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posted: 1/26/2013 7:37 AM

'Oddly Normal' tells of family trying to help struggling son

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  • "Oddly Normal" by John Schwartz (Gotham Books, 2012) $26, 290 pages

      "Oddly Normal" by John Schwartz (Gotham Books, 2012) $26, 290 pages

 
By Terri Schlichenmeyer

When you were born, your parents counted your fingers and toes.

They lovingly stroked your baby-soft skin, checked to make sure all parts were present and accounted for, then they looked into your face and wondered what might become of you someday.

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They never asked for a refund because of your hair (or lack thereof). They didn't try to exchange you because of your nose. They never wanted to swap with another parent because of your eye color because, as you'll see in the new memoir "Oddly Normal" by John Schwartz, their real battles laid elsewhere.

In retrospect, John Schwartz realized that there was plenty of warning before his son, Joe, overdosed on pills.

Joe was born in early 1996 and became a smiley child with a flair for drama and a love of feather boas, fabulous fashion dolls and "shiny baubles." At age 3, he asked to dress as a disco "yady" for Halloween, and the Schwartzes began to wonder if their toddler was gay.

If he was, John and Jeanne Schwartz wouldn't have loved Joe any less. They had grown up with gay friends and relatives in Texas, and they had seen a lot of anti-gay behavior, too. They felt equipped to help steer their son through life if, indeed, he had been born with his "sexual identity in place from the get-go."

When it came time to enter school, Joe went happily. He'd been assigned a teacher who was excited to have in her class an extremely bright kid with an incredible vocabulary, intense curiosity and a voracious reading habit.

Sensing that the dolls were no longer appropriate, Joe's parents put them away.

"We had built his first closet," Schwartz says.

But as his school career progressed, Joe began feeling isolated. His problems worsened through each progressive grade, and his often-explosive anger wasn't just directed at peers, but at teachers, too. The Schwartzes reached out to Joe's "League of Gay Uncles" to try to understand what was happening. He hadn't come out to his parents yet, but there were "Big Honking Clues" and the Schwartzes were encouraged to let Joe have "his moment" without being pushed.

And then, at age 13, Joe Schwartz overdosed.

I liked "Oddly Normal," but ...

On one hand, author John Schwartz gives readers a sense of what it's like to raise a child who wrestles with internal issues that aren't accepted by the external world. It's alarming to see the misconceptions, miscommunications and roadblocks that the Schwartzes endured, and it's reassuring to know that we're more enlightened these days.

But what bothered me was that parts of this book felt repetitive. Schwartz gives us an expansive timeline that often seemed too expansive. That caused me to lose interest now and then, since it chipped at an otherwise lively memoir.

Still, I think this story has merit, if nothing else but for its solidarity for worried parents. If you're helping a child or teen who's struggling -- especially with being gay -- then "Oddly Normal" is a book to get your hands on.

• Terri Schlichenmeyer, aka The Bookworm, has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.

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