My children are toddlers. So when I picked up John Schwartz's memoir about his family's struggle to help their son come to terms with his sexuality, I believed it would be a good decade before I needed to think about such issues. Then I read chapter one. Apparently, little Joe Schwartz showed signs of being gay as a pre-schooler. While the author emphasises that this is rare, the Schwartzes' instincts turned out to be right.
The book opens with a powerful call to action as Schwartz, a national correspondent for The New York Times, is informed that 13-year-old Joe had just attempted suicide. The Schwartzes are a liberal family who were not distressed by their child being gay. Yet young Joe faced enough challenges in the outside world to make him suicidal.
Schwartz perused a great deal of research on the subject of homosexuality and gay rights in the US. While this book ostensibly deals with parenting a child who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, its larger theme is how to support a child who is different in any way.
Joe's struggle with his sexuality manifested itself in difficulties at school. The modern rush to diagnose children with certain behaviour traits, such as suffering from a syndrome (autism, Aspergers, ADHD, and so on) and to medicate that, also comes up as Joe's school tries to label him.
The Schwartzes resisted these diagnoses, suspecting that their child's real issues lay elsewhere. They were proved right when his problems resolved themselves once Joe found his place in the social circuit of high school. While acknowledging the usefulness of diagnoses for some children, and not shying away from seeking help for their own child, the Schwartzes' experience sheds light on the modern tendency to attach a syndrome to everything.
There are also lessons to be learned on how to advocate for your child within the school system. Even as parents today are criticised for being too hard-nosed and pushy, this family's experience speaks to the importance of being in charge of your child's future, listening to your instincts and providing a supportive family environment. Luckily, all's well that ends well in this case, and despite the struggles, it is an uplifting read.
Verdict: this book provides useful insights on the potential challenges of raising a child in a changing world.
Oddly Normal by John Schwartz, Gotham Books, HK$208, paddyfield.com