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A Son Comes Out, and a Family Comes Together

John Schwartz charts his gay son's journey in memoir ‘Oddly Normal’
Kimberley Jones, 11:40am, Thu. Oct. 25, 2012
I am my subconscious's bitch. Those were the open-wound words 13-year-old Joseph Schwartz shared with his dad, New York Times science reporter John Schwartz, two weeks before his failed suicide attempt.

In his upcoming memoir, Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teen Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality (Gotham Books, Nov. 8), Schwartz, a University of Texas alum, recounts Joseph's painful ups-and-downs trying to feel at home in his skin as a not-yet-out gay teen. The book combines intimate stories of the Schwartz family's struggles and triumphs with hard reportage on related social and legal issues.

The Chronicle recently swapped e-mails with Schwartz in advance of his appearance this weekend at the Texas Book Festival.

Austin Chronicle: Your book is an interesting mix of personal memoir and news reportage. Was that always the plan, or did that approach develop organically as you began to write? Was it hard to strike a balance between the two?

John Schwartz: From the start, the book was supposed to blend memoir and reporting. Our family's story is the thread running through the book, but without context it's just us – it seemed to me that it wouldn't be much more than a kind of grueling Christmas letter. But our story touches on many issues that are worth exploring – changes in the legal landscape, changes in American culture, a series of shifts in the world of psychiatry, questions about bullying, teen suicide and the stress that many gay adolescents feel. A book that dealt with those issues alone might seem dry. So I took the peanut-butter cup approach, and hoped that the combination would work. 

Austin Chronicle: Again, you’re a reporter, and a father. Are there ways in which you feel like your experiences as a father – and specifically the father of a gay son who struggled with the coming out process – have made you a better reporter? 

John Schwartz: I hadn't thought about it that way, but I do think you're right. Life experience enriches reporting, and seeing what Joseph went through made me much more sensitive to the strain on many gay kids -- kids who feel as much pressure to conform as the others  at school, but who know that something makes them different. Not all gay kids struggle, of course, and many kids struggle who aren't gay. But it's up to parents and schools and other kids to look out for the ones who need help. It's made me a better reporter;  it's absolutely made me a better father.

Austin Chronicle: In a late chapter, you address the issue of bias. (I wanted to give you a standing ovation for flatly stating “I’m no believer in false balance.”) Still, as you were writing the book, were you or your colleagues at the Times concerned at all about blowback – that you would be accused of compromising your reporter’s objectivity?

John Schwartz: Before I signed the contract on the book, I sat down with my editors to talk about whether they thought that the book could raise credible charges of bias. We talked about the fact that I have covered many of the issues in the book as a science reporter and a legal reporter, and will probably continue to cover them. My bosses know what we've been through as a family, and they know what's in the book. They've been supportive.

Will there be blowback? Maybe. You can never tell these days, and you can't go far wrong expecting the worst. But I can't divorce myself from my life experiences, nor would I want to. I wouldn't want to read stories written by some reportorial veal calf, kept in a pen away from outside experience. The question is whether my experiences lead to bias in my work. As I say in Oddly Normal, "The work of a journalist is not to bleach his brain of opinions and life experiences, but to write fairly in light of all available information. And that is what I have always done. I’d be happy to compare my coverage to anyone else’s."

Austin Chronicle: While Oddly Normal is certainly about Joseph’s experiences, it’s filtered through your own experiences as a parent. Were you imagining other parents as your primary readership? I was struck by how effectively you chronicled you and your wife Jeanne’s steps toward advocacy, and how that might encourage other parents in the same situation. 

John Schwartz: Jeanne and I have talked about this book being a kind of "it gets better" video for parents – something that isn't a how-to guide, but which suggests that they can find their own path. I've been amazed by the response from others, as well, especially gay friends who have told me that the book reflects their own experiences growing up, and is very meaningful to them. So I don't really know who will make up the audience for the book, ultimately. I just hope its message gets out there.

Austin Chronicle: I was so taken with the Joseph that leaps off the page – whip-smart, witty, so moving in his struggle toward feeling at peace with himself and others. I’m curious if this project – your version, the parent’s version – has inspired him to want to tell his version?

John Schwartz: Joseph is happy that there's a book; he gave his approval to the project before I wrote up the initial proposal, and worked with Jeanne and me on the manuscript in various ways along the path to publication. He wrote a beautiful children's book that we incorporated as the last chapter. He hasn't shown an interest yet in writing his own version – but if he does, I'm sure it will be great. 


John Schwartz will speak at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2:45-3:30pm, Capitol Extension Room E2.028, in a talk moderated by University of Texas School of Journalism Director Glenn Frankel.

For more of the Chronicle's 2012 Texas Book Festival preview, see www.austinchronicle.com/texas-book-festival.

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