Memoirs of Trauma

Start Free Trial

Carolyn Alessio (review date 27 April 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1637

SOURCE: "Dark Angels," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 27, 1997, p. 3.

[Below, Alessio reviews three memoirs examining the effects of mental illness on families: Tara Elgin Holley's My Mother's Keeper, Clea Simon's Mad House, and Jay Neugeboren's Imagining Robert.]

The modern world recklessly equates mental illness with art. Consider the current world tour of Australian pianist David Helfgott, the subject of the popular film Shine. Despite reports of his abysmal technique, Helfgott plays to sold-out audiences, while his CD ranks as a best seller on classical music charts. Famous disturbed artists whose work did succeed, like Vincent Van Gogh and Robert Lowell, nurture the illusion that the insane are intermediaries from a mysterious aesthetic realm. As if the mentally ill did not have enough to contend with, recent books such as Arnold Ludwig's The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy saddle their condition with the expectation of artistic greatness.

Romanticization of mental illness is best refuted by the relatives of the mentally ill. In three new memoirs, the loved ones of four schizophrenics explore the vagaries of caring for their relatives, from practical concerns like finding suitable halfway houses, to more profound issues of responsibility, anger and betrayal.

Ironically, two of these authors are artists—Jay Neugeboren, a novelist, and Tara Elgin Holley, a musician. Neugeboren and Holley, along with journalist Clea Simon, credit their mentally ill relatives with affecting the direction of their work, negatively and positively. Their aesthetic perspectives suggest an overlooked aspect of the relationship between art and madness: the artistic effect of madness on the family observer.

In the U.S. alone, 2.5 million people are diagnosed schizophrenics, about 1 percent of the population. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, schizophrenia is a disturbance that lasts at least 6 months and includes two or more of the following: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior, and loss of normal emotional functioning.

Not only is the nature of the illness fundamentally unpredictable, but so is the care, and the relatives of schizophrenics are often called upon to be creative with their skills and resources. In 1994, Neugeboren wrote a desperate letter to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo about Neugeboren's younger brother, Robert, who had suffered from mental illness for the last 32 of his 50 years. Robert had been asymptomatic for more than 6 months and was eager to move to a halfway/recovery house, but bureaucratic delays kept him on a locked ward at Staten Island's South Beach Psychiatric Center.

When Neugeboren consulted Robert's state-appointed psychiatrist about moving his brother, the psychiatrist snapped, "Talk to the governor." Cuomo responded, at least in part. When the psychiatric center's staff received a copy of the letter from the governor's office, it chastised Neugeboren and further complicated Robert's situation. Once again, Neugeboren was back where he started.

Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival rose out of 32 years of Jay Neugeboren's frustration with the ways in which the medical community and the outside world treated his brother. Neugeboren, author of 10 novels and nonfiction books, is a master chronicler of lives. In this ponderous and unsparing memoir, he relentlessly scours his own family's history for possible origins of his brother's illness. Though he pinpoints manic-depressive characteristics in his mother, Neugeboren hesitates to blame his brother's illness on pure heredity. A focus on genetics may someday lead to a cure, but his immediate interest is in day-to-day care issues.

Neugeboren candidly admits to some exasperation with his brother, who long has relied on him for comfort and support in...

(This entire section contains 1637 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

the midst of repeated breakdowns. The book includes snippets of many disturbing, late-night phone calls and publicly humiliating scenes. But Neugeboren also depicts Robert's intellect and idiosyncratic humor, qualities that Neugeboren admits he relies on his brother to provide. In one scene Neugeboren asks Robert why he has survived his breakdowns and hospitalizations when so many of his mentally ill cohorts have completely deteriorated or committed suicide.

"First of all," Robert quips, "I realized that God is black and that she loves me." But when Jay presses him for a more serious answer, Robert says, "I just wanted to survive and persist…. [I]t's like Faulkner said in the speech he made, for the Nobel, remember?—I wanted to endure somehow."

Whereas Neugeboren gradually assumes a parental role in caring for his brother, Tara Elgin Holley takes responsibility for her schizophrenic mother when Holley is in her late teens. Holley, who writes with her husband, journalist Joe Holley, traces her early maturity and love of music to her mother.

In 1951, Big Band singer Dawn Elgin was establishing herself in Hollywood, considering an offer from RCA Victor. There was talk, too, of a movie role for the aspiring 21-year-old actress, but suddenly Dawn departed for New York.

For months, her family in California heard nothing from their daughter. Then they received a telegram from Bellevue Hospital: "Your daughter is acute paranoid schizophrenic. Needs hospitalization." The telegram failed to mention that the unmarried Dawn had recently given birth to a daughter, whom she named Tara.

The only real information that remains about this period is that during Dawn's pregnancy, she began to dream of a dark angel. She continued to experience visions and dreams, mixed with bouts of rage, and soon her previous lifestyle eroded. Tara was raised primarily by relatives.

My Mother's Keeper is the brutal, insightful story of Tara Elgin Holley's attempt to decipher her mentally ill mother's relationship with the world. As a result, Holley discovers the unconventional ways in which her mother shaped her own identity.

By age 21, Holley had assumed full responsibility for her mother's hospitalizations, medications and transitional housing. This was no simple task for a college music student who also held two jobs, but she managed to keep vigil over Dawn, who wandered the streets of Austin, Texas, unkempt and often disoriented. Despite Holley's attempts to locate the most sympathetic doctors and hospitals, Dawn claimed to be happiest when she roamed the streets.

And despite Holley's strident loyalty to her mother, she admits to a moment or two of denial. In one painful scene, Holley is walking with a professor when she sees her mother in the distance, clad in urine-stained clothes. Holley panics, telling her professor she has to stop at the co-op, and ducks into a doorway. As her mother passes, Holley notes that her mother's fingernails are bitten off to the quick; blood has dried around the cuticles.

The moments of connection with her mother remain few but precious to Holley, who describes happily singing classical music for Dawn. But Dawn's enthusiastic response provoked both joy and guilt in Holley, who wondered why she and not her mother was allowed to pursue a musical career unhampered by mental illness. This complicated emotion haunts Holley later in her life, especially when she further hones her art and starts a family of her own. Dawn's crises never quite abate, regardless of new doctors and medications, and neither do Holley's (self-admittedly) improbable hopes that her mother will truly return.

For Clea Simon, the effect of mental illness on her family was doubly devastating; both her siblings were schizophrenic. By the time Simon was 12, her older brother and sister had been in and out of numerous hospitals, institutions and half-way houses. Simon was left to interpret her siblings' bizarre rages and periods of withdrawal and, later, to identify their effect on her own development. To corroborate her experience, Simon turned to other relatives of the mentally ill, members of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and to experts such as Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, author of Surviving Schizophrenia: A Manual for Families, Consumers, and Providers.

There is comfort in talking to fellow siblings of the mentally ill, Simon says [in her memoir, Mad House], an undeniable need for peers among the perpetually disconnected. Simon, a journalist for the Boston Globe, blends interviews and medical information in this instructive but disturbing memoir.

"As siblings who have watched our brothers or sisters 'go mad,' who lost our peers to psychosis, we share a unique experience: Our brothers and sisters are the ones we were supposed to have played with, learned to get along with, emulated if they were older or taken care of if they were younger, the people with whom we should have navigated the shoals of growing up. But instead they broke down."

Beyond identifying common characteristics in the relatives of the mentally ill—dread, guilt, a fear of succeeding in one's own career and relationships—Simon admits to fearing the obvious, genetic legacy. Simon, 36, writes from a slightly younger perspective than Neugeboren and Holley, and she brings a wary immediacy to her story; she has not yet had children herself. She and her partner have consulted a genetic counselor, who said a child of Simon's would have a 7 to 8 percent chance of developing schizophrenia. Beyond the genetic fears, Simon worries that she would be overly vigilant as a mother, and that she would somehow damage her child by transmitting her old feelings of guilt and unworthiness. Though she has worked extensively with therapists, her memories and dreams often take her back to childhood scenes in which her siblings frightened her, as when her sister killed Simon's hamster by slamming the piano lid down on it.

Simon says her anxiety was compounded by her parents' sporadic denial of their children's illnesses. When Simon was a freshman entering Harvard, she overheard her mother saying that Clea was her only child. Several years later, Simon's parents would tell her that her 30-year-old brother died in an accident. Later she would learn that he had committed suicide.

Confronting her siblings' illnesses is a lifelong process, according to Simon. "As family members of the mentally ill so often point out," she says, "we have mourning without resolution."


Joanne Kaufman (review date 20 April 1997)


Susie Linfield (review date 11 May 1997)