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A gay son and his dad give thanks

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

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.

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.

Paul Begala

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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.

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    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.

    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.

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    "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.

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    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.

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