Jewish values, madness and love punctuate memoir

In the Forest Hills High School 1960 yearbook one student in the graduating class of 1,700 stands out. Amid a sea of sportcoats, oxford cloth shirts, cashmere sweaters and pearls, he wears a plaid bow tie. This young New Yorker doesn't want to be a doctor, lawyer or teacher like others in this predominately Jewish class. His ambition, the yearbook tells us, is to be a "beloved figure."

Thirty-seven years later, Robert Gary Neugeboren is much beloved, at least by his brother.

With the publication of "Imagining Robert: My brother, Madness, and Survival," Jay Neugeboren clearly makes Robert into a "figure."

Robert has spent most of his adult life in mental hospitals, psychiatric wards and halfway houses. He has been treated with psychotropic drugs and secondary drugs to counteract side effects. He has had insulin-coma therapy, megadose vitamin therapy, Marxist therapy, gas therapy and psychotherapy. Some doctors promised a cure; others prescribed medication without ever seeing him.

"Imagining Robert" is a personal account of how genetics, a dysfunctional family, bad luck and an incompetent mental health system have destroyed a life. Where this memoir deviates from the familiar is in the character of the older brother — the book's author — who gives rare insight into the pain and reality of dealing with a family member's mental condition and the survivor's guilt it engenders.

Love and Jewish values have kept Jay Neugeboren devoted to his younger brother, allowing him to nurture a relationship he genuinely enjoys.

Five years Robert's senior, Jay is an author, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and the father of three grown children whom he has raised largely on his own.

Today Robert is in a locked ward at South Beach Hospital in New York, allowed out of his room one hour a day.

"I don't know why our destinies have been so different," said Jay Neugeboren in his San Francisco hotel room during a recent book tour. "What enables one human being to survive in this world and another one to fall? I don't know the answer to that."

The brothers were raised in a Conservative Jewish home, surrounded by extended family. They went to shul on Shabbat, laid tefillin every morning, kept kosher, read the Pirke Avot and attended Jewish camp in the summer. As Jay remembers it, Robert was a bright, creative, talented and precocious child. His behavior, although eccentric, did not cause any concern.

The boys' father was passive at home and unsuccessful in business. Their mother, a nurse often praised for the love and care she showed others, had seemingly limitless energy. But within the walls of her own home, Ann Neugeboren was tyrannical and erratic, with an insatiable need to be loved. She raged at, humiliated and embarrassed her husband and sons, blaming them for her unhappiness.

The author describes his home as "the bad end of the Jewish family: a domineering mother and ineffectual father. Guilt and blame were being thrown around like hard matzah balls, but the good stuff was there too."

The "good stuff" are Jewish values of honesty, lovingkindness and justice, a supportive community and a love of ritual observances. Most of these came from his father. His mother showed her contempt for Jewish rituals when, immediately after her husband's funeral in 1976, she dekoshered her kitchen.

In 1973 she moved to Florida, a gesture the author sees as an abandonment of Robert.

Ann Neugeboren has had almost no contact with Robert since then and did not recognize him at a family gathering in 1987.

The author displays an unfailing devotion to a brother who is explosive, violent, insulting and accusatory — qualities that mirror his mother. Any improvement in his condition is minimal and short-lived. At times it's hard to believe Jay Neugeboren has not given up.

"From a Jewish perspective I was brought up to believe in values of family and community," says the author. "Am I my brother's keeper? Yes."

He admits that Robert drives him crazy at times, but says the relationship brings a richness to his life.

"I get to be with someone who knows me and has been with me throughout my life," he explains. "I have gotten some very specific things. Caring for him helped me care for my children. I learned patience. I learned to restrain impulses that could get me in trouble."

Jewish traditions and ties to the community sustain the author.

"I maintain a very strong identification with the Jewish community," says Jay Neugeboren, a past president of his synagogue in Northampton, Mass. "The Jewish community is the Jewish family extended. It's very comforting to mark the passing of days, weeks, years by certain rituals — lighting the Shabbos candles, putting on tefillin. Those rituals of Judaism give two things, consistency and continuity that most of life doesn't give us."

For those dealing with a mentally ill relative, the author offers advice.

"It's going to be a long road," he says. "Don't let your expectations get too high for a certain kind of recovery because those expectations will probably be dashed again and again. Beware of doctors who think they know exactly what's going to fix the person because usually they don't. Don't try to do it alone. Get other people involved. But I would also say: Enjoy the presence of this person in your life."

As for Robert, the author's hopes are modest.

"That he will get out of a locked ward," he says, and pauses. "I think with some support, maybe forever, he can live a life out here in the world, but it's not an expectation."