November 5, 2012
Guests: John Schwartz & Jeanne Mixon
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many of our guests have told their coming-out stories, and many of those stories were about the difficulty of coming out to parents who didn't approve of homosexuality. Today, we have a coming-out story from the perspective of the parents of a gay child, parents who assumed their son was gay by the time he was around four.
The parents were fine with that, but they still couldn't spare their son Joe from being bullied at school and from teachers and administrators who didn't understand. And their support wasn't enough to prevent their son Joe from trying to commit suicide after he came out at school, and things only got worse for him.
My guest John Schwartz is the author of the new memoir "Oddly Normal." He describes it as a book about raising a gay child in the age of Tyler Clementi, Proposition 8 and "Glee." Schwartz is also a national correspondent for the New York Times. His wife, Jeanne Mixon, Joe's mother, is also with us.
John Schwartz, Jeanne Mixon, welcome to FRESH AIR. So many of the coming-out stories since the start of the gay rights movement have been about parents being upset, angry, feeling guilty that their child was gay. But you're part of a new generation of parents that, you know, or at least you're part of a group within your generation that believes in gay rights, that doesn't think there's anything wrong with being gay, that, you know, right from the start have been very supportive of your son.
But at the same time, this was before campaigns against bullying in schools. This was before real awareness of how high the gay teen suicide rate is. So how would you define yourselves now as - do you see yourselves as part of a new generation of parent or a new predicament that parents are in?
JOHN SCHWARTZ: Well, I would like to think of us as parents, and I think that parents, as parents, you love your kids. As parents, you want your kid to be happy. And a kid in pain causes you pain. And I don't know if it makes us a new generation to extend that feeling to sexual orientation, but to us it was the most natural thing in the world.
GROSS: You suspected your son was gay when he was really young. How young?
JEANNE MIXON: Three.
GROSS: OK, so that's...
SCHWARTZ: He was - yeah.
SCHWARTZ: It was pretty young, but he was pretty out there.
MIXON: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: What do you mean by out there?
MIXON: Well, it's a kind of funny story. His grandmother, his grandmother Marilyn suspected he was gay. She said that she showed him a couple of shirts that one was pink, and one was, I guess, blue, I don't know. And she asked him which shirt he'd rather wear, and he picked the pink one, and she said, ah, he's gay.
And it was little things like that. Like we took him shoe shopping, and he picked the pink shoes with the light-up lights, and...
GROSS: And the rhinestones.
MIXON: And the rhinestones. And when he was four, he played with Barbies exclusively. Ken was thrown out. And he dressed them for hours. And since we had our son Sam, who played with trucks and, you know, threw all the Barbies out of the way to get to the trucks, we pretty much suspected at least then that...
SCHWARTZ: That there was something going on with Joe, that there was something a little different about Joe. Nothing is conclusive, but you sort of see your child as a fabulous four-year-old, and you say, that's interesting.
GROSS: So you suspected he was gay when he was three or four, but, you know, it raises the question: What does it mean to be gay when you're pre-sexual? Because even if a child has sexual feelings at that age, it may be a purely physical feeling and not be linked to another person or another gender.
SCHWARTZ: Well, it's not that these were even sexual feelings necessarily, but it was a sense of what team you're on. I don't know if I'm really going to get that across right. But even at the age of I think Joe said it was about six or eight, he recognized that he was far more interested in boys than girls.
In fact, he went online and saw this word, homosexuality, when he was on the Internet, and he was reading by 6 or 8, and he saw the word homosexuality, and he looked up what it meant. And what surprised him was to discover that boys are supposed to like girls.
MIXON: And he had a crush on one of Sam's friends when he was five. And so he had, you know, sexual feelings even then, even at that young age.
GROSS: And when did you find out about this, recently or when he was five?
MIXON: Oh, about the crush?
MIXON: He didn't even know it.
GROSS: And about looking up, you know, finding the word homosexual on the Internet and realize, oh, that's me, yeah.
SCHWARTZ: Right, that came out when we were working on the book. As we were finishing up the manuscript, I said to Joe: Well, when did you know? And he told us the story about going online. And there have been other discussions we've had, but that was the first time he really laid out when he knew.
GROSS: So you're pretty sure he's gay when he's really young, like three or four years old. You know, he wants the shoes with the rhinestones and the pink things on them, and you're fine with this. He's playing with Barbies. You're fine with that. But then he's going to kindergarten, and Jeanne, I think it was maybe you who's thinking, like, he shouldn't be taking the Barbies with him for show and tell. That might not be a good idea.
So when he started to have more of a group life, going to school, what didn't you want him to take to school, and what were your concerns about what would happen if he did?
MIXON: My concerns were that the other kids would tease him, that they wouldn't understand and that he wouldn't fit in. And it's really important in elementary school and even in middle school, they're very conformist ages, and if you don't fit in, you get teased and ridiculed.
And as it turned out, even with taking the Barbies away, he didn't fit in. He wasn't like the other children. But I didn't want - I wanted to give him a chance to be as much like them and to be able to fit into the social group if possible. And I knew that taking a dressed-up Barbie as a boy to kindergarten was going to set him apart, and he's never had that chance, that no one would ever forget it.
And in that school system, you're in with the same children from kindergarten through fifth grade. So that's six years of people saying, remembering that you're the kid who took the Barbies to school. I didn't want that to happen to him.
GROSS: How did you explain that to him?
MIXON: Oh, I didn't. I didn't. I took all the Barbies, I threw them in the toy box. I put the toy box in the attic and just disappeared them. And I felt terrible about it for a year. He was looking for - you know, they were his favorite toys, and he was looking for them, and he was saying, well, what happened to them? I don't know, they just disappeared.
SCHWARTZ: They walked away.
GROSS: And John, you write that you tried to get him interested in sports. How did that go?
SCHWARTZ: I can't say that it was entirely successful.
SCHWARTZ: I took him to soccer. I had taken his older brother to soccer, and Sam started bounding up and down the field. Sam is very, very athletic. I mean, he's fully yang, you know. And Joe is kind of fully yin. And so we got him to the soccer field that first day, and he didn't want to even go onto the field. And then the kids started running up and down, and Joe laid down and staged what is essentially a protest.
And I was watching from the sidelines, and the coach sort of called me over and said: We really need to focus on the kids who want to be here. And so you can try again, but let's get him home today. And that's what we did, except we didn't go back.
GROSS: So what was the balance you were trying to keep there between trying to introduce him to things that boys, you know, typically want to do and protecting him from having to do things that really weren't in his nature to do?
SCHWARTZ: Well, certainly there are plenty of gay kids growing up who are wonderfully athletic. There are gay adults who are wonderfully athletic. There are professional sports athletes who are gay. So it's not that there was absolutely a wall there between Joe and any physical activity necessarily because we thought he might be gay.
But Joe just isn't a physical guy, and we wanted to make options available to him as we had made them available to both of the other kids. Elizabeth was given martial arts and ballet. Sam was given martial arts and soccer, and he went for all of it. I mean, by high school, Sammy was football, lacrosse, wrestling.
And so we made physical sports available to Joe. He did martial arts for a while. But when he said no to something, it was a pretty clear no.
MIXON: I just want to say one other thing about the sports. The reason that we signed Joseph up for soccer when he was young was because his older brother Sam had had severe motor-spatial disabilities and had actually been unable to stand when he was small. He would fall. And when he tried to sit in a chair in the school, he would fall out of the chair. He didn't have control over his muscles.
And so when we took him to the physical therapist, she said that he should have been introduced to sports at a younger age, and that would have helped him develop his muscles in with each other. So, you know, as a parent, you often find yourself fighting the last battle. With the older child, I had had this problem where his muscle groups didn't work together.
So I looked at Joseph and thought, well, he's young, and I can prevent this from happening to him. And so I signed him up for soccer thinking that if he got into sports, you know, he wouldn't have the same problems later in life that Sam had.
And then, of course, you know, it turned out that Joseph really, really hated sports and was very unhappy.
GROSS: At what grade did Joe start running into problems at school because he was different from the other kids?
MIXON: Oh, first grade. Kindergarten was wonderful. His teacher was wonderful. She loved him. He was - he had - he was able to read long, complex books at age - he started reading at age four, and by the time he was in kindergarten, he could read Harry Potter. He could read anything he wanted to.
And so the kindergarten teacher just let him sit off to the side and read while the other children were learning how to read. The first grade teacher was not flexible at all, and she was upset when he would disappear into the books and check out of the curriculum, but much of the curriculum was, of course, teaching phonics, teaching kids how to read. He didn't need any of that.
And so she - because she was not flexible with him, she kept fighting with him, and we found that teachers who were confrontational with him brought out - he has a lot of trouble keeping his head down. He has a lot of trouble - what - he has some social problems with knowing how to let things just go by.
And so as she became confrontational, he became more combative, and that's when we started to see real problems with him.
SCHWARTZ: And meanwhile, the - by early in elementary school, you saw the boys and girls starting to differentiate. And so while the boys could talk at length about the Giants lineup, Joseph didn't know anything about that, couldn't talk about it. He was much happier with the girls and loved talking to the girls and loved spending time with the girls.
Over times, the girls determined that boys are yucky, and they want less to do with them. And so Joseph found himself sort of in the middle and isolated.
GROSS: What age did bullying start to be a problem?
SCHWARTZ: Kids were picking on Joe in second and third grade and giving him a pretty hard time. There were - the kids would grab him after school, they would hide his sweatshirt, they would call him names, and he was getting increasingly frustrated with that.
The hardest part was that by fourth grade, one of the teachers was actually bullying him, and this teacher was a fellow who would pick out one or two kids every year, and they'd be the goat. Those kids would be the ones who would get the discipline, those were the ones who would get corrected on everything.
And the other kids in the class would have a great time because the goats were over here, and the other kids were doing so great. One of the kids who had had this teacher said: I had a great time with him, but there were a couple kids in that class who were so bad. And he just painted them as bad. And that year Joe was one of the goats.
GROSS: What did you try to do about that?
SCHWARTZ: Well, we talked to the teacher. We talked with the teacher again and again. The teacher would call us. We realized very early that this teacher was no match for Joe. And we went to the principal and said: You've got to move him out of here. But the principal was the kind of guy who would say: Oh, I'm so sorry you're having these problems, but really that isn't the way we do things here. We're just going to have to work this out. We can't move him. That causes other problems. I'm so sorry. And he sat in that position over the entire course of the year, even as things descended into chaos in the classroom.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon, and we're talking about their son Joe, who is the subject of the new book "Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon, and we're talking about John Schwartz' new book "Oddly Normal," which is about their son. The subtitle is "One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality."
And they started realizing that their son was probably gay when he was around three or four years old. Your son was labeled with a lot of different disorders in his early years in school. There was the GTLD, gifted and talented but learning disabled. He was diagnosed as being on several different levels of the autism scale. What am I leaving out?
SCHWARTZ: Oh, well, there was ADHD. There was a teacher that suggested ADHD, at least one. Another teacher thought, you know, he seems bipolar to me. There were people who suggested, as you're saying, Asperger's and other ailments of autism spectrum. And none of them thought that he was just Joe. They were all looking for a label to pop on him.
GROSS: Were you concerned about having him labeled, or do you think maybe if one of those labels fit, maybe it would be helpful to have not only a label but a diagnosis and therefore the possibility of addressing a problem?
MIXON: What we were told at the time was that - by several therapists - was that if he had Asperger's, there was nothing that could be done anyway. There are therapies that they could engage in, but there really wasn't much they could do. And at the time, they said, and he will never change. He will always be the same.
We said well, if he's not going to change, then why are we coming to you? I mean, we weren't very interested in the therapies. Our big concern about him being labeled was that he would be treated differently from the other children, that he would end up being tracked into lower-level educational classes, and the testing clearly showed that that would be a mistake.
As it turned out, it has been explained to us more recently that the understanding, I guess, of Asperger's has changed and that they say that the children can improve to the point where they fall out of diagnosis, and they're just considered quirky. So - and at the same time, it's been explained to us that having the diagnosis of Asperger's helps him because if he behaves in the classroom in a way that is outside of the norm, he has extra - he has the school therapist on his side, and she can say he's classified, and he doesn't get punished according to the school handbook.
SCHWARTZ: So it seems to us that the community of people who deal with this has gotten a more flexible approach to this than in those early years, and the attempt to just pop a label on a kid and isolate him, which is what it seemed that people were trying to do early on, became a more nuanced approach to helping Joe later.
And so it took us a long time to get there, and there was a lot of confusion and conflicting opinions from people in the therapy community. One therapist would tell us he'll never get better, he'll never go to college. He might never even be able to go to summer camp.
Other therapists have said he's on his way out of this diagnosis. Through adolescence, I think that he'll be just fine. When the professionals conflict in this way, what are we supposed to do? We don't have the advanced degrees.
GROSS: One of the things you did as a parent, John Schwartz, is before your son actually came out to you, but you were pretty confident he was gay, you looked through the browser on his computer, the website browser, and you wanted to see what sites is he going on. Why did you do that, and did part of you say to yourself this is an invasion of privacy?
SCHWARTZ: The part of me that might think that also said I'm the dad. And I've written about Internet privacy. I've written about privacy issues for the papers I've worked for over decades. And while I believe privacy is important, I think parenting is the overriding value.
And so I've always checked the kids' browser histories. I've always checked to make sure that they're not communicating with people they shouldn't be communicating with and to sort of, just sort of watch what they're doing. I don't then sit them down and say, oh my God, I can't believe you're looking at that. I just want to make sure they're not getting in trouble. And as long as they're not getting in trouble, I don't have a problem with it.
But looking at, say, the older brother's browser history was great preparation for looking at Joe's because the older brother at the age of, you know, 12, 13, was looking at pictures of naked people. And if I'd had a computer with the Internet access when I was 12, I'd have been doing the same thing. Joe's browser history...
GROSS: When you say naked people, you mean naked women.
SCHWARTZ: That's exactly it, that the older brother Sam was looking at naked women, but when I looked at Joe's browser history, he was looking at naked men. And up until then, I had been saying, well, a kid can be a little flamboyant, he can seem gay, but you never really know. But browsers don't lie.
GROSS: John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon will be back in the second half of the show. Schwartz' new memoir about raising their gay son Joe is called "Oddly Normal." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're talking about the new memoir "Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality." My guest is the author John Schwartz and his wife Jean Mixon. Their gay son Joe, who is now 16, is the youngest of their three children. Schwartz and Mixon assumed Joe was gay by the time he was around four. They were fine with that. But by the time Joe was in high school, it got awkward for them to know their son was keeping a secret that left him in pain. Nevertheless, they wanted to respect Joe's right to keep that secret.
He hadn't come out to you yet, or to your knowledge, he hadn't come out to anyone. So you didn't sit him down and say: Son, we know you're gay, so let's just get it on the table, all accept it. How did you decide that you were not going to say anything until he brought it up to you that he was gay?
SCHWARTZ: Well, we're not the kind of people who would push, anyway, and we felt that Joe would let us know one way or the other before long - at least we hoped so. In the meantime, I started going around to friends who are gay and saying: What would you have wanted? Because, you know, I'm a reporter. I report. And my various sources, buddies at work, people I knew, all said, really, unless he seems to be in terrible pain, don't push. This is his secret. This is his thing to reveal. And, by the way, if he does reveal it, don't spoil his moment. Don't say, oh, you're the last to know? Or anything that would pull the rug out from under him when he's come to a big moment with you.
GROSS: So you started doing things like talking about gay issues and gay-related, you know, legal issues around the house just to see: Would that prompt him to say anything?
SCHWARTZ: Well, exactly. Rather than - these buddies, the people that we referred to as the League of Gay Uncles, said don't push him. But you can prepare the ground a little bit. Just work gay issues into the conversation. Don't force anything, but to the extent you can do it naturally, talk about news stories. Talk about what's going on in politics, anything that brings up a gay issue - same-sex marriage, political candidates - and just work it generally into the conversation. And so bit by bit, we did that.
Now, this was a very sensitive area for Joe. When we first started talking about it, if he was in the room, he would get up, walk up to his bedroom, slam the door. He didn't want to hear it. But your kid might not listen, but he'll hear. And that's what happened with Joe. And bit by bit, he not only stayed in the room when we talked about it, he joined the conversation.
GROSS: How did he come out to you - or I should rephrase that and say, how did he more or less come out to you?
SCHWARTZ: Joe and I were spending more time walking around, going to dinner together. Jean was saying to me Joe needs dad time. Joe needs time with you. And so we were making sure to take walks to get ice cream together and head to restaurants.
And so one night, we were in a sushi restaurant in our town, and Joe was telling me about how as the seventh grade year was nearing an end, he was freaking out the other kids a little bit. He was saying in school to another boy: Does Bill know just how attractive he is? And he said that this would, you know, freak out the kids a little bit, and a kid would say: Well, Joe, are you gay?
And I said well, Joe, what did you tell them? He said, oh, I don't say anything. I just let them wonder. I said OK. But are you telling me you're gay? Because you can leave them wondering, but, you know, unlike them, I'm not an idiot. I'm going to pick up on this. And he said, well, I might be. And so we had a little more food, and I said this thing that you're not telling me, is it all right if I tell your mom? And he said, OK. And he was out.
GROSS: Was that a relief to you?
SCHWARTZ: Enormous. Enormous. Jean and I were quietly celebrating at home, like, we did it.
SCHWARTZ: All the groundwork, he's launched. It's fine. We're good.
GROSS: Yeah, but things weren't so good afterwards. I mean, it was fine for you and the family. Once he started to come out at school, things got worse.
SCHWARTZ: It was - things were falling apart, in fact. It was good for us, but at school, it was the end of the year, always a tough time for Joe, a time of transition. The school, at the end of the year, was sort of falling apart. Our school district keeps going into - almost into summer, and they didn't have anything for the kids to do. There was a flu epidemic going on. And classes were just basically kids sitting around talking to each other. So there was no structure, and so things got a little more dicey. And meanwhile, Joe was dealing with really dark thoughts about this time, and he was telling me about it.
One day, we were taking one of our walks, and he said: I am my subconscious' bitch, and was having a really hard time. And I said, well, you know, you're not in therapy right now. We can go back into therapy. We can help you if you want. And he said, no. I'm dealing with it.
And so, against the backdrop of school sort of falling apart, Joe was under more pressure. The coming out hadn't made him calmer, and at school he was building towards this explosion. And one day, at the end of the school year, he blew up at some of these boys and said: You're always making these comments, and you're rating girls. Well, I'm going to rate you. You're a five. You're a seven. You're a three. And this unsettled the boys tremendously, and they actually went to one of the school administrators and complained that Joe was bullying them, was intimidating them. And so that was the day that Joe came home and tried to hurt himself.
GROSS: Yeah. That's the day he came home and took an overdose of pills. And Jean, you were the one who found him.
GROSS: What - how did you discover that your son had tried to overdose?
MIXON: Well, I was working as a crossing guard at the top of our block. So I saw Joe, every day after school, come off the bus. And when he got off the bus that day, he didn't look right. He looked blank. He looked wrong. And I couldn't get home until 4:30.
So when I got home, you know, he was locked in the bathroom, and I heard him talking about books falling off shelves. His voice was slurred. It sounded like he was on drugs. And I thought, well, he couldn't possibly be on drugs. He's not social enough to score any drugs. And I eventually got him out of the bathroom and rushed him to the hospital. It turned out, he had taken an overdose of Benadryl. And...
GROSS: When he survived that, was he glad to be alive?
MIXON: No. No. He had - the hospital told us that they would see him again. They had no doubt of it. They said that most children, when something like that happens, feel remorse, say, oh, my God. I can't believe what happened. And they said he has no remorse. He has expressed no remorse at all. And they said that's a clear sign that he would be coming back. And they recommended that we not take him home when he was released from the hospital, but send him immediately to a...
SCHWARTZ: Locked ward facility for a couple of weeks...
SCHWARTZ: ...to get therapy and get evaluated for medication.
GROSS: Which you did, and he was put on a low-dose antipsychotic medication.
SCHWARTZ: That's right. And it was - and they put him on a low-dose antipsychotic medication to help buffer these - the dark thoughts and the impulsivity, and to deal with his new diagnosis, which was depression, which is not very surprising when you consider he just tried to commit suicide.
GROSS: What message did his suicide attempt send to you, his parents?
MIXON: That his life had to change, immediately, that he could not continue, that something has to change or he would end up back in the hospital again. And what we did was we - John - we contacted the gay center and checked out their teen programming so that when the next school year started, he would be with other gay people, and that he would be in a social group, and they have counselors, and that we weren't going to go back - did we go back into therapy? We may have signed him up for therapy, but the main thing was that he needed to be in a setting where he could be a gay person without judgment, and that's what the gay center teen programming provided for us. And...
SCHWARTZ: Once he was out, it was possible to tell him that he was not alone. And once he was out, we were able to get into the youth services at the gay center where there was therapy, counseling and other kids. And we also, for the first time, were able to send him to theater camp. He was set to go to theater camp, and that's another really supportive environment for a kid who's gay. He wasn't unusual there. And so, all of a sudden, a world opened up to Joe.
GROSS: How is he doing now? He's 16. He's in high school. How long has he been out? How many years has it been?
SCHWARTZ: Well, it's been about three-and-a-half years.
SCHWARTZ: And I'll tell you, when Joe came out and got the - and found his community in these various places, it opened him up. And this level of stress that we'd always felt was there diminished. It was like draining a pool. And everything's not perfect. He's still emotionally vulnerable. Every day isn't great. But he's got friends he hangs out with. He has activities. He sees his buddies. He hugs them. He's having more good days. And so, as we say, the story isn't over, but the book has a happy ending, because things are good.
GROSS: So your son Joe gave you his blessing in writing this book. And at the end of the book is a short story that he wrote, which is really quite good. But now that you're doing, like, interviews and things like that for the book, do you think he'll continue to be comfortable with that, you know, now that the book is actually published, now that the whole thing is a reality?
SCHWARTZ: Joe is happy that there's a book that's out. He's also a teenage boy, and so he's not comfortable with talking about it, but he's glad it's there. In other words, recently, someone asked him about the short story, which is quite good. And the first time I read it, it made me cry. And somebody asked him about it, and he said, well, I hated that. I hate all my writing. And...
GROSS: Well, lots of writers feel that way.
SCHWARTZ: Right. Well, exactly. He's just being Joe. But we're confident that he still feels pretty good about everything, and he's glad it's out there. He knows we're trying to get this message out to people, and he knows it's important.
GROSS: So your son has this short story at the end of the book that's called "Oddly Normal." Your book about your son Joe is called "Oddly Normal." Who came up with "Oddly Normal" first, him or you?
SCHWARTZ: Joe did.
GROSS: Joe did.
SCHWARTZ: Joe did. Joe put the title on that story, and he - as I said, I read it. He sent it to me. I read it. I cried. The teacher said that she showed it to her mother, and her mother had said: You had better have given that boy an A, because his story made me cry. So it seemed to me: what a great title for the book. It says everything I was trying to say in 60,000 words in two.
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. John Schwartz, Jean Mixon, thank you both.
SCHWARTZ: You bet. Thank you.
MIXON: Thank you.
GROSS: John Schwartz is the author of "Oddly Normal." His wife Jean Mixon contributed to the writing of the book, which is about raising their son Joe, who is gay. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Taylor Swift's new album, "Red." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: As Baby Boomers and their parents age, we're getting more and more essays and books written about the test of endurance that adult caretaking demands. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo began his adventure of looking out for his mother early in life. In his new memoir, "Elsewhere," Russo writes not only of his mother but of the vanished world that shaped her. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Something must've been in the tap water in Gloversville, New York during the 1950s when Richard Russo was growing up there. Something, that is, besides the formaldehyde, chlorine, lime, lead, sulfuric acid and other toxic byproducts that the town's tanneries leaked out daily. But one day, a droplet of mead must've fallen into the local reservoir and Russo gulped it down because, boy, does he have the poet's gift.
In a paragraph or even a phrase, Russo can summon up a whole world, and the world he writes more poignantly about is that of the industrial white working class. Russo is the Bruce Springsteen of novelists. In fact, Springsteen's latest proletarian pride anthem - we take care of our own - kept playing in my head as I read Russo's latest book, a memoir called "Elsewhere."
Russo knows what it means to take care of your own. In "Elsewhere" Russo writes with his distinctive smarts and humor about his childhood and his still-conflicted class emigration from blue collar kid to college professor and writer. Most of all, though, "Elsewhere" is a gorgeously nuanced memoir about his mother and Russo's own lifelong tour of duty spent lovingly and exhaustedly looking out for her.
Russo's mother was an anomaly in the Gloversville of his youth - young herself, and pretty, she was separated from Russo's father and had a good office job working for GE in a nearby town. Mother and son lived in an apartment in a two-family house owned by his grandparents. As a boy, Russo remembers being happy as a clam, particularly given the sweet just-the-two-of-us type relationship he had with his mother.
In a few short sentences at the beginning of the book he vividly summons up the compact world of the Gloversville of his childhood: In the '50s on a Saturday afternoon, the streets downtown would be gridlocked with cars honking hellos at pedestrians. Often when we finished what we called our weekly errands, my mother and I would stop in at Pedric's.
It was a dark, cool place, the only establishment of my youth that was air conditioned, with a long thin wall whose service window allowed sodas and cocktails to be passed from the often raucous bar into the more respectable restaurant. By the time I graduated from high school in 1967, you could've strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul.
What sucked the life out of Gloversville were some of the same vampiric forces that turn vibrant small towns into husks all over the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. The demand for gloves decreased. What factories remained skedaddled overseas. Workers lost their bargaining power. In 1967 when he was 18, Russo grabbed a lifeline out in the form of an acceptance letter to the University of Arizona.
But he didn't exit Gloversville alone. Sitting beside Russo in the passenger seat of his wheezing Ford Galaxy, all throughout that long cross country drive, was his mother. She'd decided it was time to vamoose too. And who better to escape with than the son whom she always called her rock? Another son, understandably, would have pressed the eject button but Russo seems to have had reserves of compassion for his anxious, insatiably dependent mother.
More compassion, in fact, than he shows for himself. At the close of "Elsewhere" when Russo's by now elderly mother has died, he berates himself for having flatlined on her, in latter years just going through the motions of caretaking. It's a terribly stern self-accounting and a guaranteed guilt inducer for those of us readers who are ourselves taking care of elderly parents with perhaps less graceful consistency.
But the refusal to go easy on himself, to settle for the standard reassurance that he did the best that he could, is what makes Russo as penetrating a memoirist here as he is a novelist. For 35 years, Russo tells readers, he and his wife joke that they never went away anywhere for longer than it took milk to spoil.
Although his mother's death has finally liberated Russo from his sentry duty, he's kept her under his watch by writing this intense memoir. It turns out that it's hard to shake off a lifetime routine of taking care of your own.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Richard Russo's new memoir "Elsewhere." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Taylor Swift's new album "Red" sold over a million copies when it was released last week, making it the best-selling debut album since 2002. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says the country singer is making a more concerted effort to move into pop music territory. Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "22")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes, ah, ah, ah, ah. It feels like a perfect night for breakfast at midnight, to fall in love with strangers, ah, ah, ah, ah. Yeah. We're happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time. It's miserable and magical, oh, yeah. Tonight's the night...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Taylor Swift has, until now, spent much of her career capturing in song the feeling of firsts: a first crush, a first kiss, a first break-up, a first flash of angry revenge. Now in her early 20s and with three albums behind her, she was stretching her professional rookie-in-romance status to the breaking point. How good it is, therefore, to hear the musical and lyrical leaps into full adulthood she's making on her new album "Red."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED")
SWIFT: (Singing) Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street. Faster than the wind, passionate as sin, ending so suddenly. Loving him is like trying to change your mind when you're already flying through the freefall. Like the colors in autumn so bright just before they lose it all. Losing him was blue like I'd never known. Missing him is dark, gray, all alone. Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you've never met. But loving him was red.
TUCKER: Swift knows how to work an image. She's intentionally not subtle about pushing red as the color of passion, the color of warning, of danger, of her lips on the cover, of the department store logo she does a commercial for. She also uses red as a jumping, clever lyric writing talking about feeling blue, experiencing ambivalent gray moods.
She knows how to enliven clichÃ©s to make them efficient shortcuts in clear, concise compositions.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER")
SWIFT: (Singing) I remember when we broke up the first time, saying this is it, I've had enough because, like, we hadn't seen each other in a month when you said you needed space. What? Then you come around again and say baby, I miss you and I swear I'm going to change. Trust me. Remember how that lasted for a day? I say I hate you. We break up. You call me, I love you.
(Singing) Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh--ooh. We called it off again last night. But ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, this time I'm telling you, I'm telling you, we are never, ever, ever getting back together. We are never, ever, ever getting back together. You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me. But we are never, ever, ever, ever getting back together.
TUCKER: The most obvious difference between "Red" and her earlier albums is Swift's sure, confident move into a mainstream pop sound. So confident that she's willing to cede a bit of quality control by collaborating on the songwriting here and there, such as on the song I just played. That's the hit single "We Are Never Ever Getting Together" co-written with Swedish pop hit machine Max Martin.
When Swift started out, country music was the perfect place for her since it accommodated the way her songwriting tended towards storytelling, and country music places intrinsic value on the subjects of heartache and friendship in a way that most current pop music does not. But Swift is canny about the way she's intensified her sound to match the intensity of her feelings about being hurt in love or feeling strengthened by surviving, transcending that hurt.
Just listen to the sharp hooks and bold beat of "I Knew You Were Trouble."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNEW YOU WERE TROUBLE")
SWIFT: (Singing) Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago, I was in your sights. You got me alone. You found me. You found me. You found me. I guess you didn't care and I guess I liked that. And when I fell hard you took a step back without me, without me, without me-e-e-e-e. And he's long gone when he's next to me and I realize the blame is on me.
(Singing) 'Cause I knew you were trouble when you walked in. So shame on me now. Took me to places I'd never been. Till you put me down. Oh, I knew you were trouble...
TUCKER: "Red" is, with 16 songs, certainly not a perfect album. There are a couple of bland duet ballads, one with Ed Sheeran and the other with Gary Lightbody from the band Snow Patrol. But even in those contexts it's the guy's vocals that are the more pallid. For all the once and future criticisms of Swift's voice, its very thinness works in her favor.
In the ballads it enhances the images of fragility in the lyrics. In the faster, louder songs it operates like a rock singer's instrument. Think of Neil Young's high pitched whine or Exene Cervenka's theoretically bad voice in the punk band X. Like all good pop artists, Swift continues to evolve in a manner that both challenges her die-hard fans and invites those who dislike her sound to give it another listen. For all her accessibility, she merits and holds up to close scrutiny.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Taylor Swift's new album "Red". You can watch a video of her song "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Richard Russo's new memoir "Elsewhere" about his mother and the vanished world that shaped her. This is FRESH AIR.
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