illness tinges brothers bond
TEMPLET of the Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, March 20, 2002
16 movies over two decades, Larry Hott had always hired someone else
to do the filming. For his latest work, though, Hott looked through
a digital video camera viewfinder and quickly realized the new technology
would bring him closer than ever to his newest subject: a portrait of
the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is mentally ill.
intimacy of his project with Jay and Robert Neugeboren, the closeness
I'm taping Jay and Robert they relate directly to me without anyone
else being involved," says Hott.
Robert: My Brother, Madness and Survival," the latest documentary
for Hott's Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc., is inspired by former
University of Massachusetts professor Jay Neugeboren's acclaimed book
of the same name, published by William Morrow and Company Inc. in 1997.
book as a guide, Hott set out in 1997 to capture the story of Neugeboren's
younger brother, Robert, and his four-decade battle with mental illness.
Robert Neugeboren suffers from schizophrenia and manic depression.
film will premier in a free showing in Northampton on April 28. It tells
the story of a family's struggle to come to terms with a member's devastating
and dislocating mental illness. Both Neugeborens will attend the 7:30
p.m. screening and join a discussion later in Wright Hall at Smith College.
Jay Neugeboren says, captures what such an illness means inside a family.
It's a portrait, he says, "of two brothers that personifies and
exemplifies the pain and joy a family goes through."
said that his brother is a kind of walking archaeological dig of mental
health treatment in the 20th century. Since his first episode with mental
illness in 1962 as a college freshman, Robert Neugeboren has been hospitalized
more than 50 times, lived in a variety of institutional settings and
endured treatments that have included gas inhalation, restraints and
an abundance of psychotropic drugs. "The very history of the ways
in which our mental health system has dealt with the mentally ill has
been passing through my brother's mind and body," Neugeboren says.
story comes to life
Hott and Jay Neugeboren had known one another for years, Hott says he
hadn't seen the possibility of a film project.
once in a while Jay would mention this brother he had," says Hott.
until 1997, though, when Neugeboren read from "Imagining Robert"
at their synagogue in Northampton, that the brothers' story came to
life for the filmmaker. Hott says he was astonished by the way Jay Neugeboren,
an accomplished fiction writer, so vividly articulated the relationship
with his brother.
idea of brothers," Hott says, "is poignant and universal."
Neugeborens' case, it was a relationship that at times meant Jay getting
calls from the police at 3 a.m., with Robert in their custody. It meant
Jay wrangling with the New York City mental health system and watching
Robert's health suffer with the administration of medications like Lithium
he saw that any film should be not just about Robert, but also about
Jay - an author who at the time was a UMass writer in residence. "Parentheses:
An Autobiographical Journey" and "An Orphan's Tale" are
among his best-known works.
"Transforming Madness: New Lives for People Living with Mental
Illness," released after Hott began making the film, has brought
him national acclaim.
the potential for the project when he heard the questions and comments
from the audience at the synagogue. "Everyone had a connection
to this issue. They said things like 'I have a brother, I have a sister
dealing with this,' " Hott recalls.
Institute of Mental Health estimates that 17 million Americans have
family members suffering severe, long-term mental illnesses.
Neugeboren, who expressed concern that his brother not be embarrassed
by any work created. For his part, Robert Neugeboren says he wanted
only the guarantee that his privacy be respected. "I wanted to
make sure nothing personal got out," he said.
Neugeboren began collaborating and Hott worked on fund raising, enduring
the usual rejections. Months passed before the project received any
financial support. Then, in 1999 Hott was awarded a $10,000 grant from
the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities for "Imagining
was incredible what we did on those two years on that budget,"
Hott said. "We barely had anything."
Diane Garey, his wife, who is a film editor, received subsequent grants
from the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the
Animating Democracy Initiative of Americans for Arts and an additional
grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
Florentine Films received $92,000, roughly half the intended budget.
aboard Hott's old Volvo station wagon, the filmmaker and Jay Neugeboren
traveled down Interstate Highway 91 toward Staten Island, N.Y., to meet
up with Robert at the South Beach Psychiatric Center, where he was living.
drove, Hott interviewed him in the car, recording the session. With
camera rolling, they picked up Robert.
began talking immediately, reciting poetry he had written," Hott
remembers his brother that afternoon as having a good day. Robert began
playing to the camera, dancing in the parking lot and "acting very
free" with the waitresses at the Mexican restaurant where they
"I found him utterly delightful and knew there was something he
had that was valuable," Hott says. "He was very comfortable
with the camera, as though he were a celebrity."
recalls that when they were children, his brother would tap dance on
street corners and in the local candy stores for money. In a phone interview
from the Fountain House in New York, a day treatment program where he
is enrolled this winter, Robert confirms that performance meant a lot
to him. "I took tap-dancing lessons, ballet, choreography, oboe,
a little accordion, a little piano," he said.
Jay Neugeboren adds that his brother was gifted at writing, singing
home, Hott showed the material to Garey. She loved it, seeing in the
film what Hott says he'd envisioned at the synagogue.
Jay recovered some old movies and photographs of the brothers growing
up and Hott was able to track their lives through these old documents,
giving the film a long reach.
saw them at 4 and 8 and now seeing them at 57 and 61, still acting like
brothers, still laughing at each other's jokes," Hott says.
was just right when the humanities grant came through in 1999 and filming
could finally begin. It was a crucial point in Robert Neugeboren's life.
With the help of publicity from Jay Neugeboren's book, and a letter
critical of his brother's care at the Bronx Psychiatric Center, Jay
was able to move his brother into Project Renewal, a halfway house in
New York City.
describes it as a welcome change from the "prison-like loony bin"
Robert was in.
gave Hott an opportunity to advance the narrative. He could film Robert
Neugeboren adjusting to living with far more independence - after having
moved from one psychiatric center to another for most of his adult life.
allowed Hott to see the brothers going out around the city, Robert cooking
his own meals and taking care of himself at Project Renewal.
says the shooting was fun for him. "Larry and his wife gave me
lots of gifts and bought me lunch all the time," he says. He also
enjoyed meeting people on the film crew, he says. "I really liked
the sound guys."
the filming, Hott says he made discoveries not only about the Neugeborens'
lives, but about himself, as he viewed the story as cameraman.
at Project Renewal was physically exhausting, Hott recalls. But in time,
the camera "became an extension of my eye." Many times, Hott
insisted on being with Robert apart from his brother. He built a relationship
with him through the camera.
point, Hott reads sections of "Imagining Robert" aloud to
him at Project Renewal. The film captures Robert's distress as he reads
through a diary he had kept while living at a psychiatric hospital 30
years before. It is where he ended up after his first breakdown while
a student at the City College of New York. Recollections of beatings
and isolation emerge.
From behind the camera, Hott continually interviews both Neugeborens.
"I never meant to be a character in the film," says Hott.
gives the film an added perspective, as Hott stands in for the viewer,
asking questions and looking at things as a viewer might.
the filming, Hott says, he sought to evoke reactions in his subjects.
In one of those instances, Jay Neugeboren and Hott went to the Florida
nursing home where the Neugeborens' mother lives.
advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, she is unresponsive and immobile.
sits next to her bed and slowly recounts the story of the day his mother
and father left Robert at a hospital in 1973. Hott pushes the camera
in close to Neugeboren and his mother, creating an almost claustrophobic
feeling for the viewer.
capture it on camera and then replay it to Robert. It is an extremely
emotional scene," Hott says. "It's emotional, just talking
Garey have moved on to other projects. Two-time Academy Award nominees
and Emmy and Peabody award winners, they are now working on an environmental
film about Alaska. Jay Neugeboren has retired from UMass and lives in
New York City, where he is working on his next novel. Poems written
by Robert Neugeboren are about to be published. "I am very excited,"
he say of that project.
After premiering in Northampton, the film will be shown on PBS stations.
It will also be used in workshops with state chapters of the National
Alliance for the Mentally Ill, local police departments, and mental
health recovery programs, Hott says.
stepped behind the camera, Hott has a new perspective.
the project was liberating. Through it, he says, he discovered new ways
to articulate a story on camera, even one as complex as the Neugeboren
brothers' relationship. "This is the 17th professional film in
my 23-year career," he says. "I realize I can still learn