Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Normal Sucks

How to Live, Learn, and Thrive Outside the Lines

Jonathan Mooney

Henry Holt and Co.


— I —

Not Normal

Normalcy was declared. (Normalcy was always a declaration.)

—Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Still, it would be progress if we could acknowledge that there really is no such thing as “the normal child”: instead, there are children, with varying capabilities and varying impediments, all of whom need individualized attention as their capabilities are developed.

—Martha C. Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice


You have each asked me a question, in different ways, at different times, and, I think, for different reasons. It is the same question I have always feared—but always knew—you would ask me one day.

My oldest, I most clearly remember the night you asked me this question because, of course, you are the oldest and, I admit, I remember your younger years (okay, all your years) more fully than your brothers’. It is one of the many curses of being the oldest. You’re forever fixed in my memory, like a frame from a movie, as a child. The night you asked your question, you were five and three-quarters. (You never let me forget those nine months and would yell across a playground, or a parking lot, or the dinner table, if I was asked your age, correcting my rounding down.)

It was bedtime, and I was reading to you from The Scalawagons of Oz, an obscure book we’d bought from the used bookstore. Though I was the adult, I stumbled over some of the words. You asked me why. That night I told you for the first time about my dyslexia and my learning challenges. Your response was a single question: “Are you normal, Dad?”

My middle boy, you asked the same question, in a different way, at a different time—but exactly when, I frankly don’t remember. As the middle child, the memories of your firsts aren’t as linear to me as those of your older brother; the details are blurred around the edges. The sleep deprivation from raising two kids has something to do with it.

You still do things like wake up early and read the New York Times sports section cover to cover and solve advanced math problems for fun. You get those tendencies from your mom. But I do remember one morning, likely in the midst of one of your ESPN-worthy rants on the NCAA ranking system, your stopping and asking simply: “Dad, what is normal?”

And then, of course, there’s my youngest. You’re lucky I remember your name (which I do, even when I call you by your brothers’) or your birthday (which I don’t, but Mommy does, so we’re good). You have a voice like that of a seventy-year-old who smokes a pack a day and an inclination toward the absurd. So I do remember the crazy stuff you say, such as “If you didn’t have a butt, you couldn’t sit down,” and the classic, “Chickens are very fast … but not in a bicycle race!”

I also remember clearly when you asked me about normal. We were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant near our house, sitting at the bar so we could watch sports. You pointed to three suggestive—okay, completely inappropriate—paintings of women as matadors (because we all know that bull fighting is best done in the nude!) hanging above our seats. You made some hand gestures around your chest that, if you hadn’t been six years old and cute, would have gotten us kicked out. “Rocket boobs!” you yelled, as half the bar turned to stare. “Are those normal?” you asked, and before I could muzzle you, added, “Why don’t Mommy’s look like that?”

What is normal? Am I normal? Are you? Are any of us?

When each of you asked, I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know what to say. I had honestly hoped we would be spared the conversation. That was naive, wasn’t it? Because who doesn’t, for so many reasons, ask themselves this question at some point, or at many points, in their lives? I did, and I still do, and while I couldn’t answer you in the moment, I want to answer you now.

Though you have not been labeled as not normal, as I was, I’m not naive. I know normal will come for you. It will shape you—and it probably already has. We are all up against normal because, as Michel Foucault (who, as you’ll quickly discover, I’ve read way too much of) wrote, “The judges of normality are present everywhere.” He didn’t stop there: “We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements.” Basically, he’s saying we all live in a land governed by these judges’ laws, and there’s absolutely no getting out of it.

All societies have struggled with normal and, as French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, we have made the cultural “problem” of differences, anomaly, and abnormality central to every culture. Normal and its twin—not normal—are the “fundamental problems of the human condition.” We are all surrounded by institutions, systems, and cultural practices that demand and enforce normalcy. We all have to build a life and a self—despite, around, or through—the strict judges of normality’s jurisprudence.

I want you to be prepared. I want you to know how to live, and thrive, in a world that will at some point tell you, as it does us all, that you’re not normal because of what you think, how you look, who you love, how you learn, how you feel, how you behave, or what you believe. I want you to know that normality is a problem to be struggled with, to be resisted, and ultimately, an idea to be rejected and replaced. And I want you to know, if those judges of normality wound you, like they have me and so many others, how to stitch yourself up and fight for a world that is not governed by those judges. When normal comes for you, I want you to be able to say what I couldn’t when it came for me. Normal sucks.

* * *

I’ve been in trouble with normal for a long time. My dilemma started at home. Turn on the bright lights during any performance of familial normalcy and I bet one will find more than a few freak shows. My family is no different. The only difference was that, when I was growing up, my family knew we were strange. We even called ourselves the freak family—Kennedys of a different kind.

I was born in 1977 in San Francisco. Not the San Francisco of today—a bro-tech utopia with sky-high rents—but a dying port town that had seen its last boom and was all bust. California in 1997 wasn’t the California I live in today, but a state with half the population it has now, full of escapees from somewhere else—hippies, skaters, surfers, filmmakers, immigrants, oil workers, and everyone else who had been pushed out and sent west. Back then, the state was a radical experiment presided over by Governor “Moon Beam,” as the press called him.

My family members were escapees themselves. On both sides, my grandparents were Irish immigrants. My mom’s parents landed in New York as children, from County Cork, to be greeted with signs that read IRISH NEED NOT APPLY. They followed those signs all the way to Butte, Montana, a town where the Irish worked copper mines and for a while constituted the largest Irish population outside of Ireland.

My maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, worked as a maid for a prominent Jewish family whom she loved, and they encouraged her to leave Montana as fast as she could. She met my grandfather and did.

My dad’s parents saw the same anti-Irish signs but stayed in New York, where they achieved the Irish holy trinity of middle-class respectability by becoming cops, firemen, and politicians. I don’t know much about these people. The last time I saw my father’s mother I was ten years old and my dad never talked about them. That may have very well been the final time my dad spoke to his mom, but I’m not sure about that either. My dad has a history of dropping out of people’s lives, for reasons that took me a long time to understand. I’ll get to that later.

My mom was born in San Francisco, but she hasn’t told me much about her childhood. I hardly knew my maternal grandmother. I do know she continued to clean rich people’s houses until my grandfather became a pharmacist. He died of a heart attack when my mom was ten. My grandmother was a hard woman who had started drinking by lunch, and then after her husband died, by breakfast. My mom was—is—sad, angry, and defiant. She wanted to become a nun, but the church wouldn’t allow her in the convent because she was “defiant.” She took the hint and decided to become a political radical, joining the Black Panthers, whose headquarters were just a hop, skip, and jump, but a world away, across the bridge in Oakland. According to family legend, she helped break Timothy Leary out of prison.

My mom had my half brother Billy when she was seventeen, my half sister Michelle when she was eighteen and a half, and my half sister Kelly when she was twenty. I came along much later, when she was thirty. We were a ragtag crew. My brother, Billy, looked as if he came right out of central casting for an Irish cop movie, even as a kid; my sister Michelle had long blonde hair and a quiet grace; and my sister Kelly was infamous in our family for what were known as “sit-down strikes,” wherein she would just sit down in protest of a perceived childhood injustice, refusing to walk anywhere.

My mom raised my three siblings by herself in a utopian cooperative-housing project called the Squares, which was run by the longshoremen’s union. She remembers this time as a kind of paradise in the city, before San Francisco was gentrified, when it was still a place of radical politics and progressive ideas. Less peace and love, more fighting “the Man.” The residents of the Squares fought for school desegregation, took control of their local elementary school, and implemented progressive programs. Folks watched each other’s kids and shared in each other’s lives. My brother and sisters have a different story. In their version, they were left alone a lot and the Squares was a place where children did not have time for childhood. I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older, that both stories can be, and often are, true.

My dad came west slowly, fleeing Tarrytown, New York, in pieces, barely held together by a high IQ, higher education degrees, and a righteous belief in social justice. His father died when he was young, too, and he wasn’t told much about what happened. His mom was cold and hard, so his stepdad mostly raised him.

I know that my dad’s ears stuck out when he was a kid and his mom taped them to the sides of his head. I know they were devout Catholics and he went to a Catholic school where there was a nun whose nickname was Sister Pain. I know this nickname was well earned. I know that he was injured playing football in high school, crushed at the bottom of a pile of bodies, and doctors fused his lower vertebrae to make him walk “normal.” I know my dad never did heal.

I also know that my dad was married before he met my mom, to a woman who I think was named Pamela. Maybe. I’m not sure because Dad never told me. I do know that they had a stillborn child, a son, and then a second child, another half brother. His name is Michael or John (again, I’m not sure) and we have never met. My dad left his son and wife, went west, and didn’t look back. He is good at not looking back. I did not know about this half brother until … I’m not sure when. My father and I have never talked about him. My half brother’s existence has been one of those things that wasn’t there and then was—overheard in a late-night argument or slipped in by mistake as my mom catalogued my father’s failures over Jack Daniels, neat.

I don’t know how my parents met, but I do know that my mom and dad getting married changed the family’s economic situation. Kinda. They went from poor and hanging on by their fingernails, to the cusp of the middle-class bell curve. At the time, my father was working for an education company, but he had decided to become a lawyer. He moved the family from San Francisco to Bethesda, Maryland, to attend Georgetown Law School. After law school, he took a corporate law job back in San Francisco, then quit (or was fired—a pattern that would continue for the rest of his life).

I was born on March 19, 1977, at University of San Francisco hospital. Billy was fourteen, Michelle twelve, Kelly ten. While my mom was in labor, they watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the waiting room and thought up names for me. Michelle offered Tyrone. Kelly countered with Terrell. Billy argued for Stokely, after the leader of the Black Power movement, but also suggested Terrance. I got part of my dad’s name, too. My dad is John Gregory Mooney but goes by Greg. I’m Jonathan Terrance Mooney and go by Jonathan. According to my brother and sisters and mom, I’m sure the hell not John.

Less than a year after I was born, my dad declared bankruptcy, and we were evicted from our house. We had to pack up our brown Volvo, named the Incredible Hulk, quickly, before it was repossessed. We left most our belongings on the side of the road but took our dog, Major, and cat, Big Kitty, and pointed the Hulk south, toward Los Angeles, where my dad had a law school buddy and maybe a job.

We landed in Manhattan Beach, California. My folks ran from the wildness of 1970s San Francisco to find middle-class suburbia by the shore. Manhattan Beach was like Lake Wobegon, where everyone was above average—they surfed, lettered in five sports, and were tall and blond. All the kids were the sons and daughters of Boeing executives, doctors, lawyers, accountants. Looking back, I understand why they chose this place; Manhattan Beach was the opposite of the Squares neighborhood in San Francisco. Good schools. Normal people.

Fit in, however, we did not.

I was a weird kid. I was obsessed with checker-patterned clothing, and for a time I rode a checkered bike, wore checkered Vans, checkered shorts, a checkered shirt, and to top it all off, a checkered hat. I loved the television show Roots and took to calling myself Kunta Kinte. I would shower only in my socks. I would often run down our hallway naked, yelling, “This is the Democrats on Skid Row!” (I don’t get it either.) I decided one year to pee only in the corner of the extra room in our house. No one noticed, which gives you a sense of the general level of cleanliness in our home. I memorized all the dialogue in Trading Places—the classic Dan Aykroyd–Eddie Murphy movie about class warfare that was, needless to say, not for children. I had a pretty foul mouth, too. Once, at a doughnut shop, a woman behind the counter asked in the sweetest kid-friendly voice possible how she could help me. I said, “Give me a fucking jelly doughnut, you bitch.” I was two.

Our house had no doorknob on the front door, and if you bent down and peeked in through the hole where the knob should have been, you would have gotten a glimpse of the freak show. It was impossible to miss our menagerie of strange animals. Major, the family dog, had a five-inch scar across his face and another on his stomach (no one knew why). Emily was my dog, and she was hairless and skinny, with an opossum’s tail. We told ourselves she was a rare African hairless purebred, and I told people she had won the Westminster dog show. My friends said she was a rat. I don’t even remember all the cats we had, because at some point we ran out of names and went straight-up literal: Big Kitty, Little Kitty, Orange Kitty, White Kitty, Brown Kitty, Fluffy Kitty, Kitty Kitty, and then … Nipper.

Then there was my bird, Charlie. In Manhattan Beach there was a colony of wild parrots that had escaped from a burning pet store, as the urban myth goes. I found Charlie as a baby with a hurt wing on the sidewalk. He had fallen out of his nest and I saved him, took him home, fixed his wing, and loved him. He was the size of a Granny Smith apple, with a green body and yellow-tipped wings and black around his eyes like a prizefighter. He was my best friend. I taught him to talk, and he could say “Hi, John,” “Charlie is a pretty bird,” and “Fuck you.” When I started having a hard time in school, Charlie was often the only one who said hi to me.

My dad walked around naked. A lot. Not only after showers, or on special “Naked Mondays,” or nudist holidays, or just on sunny days, but all the time. His drinking started early and ended late. There was a lot of yelling about stuff that I didn’t understand. My mom generally was an accomplice in his behavior and failed, like every adult does, in her own ways. But my dad really sucked. He was a figure that loomed over me and rarely talked to me without awkwardness, confusion, anger, or the aid of several Heinekens and a bong hit.

My dad failed in many ordinary ways that I can forgive now, or at least understand and try to forgive. Sometimes I actually do; sometimes I don’t. But my dad also sucked in not-so-ordinary ways. In ways that being a fallible human doesn’t give him a pass—or at least I don’t give him a pass. I did not speak to my dad for more than five years at one point. We never had a falling out, a big blow up, which might be the reason it was so easy, when I was in my midthirties, to let him slip away. The last time I saw him, he looked broken in half. He finally fell off the middle-class part of the bell curve for good, hands bruised and bleeding. But we never talked about it. Not once. So I’ve filled the silence between me and my dad with only one story—my story—and because it’s my story, it’s true to me.

I was complicit in the silence as well. I didn’t pick up the phone. I didn’t look back, either. I guess I’m good at that, too.

It is important to know that despite all this chaos, or maybe even because of it, there was so much good and joy in my childhood. Both my mom and my dad had a deep respect for my siblings’ and my voices and believed we should be treated as equal members of the household. We had huge family meetings, that I’m sure were based on some process done in a commune, to collectively decide the rules. (“No walking around naked” was vetoed.) Everyone in the family, in different ways, was encouraged, even required, to challenge authority and question why everything was the way it was. Most important, when it was all said and done, we loved each other.

My childhood was normal to me because I had no reference outside of my own experience. Until one day, I did—and then it wasn’t. On that day, I had a playdate with a kid in my neighborhood. My dad was home drinking lentil soup straight from the can, eating a raw head of broccoli and a hard-boiled egg (a normal snack for him), drying his exercise clothes in our oven. He had on a headband, wristbands, sneakers, high white tube socks, and tighty-whities. Our house smelled liked sweat and piss (from me or the animals, I wasn’t sure). Charlie, my bird, was cursing up a storm. When the kid from down the street looked around, he puckered up his face and muttered, “Weird.”

If that wasn’t enough, then came school, where I quickly became “one of those kids.” From my first day in kindergarten at Pennekamp Elementary School, me and school just didn’t get along. It started with the desk. My relationship with my school desk was fraught: five seconds into class, my foot starts bouncing; ten seconds in, both feet; fifteen seconds in, I bust out the drums. After a few minutes, it’s all over. Then I’m trying to put my leg behind my neck. No, that desk and me did not get along. For some kids, their desk was simply school furniture; for me it was an enhanced interrogation technique that would have made Dick Cheney smile.

Sitting still was hard enough, but I also struggled with reading. I was placed in the “dumb” group. Teachers didn’t actually call us the dumb group, but let’s be real: everyone knew which group was the “smart” group and which wasn’t. My school had the California Condors, the Blackbirds, the Bluebirds—and then over in the annex trailer behind the actual school were the Sparrows. I spent the day reading See Spot Run, while the Condors were finishing up War and Peace. All joking aside—no matter what the reading groups were named, kids knew their place. See Spot Run is not a bad book. Nice narrative structure. Good moral tale. But I didn’t want to be caught dead with Spot when I was ten years old. So as I headed across the room to find my reading group, Spot went in my backpack, or under my shirt, because as I walked by, the other kids would taunt: “Jonathan, go back to the dumb reading group.”

Reading groups sucked enough, but reading out loud in class was pure hell. Here is how it went for me: first kid starts reading; I’m terrified but have a plan—count the number of sentences this kid is reading, then flip through the book to memorize. Next kid reads. Oh, no. The first kid reads ten sentences; the next kid reads five. I can’t find my page. The kid right next to me starts to read. I’m next. I raise my hand. March myself to the bathroom and pray to God I will be skipped when I come back. I come back from the bathroom only to discover that they’ve waited for me. Held my page. I read out loud for ten agonizing minutes, though reading would be an ambitious term for what I did. Fumbling through letters and words would be more accurate.

Then there was writing. I asked my third grade teacher why couldn’t there just be one there. Do we really need three theres? And can’t we just agree when I write how instead of who, or who instead of how, that he could still get the gist of what I was trying to say? Okay, this could be a problem sometimes, like when I passed a note to a kid next to me, intending to ask them how they were doing, but instead asking them who they were doing. But that is (a) not all that often, (b) funny, and (c) at some point in life a valid question.

Then there were words like horse and house. Sure, these are totally different things. But give me a break. That r in the middle of horse? Not my problem. Then words like organizations (which often comes out as orgasm) and business (which I write as bunnies) that, due to all those soft consonant vowel blends, can be mangled and rearranged, in endless, beautiful ways. Okay, these words have none of that, or maybe they do. I don’t know, because I still don’t know what the hell a consonant vowel blend is.

There was a time when we all agreed to just let this stuff go. Sure, that time was the 1500s and spelling wasn’t codified, but people got by. One word could be spelled ten ways. Those were the good old days. Pennekamp Elementary School, however, did not believe in the restoration of Old English spelling conventions, so I learned to dumb it down. I would write only with words I could copy from around the room. If the word in my head was too long for me to spell, I used a simpler one. When in doubt, I’d scribble a word so no one could read it. I became caught in a full-blown dumb-it-down cycle. My spelling and writing made me seem stupid, so then I was treated as if I was stupid. Then I began to believe I was stupid, and then I began to act stupid, and then—do it all over again the next day.

* * *

By the end of third grade I was promoted from being one of “those kids” to the “resource room special ed” kid. I was diagnosed with multiple language-based learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. When the educational psychologist broke the news to my mom and me, it was as if someone had died. Tissues on the table. Hushed tones. Mirrors covered. We sat shivah for the death of my normality. The tragedy of my problem—which up until that point hadn’t had a name—wasn’t lost on me, even at ten years old. I knew people thought something was wrong with me. When we left the shrink’s office, I asked my mom, “Am I normal?”

I can still see my mom that day in my mind. She is a not a tall woman; on a good day, she’s four-eleven in high heels, and looks like an Irish bulldog. She has a squeaky voice like Minnie Mouse’s and curses like a truck driver. That school physiologist did not want a pissed-off, cursing Minnie Mouse in her office. But that’s where my mom went. She asked me to stay outside and then she went back into the office. Next thing I knew, every dog in the neighborhood was running away and I felt as if glass would shatter under the wave of her high-pitched obscenities. She walked out of the office and answered my question with two words: “Normal sucks.”

Regardless of what she said, though, I knew the real answer. I had crossed that invisible line between the normal and the not normal, which we all know is there. Though we aren’t quite sure where it is all of the time, or who drew it, or how, or why. At that moment, I knew for sure that whatever normal was, I wasn’t it.

* * *

I want you to know that my story doesn’t end outside that office, with me on the wrong side of normal. I want to tell you how I fought my way back, not to the “right” side of the line, but to a sense of self and life that isn’t defined by that line at all.

Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Mooney