In the Locked Ward

Transforming Madness

by Jay Neugeboren
Morrow, 390 pp., $25.00

“Throw away your Sigmund Freud, Mrs. Neugeboren…because I am going to cure your son!” It is 1968 and Dr. Cott is offering massive doses of vitamins B-6, B-12 and C. One of the first of a score of psychiatrists to take charge of the schizophrenic Robert Neugeboren, whose story is told in these two books, Cott’s confidence is, alas, unwarranted. Still, the same could be said of most of those who follow him, each with his own favorite wonder cure, whether it be electroshock, insulin, Adapin, Mellaril, lithium, Stelazine, or any number of others. When one doctor announces with great excitement that he is going to try the “brand-new” anti-convulsant Depakote, Robert’s brother Jay, who is telling the story, has to remind him that actually Robert has already been on Depakote. He responded briefly, then relapsed.

Jay, however, is ever willing to hope, and in the early Nineties, when a psychiatrist decides that Klonopin is the way forward, the author welcomes the decision. Only a little later he discovers that this is the same drug that has just been prescribed to their eighty-two-year-old mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Is it likely, then, that this will prove the promised “magic bullet” for schizophrenia?

Meantime Robert is frequently deprived of his phone privileges. Why, Jay complains, “what possible medical reason can there be…for depriving him of any contact with the world beyond the ward?” Invariably he is told that “the staff like Robert” but that he can be “impossible” and even “dangerous.” “He curses loudly, screams at telephone operators, keeps demanding refunds from the phone company,…spits at aides, scratches them, strikes other patients.” Reading Imagining Robert and Transforming Madness, it soon becomes apparent that dealing with the schizophrenic from day to day is far more of a problem than the choice of his new medication.

A novelist by profession, Jay Neugeboren is a constant thorn in the flesh of those who have treated his brother over almost forty years of mental illness. It is not that he has an axe to grind. On the contrary, he displays an exemplary openness to a wide range of points of view. No, Jay’s behavior is irksome first because he just will not leave things be. He continues to visit his brother, even when those visits leave Robert more agitated than they found him, and he always insists on knowing what medication is being offered, what therapy proposed.

“Stop being so concerned about your brother,” advises Dr. Laqueur, a great advocate of coma-shock therapy (this back in the early Sixties). “You should get on with your own life.” From time to time, as the years go by, the dashed hopes, the violent crises, readers of these books may be inclined to agree with Laqueur. Yet at the same time they would have to acknowledge the author’s constantly implied objection: “But how can my ‘own’ life be separated from my brother’s? They are inextricable.”

For the other quality of Neugeboren’s that psychiatrists find so unsettling is his…

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