Ed Ward (captward) Tue 26 Feb 13 12:59
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 27 Feb 13 12:29
Inkwell welcomes long-time Well denizen John Schwartz, whose account of his teenage son's coming out, Oddly Normal, is the subject of this discussion. About himself, John writes: "John Schwartz is a national correspondent with for The New York Times, where he has covered law, science, technology, business, and a broad range of other topics. His writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Texas Monthly, and other publications. John was born in Galveston, Texas and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he got a liberal arts degree and a wife, Jeanne Mixon. He went on to complete law school, for lack of a plan, and worked at Newsweek and The Washington Post before coming to the Times. John and Jeanne have three kids, Elizabeth, Sam, and Joseph. They live in New Jersey with two difficult cats."
Ed Ward (captward) Tue 5 Mar 13 19:18
Brady Lea says: "Brady Lea is a performer, playwright, theatre arts educator and one of the new owners of The Well. She is currently a resident playwright at PlayGround (http://playground-sf.org/) where she has just completed her new play, SNAKEHEAD. She's also an artist-in-residence in the theatre department at The Ruth Asawa San Francisco School Of The Arts, a public arts high school, where she teaches improvisation and clowning to grades nine through twelve." Good to have you on board. Have a great talk.
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Wed 6 Mar 13 17:09
Thanks, guys! Ready to start the conversation here--
Brady Lea (brady) Thu 7 Mar 13 00:25
Thanks, Ed. Hi, John. First of all, let me say that I first read this book a few months ago, and tore through it in about a day. Second of all, let me apologize for the minor delay in getting this discussion going. I brought the book with me to reread during a free period at school this week, and one of my students picked it up and started reading it, and I realized I didn't have my copy and had to go back on an off day to wrestle it out of my classroom. The book, an intensely personal family memoir by John about his son Joe and their whole family also weaves John's great reporting in as he includes research and information on changing attitudes about sexuality, navigating the education system with kids who may learn differently and how to support kids who might have trouble fitting in for a variety of reasons. We learn right away that Joe attempted suicide at age 13 while in the process of coming out as gay. John, you say up front that you were not writing a self-help book. So when you decided to tell the story of Joe and your family in a book, did you have the goal of coming up with this blend of memoir and reporting? Or did you start from an urge to tell your own story and find that relating the bigger picture fell naturally in with your personal sample?
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Thu 7 Mar 13 18:06
Brady, I knew from the start that our family's story is only that: one family's story. Without more context it wouldn't have been much more than a really bad Christmas letter. But the contextual reporting alone would end up being a book that was a little dry. So I did plan from the start to blend the two, with alternating chapters (for the most part) of memoir and reporting. This is the second time I've tried this Reese's Peanut-Butter Cup approach to writing. The first was "Short: Walking Tall When You're Not Tall at All," a science book about height for kids. Putting the book together this way felt pretty natural to me.
Brady Lea (brady) Fri 8 Mar 13 12:00
Cool. It seems like a great format for drawing readers with various backgrounds. (I remember buying a copy of Moneyball, which was classed as Non-Fiction Sports and Business, and thinking, I would never have gone to either of those sections in a bookstore to look for a book to read just for the hell of reading it. Add rueful laugh about "sections" in a "bookstore" here.) I work in a public arts-based High School in San Francisco, and so when I compare it to my own high school experience regarding LGBT kids (rural Pennsylvania in the 80s) it's like night and day-- not that there was specific and visible bullying, it was just that it just didn't really come up. Plus the age-old insult of "Gay" was (and still is) hurled around. But put San Francisco together with an arts-based school that kids audition into with the support of their parents, and you've got a pretty accepting environment. In the book, Joe comes to find support and a community-home in a community center for queer youth in New York. I think-- well, we are all lucky to have a much greater sense of awareness of the challenges faced by LGBT youth these days, and also access to services. But, we're not all in NY and SF. Do you (and Joseph if he has thoughts) have thoughts or hopes for those who are in other regions? I feel like we see stories of bullying or discrimination against LGBT youth go viral ("Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend To Prom!") and the waves of support from far away seem uplifting, but in a lot of places, we're still fighting this fight, and the support your family worked so hard to get for your son isn't always available.
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Sat 9 Mar 13 14:46
It's fascinating--while I've raved about how great the resources at the NYC Gay Center are, people tell me about their local services around the country and they sound fantastic as well. There's a program in Austin that seems to have a camp similar to the one that the Center's Youth Enrichment Services, and I've heard about others. So I encourage parents to look for these programs. At the same time, the country isn't homogenous, and there are still plenty of places where an LGBT kid could well feel under pressure, and where the environment isn't supportive at all. Folks at PFLAG -- the fantastic national organization for parents and families of LGBT kids -- talk about coming out in a small way, to your closest friends, instead of making a big announcement that might bring taunts and trouble. The country is changing, and acceptance is growing. But that doesn't help the kids in a more difficult environment. To those kids, I say: college will be AMAZING. If you want to read more of Joseph's thoughts about growing up gay, Alic e Dreger interviewed him for The Atlantic online: <http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/growing-up-gay- in-2013/267455/>
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Sun 10 Mar 13 16:24
... anybody there?
Julie Rehmeyer (jrehmeyer) Mon 11 Mar 13 08:43
Just bought the book on Kindle, so hopefully I'll be able to join in soon.
Scott Underwood (esau) Mon 11 Mar 13 09:02
John, I wanted to thank you for writing such a fantastic book, and I want to thank Joseph for letting it be written -- as well as your wife Jeanne, who clearly deserves praise as well. Though I experienced nothing nearly so dramatic with my own sons (now in college), there's a lot in this book that would have been valuable, and is valuable for all parents -- so much so that it's a shame that many parents will likely skip it because they don't (or won't) see their child becoming gay. But beyond that central event, you provide enlightening stories on issues of spectrum disorder, social behavior, learning difficulties, the mechanisms of school advocacy and counseling, and many other issues that make childhood such a struggle.
behind on BADGES! (obizuth) Mon 11 Mar 13 15:40
i loved teh book too. and had two copies UNTIMELY RIPPED from me: one by my editor at Tablet and one by the principal of josie's middle school. everyone who hears about it or sees the cover wants to read it. semi-aside: i just finished emily bazelon's sticks and stones, which is a TERRIFIC book about bullying. i've been writing a bit around the subject (reviewing teh movie Bully, which i hated with a white-hot passion, and teh book Wonder, which has a lot to do with popularity and also with adults behavior around kids) but this is better than anything i could do: it condenses a ton of research in a really readable way and has three main narratives (a flamboyant gay 8th grader in rural NY state, a quiet and passive black girl in small town CT and one of the girls who was accused of bullying phoebe price, the irish girl in s hadley MA, to death) and some other anecdotes. her descriptions of how you build a school that doesn't tolerate bullying made me think of how changing the climate of the schools joe went to would have made his life a lot easier. but i also like that her book talks about how it's rarely so simple as bully-victim -- i could see someone writing a WRONG narrative about joe taking all those pills b/c he was bullied for being gay but that's not what happened. um, that was not a question.
Brady Lea (brady) Mon 11 Mar 13 17:54
I agree with Scott about the book (and your family's story) having a lot to say about/to kids who aren't gay. Throw in some learning differences and some personality quirks and a lot of us have been there as a frustrated or alienated student or a parent. Some of the most difficult parts for me were the troubles with let's say, problematic, teachers in elementary school. (Fourth grade, I think?) The teacher who did way worse than ignoring peer-bullying by picking out kids to scapegoat was painful to read about. Yet-- in this era of helicopter parents (I mean-- this era of that being a term that gets mocked or criticized and sometimes rightly so) it seems like such a delicate balance to advocate for a kid, or take things up the chain. How do you figure out when to act? How far to go?
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Mon 11 Mar 13 18:51
I enjoyed Oddly Normal, and immediately recommended it to my sister because my nephew is having a really hard time in school right now. She loved it too. It does seem like a very delicate balance, between the need to protect vulnerable kids from bullies and the need to develop a thick enough skin to deal with the various people you are just plain stuck with in the rest of your life. I've often thought that some kind of dorm or barracks experience ought to be universal, because it helps you not only to deal with the people you're stuck with, but to realize (if you have any sensibility at all) that you're not always a peach to be around either. And we're back to the delicate balance.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 11 Mar 13 21:48
If off-Well readers want to join in this conversation -- and it's hard to imagine that they wouldn't -- you can send your question or comment to inkwell [at] well [dot] com and we'll put it up for everyone to read and comment on. And now back to our regularly scheduled broadcast.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Tue 12 Mar 13 09:51
John-- sounds like a wonderful book, and I'm going to have to find it my local store. I'm interested in how you felt, becoming part of your story in a way that you are usually not as a journalist. In writing the book, did you feel moments of panic in sharing your family's story, either that it would be too personal or that nobody would want to hear it?
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Tue 12 Mar 13 10:09
Hi, guys! I absolutely agree that the Bazelon book is great, and even got to write a review: <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/11/books/sticks-and-stones-by-emily- bazelon.html>
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Tue 12 Mar 13 10:11
as for "moments of panic," I'd have to say no. I've written plenty of first-person pieces at the Times, and at the Washington Post before that. This was different, deeper, riskier -- but the sense of what I was doing was familiar, and the safeguards I've always used when writing about my kids, including a lot of consultation and setting of boundaries, worked well here.
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Tue 12 Mar 13 10:12
and thanks to all of you for spreading the word about the book!
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Tue 12 Mar 13 11:25
cb from Missouri writes I have always resisted medicalizing my son, who exhibits classic signs of what we now call Asperger's Syndrome. I have come to think of the label Asperger's as a way for neurotypical people to understand geeks. I was so heartened to read Oddly Normal and hear some of my feelings about diagnosis reflected. For every doctor you see you stand the good chance of getting yet another diagnosis, medicalizing my son's way of being, to say nothing of the drugs they are so keen to prescribe. My son does have a gross motor disability. Getting him an IEP has been traumatic and difficult. I have been ambushed at meetings by professional educators who denied him services that we all knew he needed. The boy cannot write a legible sentence with a pen or pencil, but can draw. We all knew he needed occupational therapy, the school has an occupational therapist, and I was told they did not need to offer him these services, as the diagnosis of "Educational Asperger's" which they had tagged him with did not require occupational therapy. The absurdity of the situation, 6 education professionals sitting around a table facing me and telling me he did not qualify for the services we all knew he needed, well, it undid me. Beating one's head against the proverbial wall of educational beaurocrats, is there anything worse? I've been beating my head against that wall for 7 years. When I began the whole process of getting an IEP for my son I was repeatedly told that he just needed to work harder (translate: Lazy Boy), and that there was nothing wrong with him. Around this same time I happened upon a book called The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal (http://www.jonathanmooney.com/). Reading about other parent's struggles radicalized me and gave me the courage to stand up to the school beaurocracy nonsense. I ended up taking my son out of that first school, and moved him into one that was helpful and supportive, where they had many ideas of how to help my son excel in school. Reading Oddly Normal was terribly reassuring as well. Hearing some of my own struggles reflected in it, my own ideas reflected in it, has been very affirming. I knew it was not just me struggling with these issues, and it was nice to be reminded of it.
behind on BADGES! (obizuth) Tue 12 Mar 13 14:18
john, so funny -- i missed your review of Sticks and Stones! you are the perfect reviewer. i never read perri klass's book Quirky Kids, but i like the IDEA of calling kids quirky. do you? my daughter maxine has an IEP, but i have a hard time saying what her issues are, because i can't REMEMBER. she has motor issues, and social mishegas, and sensory stuff, and uhhh I FORGET ALL THE WORDS ON THAT DOCUMENT! yetshe needs the IEP to get services which clearly help her. do you have issues or ambivalence about the labeling, or think that too much quirk is medicalized?
Julie Rehmeyer (jrehmeyer) Tue 12 Mar 13 15:36
>the safeguards I've always used when writing about my kids, including a lot of consultation and setting of boundaries, worked well here. I'd be very interested to hear more about that. What kinds of boundaries did you set? Did Joseph read over everything, and if so, at what stage?
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Wed 13 Mar 13 16:07
<cb>, thanks for your comments -- yet, navigating the IEP process can be agonizing, irritating and you can end up with more than you want or less than you ask for. Case in point: for all our reluctance to label Jospeph with a diagnosis that doesn't seem to fit, the school's consulting psychiatrist declared at the end of last year that if he was going to get a behavioral accomodation, he'd have to say he has Asperger's. I started to re-enter the old argument, but simply asked if he knew that the diagnosis was on its way to being eliminated in the DSM-V. "I know!" he said. "Do they see any actual patients? It's incredible!" Once he'd completed his report, I asked the school counselor whether this diagnosis would have any effect on Joe's class selection or treatment, aside from the little-used accomodation that allows him to leave the room if he gets really upset. (He tried to use that once, a year ago.) Counselor said no; we said "Call him whatever you want. We're done." It's like hacing to live your life in code.
not Well-kinky, but normal-person kinky. (jswatz) Wed 13 Mar 13 16:14
<obizuth> I hope I just answered your question, too. Early on the labels terrified us, and were pretty clearly being used to shunt Joe onto a side track. By high school, they know that he's making a's and b's and the label seems to matter much less, and we're able to use it to get the school to cut him some slack. But Joe knows that whatever it is that he refers to as his "minor neurological deficit," Aspergers doesn't really cover it. and <jrehmeyer>, I sat with Joe while he read the entire manuscript from start to finish on the day that the first draft was done. Over the next couple of days, we discussed his complaints and worked out fixes together. Some of those fixes really improved the book. As for other boundaries, Jeanne and I just used common sense about talking about things that we felt would completely mortify Joseph, and which would not enrich anyone's understanding of Joe. oh--and I'm glad you liked the review, <obizuth!>
Brady Lea (brady) Wed 13 Mar 13 17:06
You mention your first son being "all boy" and talk about offering your daughter dolls and trucks and a mix of not necessarily gender-specific or gender-marketed toys and she goes for the dolls. Then Joseph comes along and shows an interest in dolls. I wonder, as we look to the future and try to face all the cultural cues, how do we deal with or rephrase the idea of "all boy." I mean, Jospeh is all boy, right? I guess I'm looking to opening up the definition of what is masculine or feminine. I don't know if that's clear as a question. I'm thinking back to a student I had a few years ago. He was out as gay by the time I met him as a freshmen, and also wore make-up daily and wore women's skinny jeans. (This is just as skinny jeans were becoming the jeans for all high school girls again.) I wouldn't say he was dressing as a woman, but he was pretty into his whole fashion thing. When he was a senior, I gave him some designy platform shoes because we wore the same size. I remember one day someone in his class was counting how many boys and how many girls were there that day, because we were dividing up into groups for some reason, and one boy counted the girls present, and then added one, putting this boy in the girl group. I was all, dude! ____ is as much a man as you are! Well, maybe I thought that and said something a little different. So-- I'm wondering where we file phrases like "all boy" and "they all go through their princess phrase" (John didn't say that, I'm paraphrasing things I've heard/read from people.) Is it an excuse, sometimes? (Those boys are destroying my kitchen!) Is it alienating to gay boys? (Obviously, I don't expect any answer to be on behalf of all gay boys. Just something I've been thinking about.)
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 13 Mar 13 18:30
That is an excellent question and I am looking forward to the answer. Meanwhile, I'm curious about what (if any) feedback/pushback you've had from Joseph's school. Do you see the book helping/forcing things a little farther down the path of change there?
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