York Times, where he has covered law, science, technology, business and a broad range of other topics. At the Times, he has written for nearly every section of the paper, and covered the first flights of SpaceShip One, used a jetpack, worn a Faraday cage suit and has written about space toilets. He has written profiles of John Scalzi and Bill Nye, "Kryptos" sculptor Jim Sanborn and Aaron Swartz. Before coming to the Times, he worked at the Washington Post and Newsweek; his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Wired, Texas Monthly and other publications. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas Law School. He currently lives in New Jersey with his college sweetheart, Jeanne Mixon. They have three children and two difficult cats.

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