"Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival," by Jay Neugeboren. William Morrow. 305 pages.$24.
When God asks Cain where Abel is, he replies, "Am I my brother's keeper?" This ancient, ongoing question - with its myriad repercussions - is at the core of Jay Neugeboren's loving memoir. Far more than a story of mental illness, it describes the emotional turmoil of many lifelong caregivers, and their struggle for happiness and meaning in the face of it.
Robert breaks down in his first year of college and at least 50 times thereafter. He spends his adult life trapped in the mental health system, his treatment and prognosis changing with every rumored "breakthrough."
Robert endures gas inhalations, insulin comas, restraints, electroshock, revolving-door therapists, and medical indifference. Family concerns about brain damage are met with "There are lots of brain cells." He gets an abundance of drugs and a shocking lack of care. "Does anyone talk to him about anything?" Neugeboren asks, fearing that Robert's humanity has been "reduced to [his] biology".
"Imagining Robert" celebrates that humanity and the family history that shaped it, for all its cruelty and broken dreams. Neugeboren honors love, even when expressed by imperfect beings. The title reflects his attempt to see Robert as two people: the funny, sweet, talented companion of his childhood, and the institution-dweller who's often deranged and sometimes violent.
This frees him from the anguished futility of tracing how one Robert could have become the other. While such tales often bog down in polemics, Neugeboren creates a fluid, fair-minded narrative propelled by vivid flashbacks, excerpts from Robert's own diaries and letters, and stunning events in their shared world.
"Mental illness completely exhausts, strains, and informs all the moments of a family's life," Neugeboren writes, and proves it. It's all there: the anger, confusion and blame, the golden seasons of hope - and the sudden phone calls that end them. Robert is a bomb that never stops detonating. Even the next generation is ** wounded by fear of his legacy.
What shines through the tragedy is the deep bond between the brothers, forged by the warmth, humor and tenderness they continue to share. Even when psychosis makes them unrecognizable to each other, their childhood memories connect and sustain them. Despite his own shattered dreams, Robert is proud of his big brother's career; when he shakes so badly from his medication that he can't hold a fork, Jay feeds him with a love their mother couldn't give.
The universal relationship question - "will you stay with me no matter what?" becomes especially poignant for those with Robert's history of forced dependence. Neugeboren's reply is absolute. What he cannot answer is why Robert got sick and he did not, given their mental and physical resemblance and shared family background (for that matter, why did Abel become a farmer and Cain a murderer?). But he is sure about the most important point of all: that mental illness does not negate the value of the human beings who suffer from it. As he tells his daughter, "his life may be sadder and narrower than ours ... but neither he nor his life is less than ours."
Judith Schlesinger is a practicing psychotherapist who holds a doctorate in psychology, and has treated many patients like Robert. She is a professor at Pace University and author of "Music and Madness," about the psychological and cultural impact of music.
Pub Date: 2/09/97