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Review of "Imagining Robert"

By Jay Neugeboren
Rutgers University Press, 1997
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 30th 1998
Imagining Robert What is most impressive about Neugeboren's account of his family's history and their reaction to his brother Robert's behavior is not his passion, his eloquence, his readiness to stand by his brother in difficult times, his insightful psychological analysis, nor his openness, although all those qualities are revealed in the text. He is a good writer, with many interesting thoughts, who seems stronger in character than many others might be in his encounters both with his brother's madness and the mental health system's craziness. Neugeboren does not try to argue for a specific conclusion, nor does he try to paint himself in a flattering light, but rather leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. He does not even try to get inside his brother's head and show what it is like to be mad. But what comes through, as he intends it to, is the story itself. One gets a sense of the possibilities that existed when Robert was younger, how they have changed, and the regret and satisfaction that Jay experiences now. Simply telling us that he feels those emotions does not convey them; it is the details of the history that make them real.

 The details of the book offer plenty to reflect on too. Jay's younger brother Robert was in their youth a very imaginative and unconventional person. He quotes some of Robert's poetry, and it bears some resemblance to e. e. cummings in its lack of grammar and use of arrangement on the page to convey meaning. Robert is witty and clever, and those qualities sometimes get him into trouble. But while Jay becomes a writer with a family and a steady job, Robert spends half of his life in mental hospitals, mainly in the New York area, suffering experimental procedures and getting lost in the system. Through Neugeboren's frank depiction of what goes on, we see the stupidity, dogmatism, petty-mindedness and anger of the people in charge of his brother. But this is not a shocking exposé, and most readers will not be surprised by what they learn. We know that the care of the seriously mentally ill is under funded and made worse by the stigma that attaches to the mad. Even at its best, psychiatry cannot cure these illnesses, and it is rarely at its best. Large state hospitals are undefended and overworked. Treatment of the mentally ill is often at the mercy of local or national politics. Without offering advice, Neugeboren tells us how he deals or sometimes fails to deal with the mental health system and bureaucracy.

 But it is the Neugeboren family that holds the greatest interest, in their persistent ability to make each other unhappy. As with many families of the mentally ill, we are led to guess what illnesses the eccentricities of the undiagnosed members signify. Jay is often told that he is very different from his brother, and appears to others as the sane one in the family; he wonders if this is mere illusion or mere luck. He tries to make sense of what went on in his family, and clearly believes that if his brother had been treated differently in the past, Robert's life would have gone better. He is not out to assign blame to his parents even if he wonders how they could have behaved as they did. It is partly in collaboration with Robert that he engages in the project of remembering and retelling the past. (Indeed, Robert will get a share of the profits of the book.) Together they piece together the last 50 years, going through old letters and records and relying on their memories. The process of recall does not transform either of them, nor does it provide any major revelations. Rather, it gives them and the reader a sense of perspective. We get a picture of what mental illness means for us, how we react to it, and we get some glimpses of how we could do much better.