Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A gay son and his dad give thanks

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
November 22, 2012 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Paul Begala says one family's struggle to help their son accept his sexuality is a story of love, support that resonates at Thanksgiving.
Paul Begala says one family's struggle to help their son accept his sexuality is a story of love, support that resonates at Thanksgiving.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala says his friends have a terrific son, Joe; strong, intelligent, sensitive and also gay
  • This was no problem to his smart, loving parents; but at 13, Joe tried to kill himself, he says
  • He says the dad wrote a book about helping Joe through difficulties as he came out
  • Begala: It offers a good reminder at Thanksgiving, as families share love and acceptance

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- Every parent loves his or her child; it's the prime directive of the species. Twenty years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our first baby, Hillary Clinton told me that having a child is like taking your heart out of your body and letting it walk around.

For some parents, however, their beloved child takes their heart on a long, wild ride that careers from joyous and generous to dark and dangerous. So it was with John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon. Joseph, their third child, was a precocious reader, a super-sensitive old soul, fiercely defiant when he believed the teacher was too autocratic, hyper-quick on the trigger. Or, as his father put it, a squirrelly kid.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

He's also gay. Fabulously gay. From early childhood he preferred feather boas to football; pink shoes to playing soccer. No problem; his parents are enlightened, intelligent, educated, urbane and progressive. Their community in suburban New Jersey was welcoming and inclusive. Their rabbi is gay.

iReport: Who's at your Thanksgiving table?

And yet shortly after he came out of the closet at age 13, Joe attempted suicide.

In his new book, "Oddly Normal," Joseph's dad takes his readers through his family's years-long high-wire act: counselors and psychiatrists who tried to medicate their son; teachers who ranged from saintly to Nurse Ratched-like; thoughtful, caring professionals who struggled with a kid who didn't quite fit in the "normal" category, but whose peccadilloes and challenges also didn't fit within any of the prefab boxes. Joseph does not have Asperger's syndrome; he is not austic; he's not ADD or ADHD. He's just squirrelly.

And gay.

My take: 5 ways to raise thankful children

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



A national reporter for the New York Times, Schwartz mixes his family's personal journey with solid reporting on controversies like whether we are over-medicating our children, whether gay teens really are more prone to suicide, nature versus nurture and more. He writes like the pro he is, but this is not some dispassionate account of the social science of the suburbs. This is open-soul surgery without anesthetic.

I have known and liked Schwartz and Mixon since college. They are smart and strong and loving. They need all of those attributes as they butt heads with educrats, shrinks and teachers as they fight for their bright, witty handful of a boy. Somehow -- maybe it's the journalistic training -- Schwartz is not harshly judgmental, even to Mr. Fourth Grade, a teacher who, he says, was especially harmful to Joseph.

Gay teen fights for Eagle Scout rank
Bullied gay teen uses stun gun at school
Dan Savage offends teens with Bible bash

The only time his sense of fairness and perspective abandons him is when he turns his truth-beam on himself: Why didn't he act on the warning signs that were obvious in hindsight? Because, of course, they were not obvious then, camouflaged by routine and shrouded in fog. Every parent feels that way. Few can express it as fearlessly as Schwartz.

"Oddly Normal" has a happy ending. Joseph himself provides a coda that will bring tears to your eyes. Schwartz's memoir is brave and beautiful, surprising and inspiring, a testament to parents' endless determination to help their children, and the bottomless capacity for love. It is by no means a How-To guide for raising a gay kid. It should be taken to heart by every parent.

Living: Navigating family and dinner table etiquette landmines

As Schwartz writes, "You don't have to be gay to understand that your own child might feel isolated, different. Alone on the planet. It's our job to love our little Martians whatever it is that makes them different."

As families gather for Thanksgiving, secrets and regrets are invariably on the menu. But so is love and acceptance -- especially in the best families, like the Schwartzes. Sure Uncle Walter will bloviate about his golf game, Aunt Claire will make catty comments about your weight, the cousins from California will be over-served. But I for one will thank God for family: the folks who fight for you when you're vulnerable, forgive you when you're wrong, and always, always love you -- even if you're a little squirrelly.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT