April 17, 2013 News » Cover Story

John Schwartz' new Normal: A New York Times reporter says sometimes, no diagnosis is the right diagnosis 

"It's a time of rapid legal change ... but it does not mean universal acceptance. At all."

One week's gone by since the U.S. Supreme Court heard challenges to both the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8, and John Schwartz is more than willing to get "hyper-technical" discussing what the justices might decide. It's a topic the New York Times national correspondent is familiar with, much due to research for his November 2012 release, Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality. And it's a topic likely to come up during his visit to Colorado College on Tuesday, April 23, for a presentation and reading from the book.

That said, Schwartz also admits to being a bit blown away by everything that's happened legally in regard to LGBTQ rights just since the memoir was published.

"Remember," he says, "1973, the [American Psychiatric Association] stopped calling homosexuality a disease."

The 56-year-old father of three knows, however, there's still much work to be done.

"The acceptance of gay marriage, same-sex marriage, has risen tremendously but it's still, in the overall population, still not overwhelming support, right? It's just markedly higher support among young people, among Democrats. ...

"And so the trend over time is for greater support. It's a time of rapid legal change ... but it does not mean universal acceptance. At all. And I think activists get confused on that score. They see how far they've come and sometimes get a little blinded about the general consensus and how far they've got to go."

Getting schooled

The public school system provides a case in point. Schwartz delves deeply with Oddly Normal into the challenges he and his wife Jeanne faced when working with school administrators, teachers and counselors, and their son Joseph, from elementary school to today, as the 17-year-old navigates his junior year in high school.

"I think that schools worry way too much about what other parents are going to say in trying to set policy. This was our problem, when we kept saying, 'You really need a [Gay-Straight Alliance] in your middle school. You just need to help let these kids know they're accepted.' And we always heard, 'Well, you know, the parents. Oh ... the parents.' And they'd trail off and I'd say, 'What about the parents? Have you asked any parents? Or are you just scared of your own shadow?'"

He notes that school employees often don't get training in these areas, and that many are feeling their way through issues as they arise. But just as schools can lead in the fight against bullying, Schwartz says, "they can lead in acceptance. Not tolerance — tolerance is a pretty crappy word — but to embrace the people around us who are different."

Schwartz emphasizes that while his book follows Joseph's coming out and his attempted suicide, it's more broadly about how parents can advocate for their children, especially kids who are different. As he explains in his book, as a young child, Joseph was always a little "squirrely." ("He still is! And I like that about him!" Schwartz exclaims.)

In first grade, Joseph and his teacher were often at odds, and she began to come to John and Jeanne with a "diagnosis-of-the-week." When Joseph bored of her class and disappeared to read a book, she thought it indicated mental detachment. When he would sit too close to the girls and play with their hair, she suggested inappropriate boundaries. When he would rage at her because she wouldn't let him remove his coat and carry it when he was hot, she thought maybe it was attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And since Joseph wouldn't look her in the eye, perhaps he should be checked for a condition on the autism spectrum.

"Schools, teachers and administrators, they have to deal with hundreds of kids, they're overworked, and simple solutions to their problems would be very welcome," Schwartz says. "And a diagnosis, a label, maybe even a drug, it sounds like a path to a simple solution to many of them. ... And so it's a very natural impulse to take a kid like Joe, who was a mess in elementary school, and to put him in one of those boxes."

New landscape

As Joseph continued through the grades, he succeeded at certain activities, but struggled with others. In fourth grade, the school sent him for a battery of tests, none of which identified any specific diagnosis. There were, however, signs of mental distress, which would lead to Joseph's first Individual Education Plan, a contract between the family and the school.

By then, with an IEP to back them up, Schwartz and his wife were learning to be more confident in speaking out for their son. They were also confident that Joseph was gay, and they wondered how this might be affecting his behavior at school. As Schwartz writes in Oddly Normal, "We didn't know whether or not Joseph was mentally ill and gay, or possibly mentally ill in part because he was gay."

As a 13-year-old, Joe ended sixth grade by coming out to his parents, which went well, and at school, which did not. That afternoon Jeanne came home to find Joseph in a daze in the bathroom, surrounded by empty pill containers.

It was a long recovery. But once the family could openly discuss his sexuality, Joseph could begin to flourish. (See "Purple at heart.")

He still is too shy to look most people directly in the eye when he first meets them, Schwartz says, but he's clear that Joe's "odd behaviors lessened tremendously once he was past the strain of being a closeted teenager. You have to see all that to think maybe the attempts at diagnosis, whatever the intention, were more restrictive than helpful."

Schwartz mentions Andrew Solomon's new book, Far From the Tree, a 700-page tome that he describes as telling the stories of parents who get a child they do not expect and are suddenly taken to an unfamiliar place. "Deafness. Homosexuality. Physical disability. It's up to them to be parents in a new landscape with a child that's both part of their world and this other world."

"In dealing with this unexpected landscape," Schwartz adds, "it's still just parenting. It's different. It's harder in some ways, but it's still the same job. ... It's not like somebody hands you an instruction manual. It's finding your own way with this stuff."



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