By Jennie Szink, Special To The Observer
All parents ask themselves if they’re doing their job right, but not all have had to examine their parenting skills under the white light of a hospital room. That’s where John Schwartz and his wife, Jeanne Mixon, found themselves when they rushed to their son Joe’s side after his suicide attempt.
Joe struggled with his peers’ reaction when he came out of the closet. His parents didn’t know how much he struggled until he attempted to carry out his plan with Benadryl pills and a paring knife.
Schwartz and Mixon questioned what they could have done differently. Schwartz continued to analyze this in the years that followed. He shares his and his wife’s conclusions — along with their absence of conclusions — in his book, Oddly Normal.
Oddly Normal examines the role Joe’s sexuality played in the path leading up to his suicide attempt, as well as his family’s role. Schwartz, a columnist for The New York Times, wanted to share this personal story not in a self-help book type of way, but to comfort parents who don’t always feel perfect.
“This book is full of mistakes we (my wife and I) made, and things we just didn’t understand,” Schwartz said. “This story is meant for parents of any kid who’s different, who might feel like an outsider.”
Schwartz said he wrote Oddly Normal candidly to create a discussion about how to raise gay children, and to teach children to be accepting. He’ll continue the discussion as part of the DJCC’s Cultural Arts & Book Festival on Oct. 29.
He said he accepts the times he and his wife could have done things differently, and recognizes when situations were out of their control.
He likens the book’s message to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, a series of videos aimed toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths. The videos are filmed by supporters across the world who want to communicate that despite what adolescents go through today, there are better days in the future.
“No one’s standing on the sidelines telling us that message,” Schwartz said. “That you can come out better on the other side, in fact, you can come out great.”
Schwartz knows firsthand what it feels like when situations appear as if they will never get better.
Joe’s sexuality played a large part in why he didn’t feel he fit in as a child, which was part of the reason he had uncontrollable outbursts in school and at home.
“Writing this book has helped us give Joe perspective on why he may have acted the way he did as a kid,” Schwartz said. “If you’d asked him before how he was when he was younger, he would have told you, ‘I was terrible.’ He didn’t understand the pressures and roles he felt as a closeted elementary schooler.”
Schwartz stressed that the book is not a step-by-step guide to raising a gay child, but it is something that’s meant to let other parents know they’re not alone.
He includes background research and studies that may help parents have a better understanding of their child. Input from Schwartz’s gay friends, the League of Gay Uncles, also provides helpful information for parents wondering how to guide their child through coming out of the closet or exploring their newfound sexuality.
Schwartz said that although writing some parts of the book reminded him of times Joe was met with ignorance, other sections reminded him of strides people have made toward acceptance, such as the jock who stuck up for Joe when two of his peers made fun of his dyed hair. Or when Schwartz hears more and more people who practice religion say, “That’s just the way God made him.”
“My goal for the future,” Schwartz added, “is that I want to get Joe off to college and watch him find himself. To see your kids grow into what they want to be, that’s the biggest thrill I know as a parent.”
DJCC’s Cultural Arts & Book Festival presents author John Schwartz on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville. Event partners are GLSEN, PFLAG, Harmony Creek Church and Greater Dayton LGBT Center. Tickets are $5 in advance, $8 at the door. R.S.V.P. to Karen Steiger at 853-0372 or go to www.jewishdayton.org.