THE BLOG
11/03/2012 10:32 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2013

Assume a Virtue If You Have It Not

Oddly Normal book review: John Schwartz's painful and humorous account of raising his son who's different.

I have the same problem that Timothy Noah has reading self-help books. I can't read them. I want to, but whenever I do they leave me cold. Sometimes, I think it's my fault considering that maybe I don't understand what the author is saying. Other times, I worry the author thinks that I'm stupid. I start reading them, but never finish.

It's not that my personal life is perfect. Trust me, it's not, but I know what Noah believes, that advice is only valuable when it comes from personal experience. That includes therapy because the therapist, if he or she's any good, has as much of a stake in the outcome of the relationship as the client. That's why besides therapy I read memoirs to help solve my problems.

For instance, those of us who have children know that raising and educating them can be challenging, and family life doesn't always gel with school life. My wife and I have three children, and each of them is different, having strengths and weaknesses. It was easier to notice their strengths especially before they went to school because we searched for them, and pounced on them when we noticed them, and didn't fail to tell everybody we knew how great they were. It was harder to notice their weaknesses because we love them, and consider them part of ourselves. When they went to school, and had to get along with others, vying for their teachers' attention, their strengths became evident. However, their vulnerabilities were set in high relief against the backdrop of being in the larger group that was making demands on them that they weren't used to.

We were shocked. Oh, my goodness, what are we going to do, we said to ourselves. How are we going to sculpt these kids into well rounded individuals given their strengths and weaknesses? We thought they were perfect geniuses, only to realize that they weren't. At the same time, we were introduced to America's educational system. Its beauty was clear, we could leave our children in school trusting that they'd be okay, and do other things, like focus on working again, only to realize that they weren't. We suddenly had two problems that we never expected: how to turn our beloved babies into citizens, and how to partner with their schools to make that happen.

We stopped encouraging our children's strengths at the expense of their weaknesses and started deliberately using what they were good at to make up the difference. We also got to know them better as individuals, and had more responsible relationships with them based on continued unconditional love, but tempered with reality. School makes you take a good, hard look at yourself. Education is a bastion of socialization because it's in learning that you also have to get along with others. In school we try out the kinds of personal relationships we have at home with other people. That's why Oddly Normal by John Schwartz is such a great read, and a helpful book because it's a painful and humorous account of parenting, raising and educating a child, Joseph Schwartz, who's different. Joseph struggles with his sexual identity in a predominantly heterosexual world, the symptoms of some form of high functioning autism, and depression.
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We know, deep in our hearts, that we take ourselves too seriously, especially when it comes to our children. They're not the golden depositories of our glorious personages. We're ourselves and they're themselves. Isn't one of the primary goals of raising them, making them autonomous? However, where our children are concerned we often mistakenly think that we know best, and everybody else involved with them who don't agree with us are mistaken, which isn't an exercise in parenting, but self-deception. Very few of us are blessed with intelligence that is equally distributed, and school is indeed one of life's first, great levelers. School takes credit for kids that don't even need it to succeed, and generally exasperate those, and their parents, who do. Parents know their children best, and in ideal circumstances school can be a great partner when it comes to educating and socializing them, but what's required is trust, and the shared common goals of caring about them enough to get to properly know and protect them.

I'm grateful to John Schwartz for writing Oddly Normal and placing our experience of raising and educating our kids in better perspective. Oddly Normal is a particularly satisfying book for me because I'm an educator. I know our educational system from the outside, as a parent, and the inside, as a school social worker. It was gratifying to read about its negotiation from Schwartz's point of view. He's a skillful reporter who's expert at taking complex subjects, describing them fairly, and making them more understandable.

Everybody struggles with formulating their personal identities. People's sexual identities are only part of their personalities. Our identities don't hinge on our sexual preferences. Everybody has an intellect that includes more complex thinking and a favorite flavor ice cream. It doesn't matter much who we're attracted to. What matters more than ourselves is the quality of our relationships. Besides, Sigmund Freud was wrong when he proposed a single theory of sexual development. It turns out that there are many: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Heterosexual, and Asexual, just to name a few.

Sexual orientation, high functioning autism, whether it's Asperger's Syndrome, or Pervasive Developmental Disability Not Otherwise Specified (what a ridiculous name), and Depression are all hard to recognize and face, especially when we're not looking for trouble. They're not necessarily strengths or weaknesses, but inherent parts of ourselves that need to be addressed to better formulate our personal identities. Everybody does it differently. It's so much easier for parents and educators to deny children and adolescents' needs than acknowledge them. It's also easier to remain constant in the face of kids' changing needs as they grow than to adapt to them. Why be flexible anyway? We're the adults. Shouldn't the kids do what we tell them? The answer is no.

We often falsely presume since we're the adults that our offspring and students should live up to our expectations not the other way around. We forget that parenting and teaching are not exclusive, but mutual relationships that require perspiration and adaptation. Nobody likes to sweat, but that's one of the few ways to get something valuable out of life. When other people do all heavy lifting in our relationships we take them for granted until they need something. That's when we begin to shun them, instead of meeting them halfway. Some of Joseph's teachers had questioned his social skills wondering if he had Asperger's Syndrome. John and his wife, Jeanne, Joseph's mother, didn't agree because they'd seen him get along well with their relatives.

Schwartz says he advised his children to get along in relationships by quoting Shakespeare, "Assume a virtue, if you have it not. That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat of habits evil, is angel yet in this, that to the use of actions fair and good he likewise gives a frock or livery, that aptly is put on. Refrain tonight, and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence; the next more easy; for use almost can change the stamp of nature, and master the devil, or throw him out with wondrous potency." Hamlet is advising his mother to practice good habits when feeling mystified. That's not only good advice for children, but a recommendation to do what's right for parents, teachers, and mental health professionals especially when they're faced with decisions about what to do when considering people's differences. Parents' rigidity, teachers' value judgements, mental health professionals' certainty and culture's wrath often distract us from helping. It's harder to do the right thing than do nothing, or what's wrong. Relationships are often the cause of our problems, but they're also helpful in solving them.

Joseph's attempted suicide was precipitated by his coming out in school. On June 15, near the very end of seventh grade he criticized the way his male classmates rated the girls at school by rating them. "That day, he was talking with some boys during the last class period and took up a thread of conversation he'd been pursuing for weeks: criticizing the way they talked about girls. 'You're always rating them,' he said. 'Well, I'm going to rate you. You're a seven. You're a five.' The other boys grew increasingly uncomfortable. Joe taunted them, 'Are the boys afraid of the big gay man?'" Of course, a few the boys immediately reported what Joseph said to a guidance counselor suggesting that he made them uncomfortable. Joseph went home, passing Jeanne, a crossing guard, on the way, and wrongly took any number of Benadryl, bringing a knife into the bathroom with the possible intention of using it. Luckily he failed and finally got the help he needed.

What happened more clearly illustrates Joseph's plight. No one in school really noticed, or if they did, they didn't care enough to notice Joseph's depression. They took his way with words for granted, but easily condemned his awkwardness. People at Joseph's school misunderstood his exquisite use of sarcasm and irony, truly gifts for using language, as inadequacies hankering for discipline, not virtues needing guidance. They experienced his anger as aggression, not a cry for help and understanding. They jumped to the conclusion that his lack of social skills belied Asperger's Syndrome.

By the way, no one has autism, or any other psychiatric diagnosis for that matter. People have personalities. They just struggle with the majority of the symptoms described by various diagnoses. Autism isn't literally a diagnosis or necessarily a spectrum. It's more like a space that different people occupy in varying ways just like everybody else inhabits their lives only differently. There's no "normal" and what's culturally acceptable changes over time. Joseph thrived whenever he had a teacher that worked closely with him, and took the trouble to get to know him. He only failed socially, not academically, when he had teachers that didn't. The lesson in this isn't that Joseph had a problem, but everyone involved had the responsibility to figure him out instead of biding their time. Wasted time for adults is not as big a deal as it is for children and adolescents because adults are fully grown and children and adolescents are also losing growth and development.

It was finally unveiled during Joseph's hospitalization after his suicide attempt that not only was he struggling with the symptoms of a major depression, but also Pervasive Developmental Disability-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a form of high functioning autism that's not easily described. Schwartz doesn't let himself, and Jeanne off the hook. He acknowledges that they denied some of the ugly signals over the years of Joseph's depression, such as remembering his once referring to himself as the bitch of his subconscious, and during, "the hellishness of fourth grade," having once thrown a scarf over the shower curtain (possibly to hang himself), only removing it after having been seen. This admission speaks to how difficult it is to come to terms with our children's weaknesses even when we're paying attention as good and loving parents. School officials on the other hand get paid to be arbiters of our children's education and socialization, not bunny rabbits. Joseph's school officials didn't call his parents about what happened at school on the day he attempted suicide. They waited days until after he was already hospitalized, something they didn't know because the Schwartz family didn't confide in them until after he returned to school at the beginning of eighth grade. By then trust was more than lost between them. It was gone.

This leads me to make an important point about child and adolescent mental health and its relationship to education and family life. Quality communication, expert advice, and honesty are the keys to their successful outcomes. It was only when Joseph finally got admitted to a good psychiatric hospital that true research was made available to his situation contributing to a positive outcome. Before then he had little or no access to university-based, board certified child and adolescent psychiatry. Mental health research like the kind that's financed by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) hardly ever makes it into the classroom. Special education is as close as school gets to advancing the cause of NIMH research. Mostly children who are diagnosed with autism, because it's a developmental disability, benefit from the advantages of counseling, occupational, physical, and speech language therapies, outside evaluations, and consultants from those who do the private evaluations, some of which Joseph received in school, but only after he was classified. These entitlements were never offered as a whole to John and Jeanne Schwartz, and certainly not early on. The earlier children are expertly diagnosed, and receive good enough and coordinated help the better their outcomes. Until Joseph was classified they tried to get him help from numerous and various private practitioners who weren't necessarily university-based, or board certified, let alone connected to Joseph's school. Joseph also could have benefitted earlier from an expert, private evaluation paid for by the school. Something he was also entitled to after he was classified. Joseph's school, even when asked, made John and Jeanne Schwartz suspicious of special education because they weren't included in the decision-making process. Instead various teachers and school officials speculated lamely about Joseph based on needing control, ignorance, personal value judgements, and cultural bias. They were thinking more clearly about themselves than Joseph or his family. Thus, undermining his education, socialization, and well being. Special Education isn't a curse. It's expensive, and valuable when applied openly, comprehensively, and meaningfully. Local educational control is part of the problem because each school district is beholden to the limits of its tax base. The Schwartz family lived in an upper middle class New Jersey neighborhood, but sometimes even when school districts have the money, special education isn't always a priority. Again, it's expensive, and harder to employ than general education. Besides special education is legislated as providing what's, "Appropriate." Most school committees on special education feel that children's Individual Educational Plans (IEP) are equivalent to Volkswagen bugs. Very few consider them Cadillacs.

Raising children doesn't come with a manual, although Jeanne heroically writes and rewrites one about Joseph over the years, informing his teachers, therapists, school officials, and camp counselors about his personality, by describing what helps and hinders him. Once, one of Joseph's guidance counselors didn't share it with his assistant principal leading to more confusion over his behavior in school underscoring how important communication is in helping educate children. Nobody is prepared to become a parent. It takes genuine confidence. Most parents make the mistake of thinking as highly of their children as they consider themselves. They often confuse their own childhood experiences with those of their children's by conflating them. By over-identifying with their children's problems they presume knowing how they're feeling because they felt likewise when they were their age. They turned out okay so what's the big deal? Let's get this straight, nobody easily knows how anybody else feels. Like many other things that are worthwhile empathy takes courage, passion, perseverance, and hard work. It doesn't come automatically installed when people marry or become parents.

Raising adolescents when most people begin to explore and discover their personal identities can be a team effort. Jeanne Schwartz reminds John Schwartz that they're driving the train when making decisions about Joseph. It's easy to forget when so many more people become involved in our lives during our children's adolescence that parents are in charge. Accelerated growth and development during puberty can feel like a speeding train. Students are educated by more than just one teacher, and their school schedules become more complicated. They also tend to get more involved in extracurricular activities by joining clubs and playing sports. Dealing with the coaches alone can make parents second guess their authority. However, it's important for parents to remember that the teachers, coaches, therapists, and doctors involved in their kids' lives are partners not replacements.

Schwartz approaches Oddly Normal by recounting Joseph's experiences by grade beginning in kindergarten and ending in tenth grade. Chapters about these experiences are interspersed with excellent reporting about school culture, sexual development, homosexuality, it's cultural and legislative history, autism and depression. He juxtaposes Joseph's experience with Tyler Clementi's, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student who committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and a hallmate used his roommate's computer webcam and his hall-mate's computer without Tyler's consent to view him kissing another man. Tyler's roommate used Twitter to invite people to watch a second meeting between Tyler and his friend. This incident occurred after Joseph's attempted suicide when he was in high school. It highlighted the dangers of bullying, cyber-bullying, and the struggles of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth. It resulted in our nation's toughest anti-bullying law known as the Anti-bullying Bill of Rights, to insure that schools do more training of staff and faculty about the dangers of bullying, and appoint safety teams to address the issue.

Although Joseph wasn't necessarily bullied in school he did experience our culture's lingering adverse reaction to homosexuality combined with the self-consciousness akin to adolescence. Helping gay children come out is not a priority in school to say the least although this situation is slowly improving in some high schools.

John and Jeanne Schwartz suspected for years that Joseph was gay. Joseph wore a feather boa around the house, asked for pink light-up sneakers with rhinestones, and decorated his family's toy castle with bead necklaces. They knew Joseph was trying to tell them something, even if he didn't yet know. People are realizing their sexual preferences earlier these days. middle school is the first place where adolescents take their sexuality out for a spin. There are plenty of opportunities for straight youth to display their sexuality openly in middle school, such as in groups, at dances, and in class. It's accepted. Gay and transgender youth often wait until high school or college before coming out. For youth, like Joseph, who express their sexual preferences earlier there's not much going on in most middle schools to help them feel at ease. This can exacerbate their feelings of self-consciousness, stress, anxiety and frustration, common to all adolescents, creating an atmosphere more conducive to depression.

Joseph's depression was probably worsened by his PDD-NOS since many high functioning autistic students are also anxious, frustrated, and prone to depression because they're isolated. Parents and schools need to work together to discourage bullying, and helping everyone make and keep friends. This isn't always the case. Joseph's intelligence, humor, and his family's understanding, and relentless support contributed to his survival. His school simply played catch up. Oddly Normal is a testament to Joseph's courage since he's thriving, and generously allowed his father to tell his story that will certainly help others. His parents were there for him. For instance, they took him to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center for counseling, and his father took him to get his hair cut and colored purple at the Astor Place Hairstylists in Greenwich Village. These are examples of their loving efforts, described openly with personal warmth, that are worth more than all the self help books in the world.