Book Review: The Hillside Diary and Other Writings
Imagining Robert Neugeboren in his own words
Some of our readers know Robert Neugeboren as the star of the documentary film Imagining Robert (See Daniel Frey's review in June-August 2002 issue). Imagining Robert was based on the book of the same name by Robert's brother, Jay Neugeboren, who serves on the board of the New York City Metro chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).
Robert Neugeboren, 61, is a man of true grit and sensitivity. His many fine qualities and talents have helped him survive years in mental hospitals, group homes, and on the streets of New York City. Thanks to his brother Jay and his own resilient spirit, Robert now lives in a Manhattan community residence run by Project Renewal and works at the Fountain House clubhouse.
Jay Neugeboren has written 14 works of fiction and non-fiction. If I had a big brother who was gaining fame and fortune from his writing, I would be jealous as hell. But Robert has been Jay's biggest booster, faithfully reading and endorsing each book. Thus, it is fitting that, with the help of Boston University's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Jay has edited and published Robert's diary, poems, and letters produced between 1958 and 1976. The book is titled The Hillside Diary and other writings. Robert belongs to the silver-lining school of writing
I identify Robert's literary lineage as the "silver-lining" school of writing. No matter how bad his situation, he puts a good face on things, often by making light of adversity. In 1973, after a fracas with a police officer, Robert was incarcerated in the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center for the Criminally Insane. He deals with the embarrassment in a letter to his two-year-old niece: "I bet your bragging to all the kids on that block of yours about your bigtime criminal of an uncle."
In an allusion to the Thorazine he takes at Hillside Hospital in 1962, he writes in his diary, "Then I went and got some schizophrenic grapefruit and pineapple juice and took two more aspirins. I don't know what I'm getting these headaches from; maybe my cold."
As for the often tiresome community meetings that mental patients have endured, Robert's poem may be the definitive statement: "meetings mount monstrous/on even the duck-billed platypus/on every little iota/does there need to be a vote?/can't we just shelve some items/or shall this misery continue ad infinitum?"
Keeping a diary of delights under duress
Nineteen-year-old Robert Neugeboren spent 18 months at the private Hillside Hospital in Queens during 1962-3. Hillside believed that if you exposed patients to the good things in life, such as the arts, education, and recreation, the patients would become good.
Hillside could not have had a more earnest student than Robert Neugeboren. A couple of years before, he had started City College as a Regents Scholar. While at the hospital, he wrote, painted, acted, and danced; played tennis, baseball, bridge, and chess; and enjoyed movies, music, French, and politics.
As a measure of his desire to improve himself, Robert shared with his psychiatrist the diary he kept during his first six weeks at Hillside. Every day he records his diet. His healthy appetite is a metaphor for his delight in all things mental and physical, such as his appreciation of the artist Gaugin.
Robert states, "The man is a semi-genius. I came out of the library today reeling with colors, maroons and oranges. I would do another painting. A still life with the fruits (not fruit) that I had back in my room. Two oranges, a banana and apple. I worked only with a palette knife, improvising a dark shining blue background—the only definite shape is the banana—maybe I'll outline them in black." You can tell from the passage above that Robert possesses the visual memory of a storyteller. His most evocative descriptions concern other patients, such as, "Marty...is going crazy losing control of himself, giggling, talking endlessly so what am I supposed to do—just say another gone I guess."
The understatement continues with "I feel as though my mind is not rotting but being partially occupied." Thus, the diary reflects his desperation to be a whole human being when his very sanity is in question. A poet who beats back fear with rhyme
In his poetry, Robert counters that fear with nature and love. Echoing Romanticism and anticipating rap, he waxes eloquent with verses that are offbeat and catchy: "cherry buds spotted on the limbs/soon to drop and be gone/well that's Spring folks/time to close up shop." In "thinking of seeing friends," Robert pens "o to be in New York/with a head that is a cork/holding down excitement/when the whole world is one great big delightment." And here's a poem that fuses love and nature: "here's cheers/some tears/I don't know why/but the I/in me/wants to see/you two/so joyous/your voice whistling/like a thisling/on a rose/which goes/ain't we great." One Robert, indivisible, with letters for all
Most of Robert's letters precede his first psychotic episode in 1962. Not surprisingly, the youthful Robert resembles the Robert of the diary. But, as Robert ages, he transfers his exuberance from himself to his brother's family. Thus, the following excerpt is typical of his later letters: "Dear Nieces and Nephews, It has been many moons since I nervously presided as something called Best Man at the conuptual conniptions of your loving parents. Now look at them, they cant even cook a meal without each another help let alone lead someone out the front lawn (your wedding lawn) without eagerly tearing into them as if they were a juicy piece of (d)uck."
In spite of his trials and tribulations, Robert remains the intelligent, sensitive, and witty person who appears in his earlier writings. As he gets jobs, finds places to live, hangs out with girlfriends, and maintains his religious practices, Robert Neugeboren often finds irony in the routine of recovery. He challenges us to think outside the boxes of mental illness that imprisoned his mind and body for so long.
Consumers and their family members can order the paperback edition of The Hillside Diary and other writings for $10.77 plus shipping at www.bu.edu/cpr/ or by calling 617-353-3549.