Memoirs of Trauma

Start Free Trial

Frederick Busch (review date 9 February 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1421

SOURCE: "My Brother, Myself," in New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1997, p. 10.

[In the following positive review of Imagining Robert, by Jay Neugeboren, Busch distinguishes between Neugeboren's roles as author and as brother, offering sympathetic opinions of both.]

The novelist Jay Neugeboren would not agree that a discussion of his powerful story—his brother's battle for more than 30 years with mental illness—centers on him, the writer. He would insist that his brother is the heart of the matter. His belief is part of the appeal of his memoir, Imagining Robert.

But he is the writer, and it is he who has found the language and he who has fought exhaustion and despair and disorder, as much on his brother's behalf as on his own. So we might start by considering this story at the farther end of its awful arc: Robert Neugeboren, a 50-year-old man, has yet another breakdown and he is put in isolation in a psychiatric center. It is approximately the 50th time that he has been so hospitalized. The medicines to which he has finally become accustomed, and which seemed to do him a little good, are changed. The psychiatrist who, when he saw Robert, at least did no harm is changed. Soon the dosages of his new medication are, predictably, increased. Jay, the older brother, who has cared on his own for his children since his wife left the family in 1986, has flown to Athens, Ohio, because his son, in college, is recovering from a bad LSD trip and has had strong suicidal impulses. Upon his return, Jay begins to receive calls from Florida concerning his mother, who left for the South after telling her older son, about Robert, "You be in charge from now on, Jay—I just can't handle it anymore." Jay is told that she has begun to wake in the middle of the night, to run onto roadways and highways, endangering herself and others. Jay's other college-age son returns to live at home with him, bringing anger and disorder. Robert deteriorates. And Jay wonders how to survive, and how to help his brother survive.

Jay Neugeboren lives, unsurprisingly, in a state of exhaustion, like the families of so many victims of schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder. The patients are locked in cycles of careless and inattentive, often cruel, treatment, which can offer them and their families little hope. Over the years, Robert has participated in "group therapy, family therapy, multifamily group therapy, Gestalt therapy, psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy, goal-oriented therapy; art therapy, behavioral therapy, vocational rehabilitation therapy, milieu therapy, et al." But, Mr. Neugeboren points out, the more chronic his brother's condition grew, the less therapy he received and the more drugs:

"He was schizophrenic when enormous doses of Thorazine and Stelazine calmed him; he was manicdepressive (bipolar) when lithium worked; he was manic-depressive-with-psychotic-symptoms, or hypomanic, when Tegretol or Depakote (anticonvulsants), or some new antipsychotic or antidepressant—Trilafon, Adapin, Mellaril, Haldol, Klonopin, risperidone—showed promise of making him cooperative; and he was schizophrenic (again) when various doctors promised cures through insulin-coma therapy or megadose-vitamin therapy or Marxist therapy or gas therapy. At the same time, often in an attempt to minimize side effects, other drugs were poured into him: Artane, Benadryl, Cogentin, Kemadrin, Symmetrel, Prolixin, Pamelor, Navane."

So, since the mid-1960's, a bright, possibly brilliant young man has been shunted from harassed social worker to exhausted clinic psychiatrist, from 10-minute sessions billed as hourlong sessions, from beatings at the hands (and feet) of orderlies, from straitjackets and wet sheets to halfway house to isolation in a psychiatric center again,...

(This entire section contains 1421 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

and from drug to drug to drug, from dysfunctional household to his brother's more tender care and back to isolation again, from quack to paper-pusher—and from breakdown to breakdown. He has been abandoned by his mother, his father has died, and the psychiatric profession as organized by New York State for its dependent citizens has moved its heavy haunches essentially to keep Robert Neugeboren quiet and out of the way. When he shows symptoms, he is punished—though "treatment" would be the word on his chart—with isolation and more drugs for the crime of "non-compliance."

Meanwhile, Jay Neugeboren, caring for his children, working at his craft and at teaching the students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, seems to live on the go and on the phone, trying to coordinate the nightmare "care" his brother receives so that Robert can be more than the sum total of his symptoms—so that he might have a functioning self.

As is so often the case in a crazy household—and Mr. Neugeboren's was: the climate was shaped by a sad, ineffectual father, an often cruel, seductive mother—guilt becomes a leitmotif. After he has moved his mother from a retirement community to a nursing home, Mr. Neugeboren wonders whether he is more comfortable being responsible for his mother than with loving her, or whether he has ever loved her. And he asks himself whether, in caring for her and for Robert and even his children, he is "merely trying to prove (to her? to myself? to the universe?) yet again that I am not the mean and selfish boy she always told me I was." This kind of honesty characterizes Imagining Robert. Such self-examination is woven into the narrative of mistreatment and malpractice, and guilt provides too tempting an invitation for Mr. Neugeboren to decline. He must consider it in terms of his own need for expiation or exorcism or (at least) self-analysis. Inevitably questions of guilt become questions of narrative: Why do I tell this tale? Do I serve, or use, my brother? Does my interest in telling the tale overwhelm my interest in serving my loved one?

Every writer serves his selfish needs. But in the case of this memoir, we deal with a writer who serves himself and who goes on to serve his brother for his brother's sake. He finds him in memory and presents him to us as an infant, as a child, as a clever adolescent. (It is in his teen-age years, when Jay goes to college after the boys have shared the same room and true affection for each other, that Robert begins to disintegrate.) Robert is a person here, and not a case history. Mr. Neugeboren finds his brother's noble moments, his triumphs of wit, the true Robert locked behind the trembling hands, the speeding talk, the frightening outbursts. Jay finds Robert by using his art: he imagines him for us, he makes his incoherent journey into a narrative that is organized and useful. He tells Robert's story, and so, at least in a small and permanent way, he frees him.

At the same time, he frees himself "by acting as if there were two Roberts: the brother I grew up with, and the brother who was now hospitalized." This act of the imagination makes it possible for Mr. Neugeboren to "spend time with Robert without making him feel that he (or I!) was somehow to blame for his fate." So, among the many enlightenments this book offers, there is a double lesson about the imagination and illness. The writer is spurred by a loved one's illness to order the chaos of his experience through writing. But the Jay who is a brother before he is an author is spurred by Robert's illness to re-create his brother—to invoke the imagination on behalf of sanity itself. And Jay Neugeboren therefore must contend with two kinds of guilt—with matters of his daily battle with Robert's illness and Robert himself, and with a writer's guilt about what (and whom) he has written.

The author finds his brother, through daily contention and through his writing. And he finds himself in his love for his brother. Coping with Robert's illness, Mr. Neugeboren himself almost succumbs—he is always shaken by stress and fear, and he comes close at several points to suicide—yet he does endure, and so, remarkably, does Robert. Each man seems to me heroic, in part because I know so much about each in his extremity. Mr. Neugeboren concludes that "knowledge and love often prove to be one." It is a writer's knowledge: he knew what he knew, and then, to save his life and his brother's, he imagined the rest of the truth.

'Oh, Robert,' I say then, 'how did we ever live together in that one small room for all those years?'

'Maybe,' Robert answers, 'we were the same person.'


Eugenia Zukerman (review date 2 February 1997)


Margaret Moorman (review date 9 February 1997)