November 23, 2012 | by Kathi Wolfe
The delights of being different

‘Far From the Tree’ explores how parents can celebrate the differences between themselves and their children. (Photo courtesy Penguin Group)

Most parents love their children, yet accepting and being supportive of offspring who differ from you is one of life’s toughest challenges.

Two provocative and moving new books about parenting, difference and identity are just out: “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” by Andrew Solomon and “Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality” by John Schwartz.

Solomon, with his husband John is a parent, and Schwartz, who is straight, is the father of a 16-year-old gay son Joseph. The Blade talked with Schwartz by phone and interviewed Solomon before he spoke on Nov. 16 at Politics & Prose in Washington.

Schwartz, a national correspondent with The New York Times, and his wife Jeanne knew early on that their son Joseph was different from his older brother Sam. Joseph wanted nothing to do with Sam’s trucks. “Joe went for the dolls,” Schwartz writes. “As Jeanne recalled it, ‘Barbie never looked so fabulous.’”

As time went on, John and Jeanne Schwartz felt it likely that Joseph was gay. John and Jeanne Schwartz, who’d met in 1975 at age 18 at the University of Texas in Austin, were fine with Joseph’s sexual orientation.

“We were comfortable with Joseph being gay,” John Schwartz says. “We wanted to support him.”

Schwartz was happy when Joseph, then in the seventh grade, came out while they were eating sushi at dinner one night. Then, just as things seemed to be going well, there was trouble.  Though he received support at home, the school wasn’t supportive of gay students, Schwartz says.

“Joseph is a quirky guy,” he says. “But the school put labels on him — from Asperger syndrome to depression. It wouldn’t acknowledge that being gay was a key way in which Joseph was different. We wanted the school to see Joe as a whole person. The schools in the New Jersey town where he lives are good. We’re happy with the teaching. But if these schools are good, what’s going on in other parts of the country?”

Angry at the way in which the boys talked about girls, Joseph taunted them. After the boys told the guidance counselor that Joseph’s taunts had made them uncomfortable, Joseph took an overdoes of pills. After hospitilization and months of therapy, Joseph recovered from his depression. Today, Joseph is involved in theater and other activities and finds support in his gay peers. His children’s story “Leo, The Oddly Normal Boy” is a touching ending to “Oddly Normal.”

“I thought parents were the obvious audience for the book,” Schwartz says, “but it’s had a delightful resonance. A 72-year-old man e-mailed me that he’d just come out and told his wife that he’s gay.”

Being normal only gets you so far, Schwartz says. “The things that make you different … are the things that make you interesting.”

Solomon, 49, knew he was different even before he could conceptualize his sexuality.  He was unpopular at school because he was so unlike the other boys.

“I never traded a baseball card, but I did recount the plots of operas on the school bus,” he writes.

Today, Solomon and his husband John and their children, are a loving family. John biologically fathered two children for some lesbian friends in Minneapolis while Solomon has a 5-year-old daughter with a friend he knew in college and a son who lives with them full time they had with a surrogate.

Solomon used to worry that it would be difficult for children born into such a different type of household.

“But people are born into households with parents who are cruel or born into terrible poverty. Or they’re born into a whole variety of other challenges,” Solomon said, “I would like to think…that our household is one in which there is a great deal of love and that it will carry the day.”

“Far from the Tree” is a provocative study of difference and identity as well as an argument for acceptance of diversity. Solomon interviewed about 300 families who have raised offspring with differences from themselves. These parents had children who were deaf, dwarfs, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender, prodigies, had Down syndrome, were conceived in rape or became criminals.

There are vertical identities such as ethnicity, nationality or religiosity that are passed on from parents to their children, Solomon says. But there are horizontal identities such as being trans, gay or deaf that are usually not passed on from generation to generation, he says.

“Many parents will love children with horizontal identities, but they’ll have trouble accepting them,” Solomon says. “The tension between love and acceptance can be terrible.”

“Far From the Tree” grew out of an article he wrote in 1994 for the New York Times magazine on deaf culture. “When I began meeting deaf people, I was astonished by what a vital culture it was,” Solomon says.  “I discovered that most deaf children were born to hearing parents, and that they frequently didn’t discover deaf culture until their adolescence.”

Solomon felt a connection between their stories and his story.

“As a gay person, it took me a long time to find my culture and all of it seemed so resonant,” he says.

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