"Imagining Robert": Documentary chronicles brother's battle with mental illness

Thursday, April 25, 2002
By RONNI GORDON of the Union-News

The documentary film "Imagining Robert" shows brothers Jay and Robert Neugeboren shopping for shoes, eating in a restaurant, riding in a car.

These are activities most people take for granted, but for Robert, who spent most of his adult life in and out of locked wards on mental hospitals, they were a dream come true.

"He wants the kind of stuff any of us would want, the ordinary stuff of life," Jay Neugeboren says in the film.

Jay, a former Northampton resident, told the story of Robert's mental illness and its effect on their family in his 1997 book, "Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival." The book is the basis for a new documentary by the same name, premiering Sunday and produced by Florentine Films/Hott Productions of Haydenville.

Producer and director Lawrence Hott said that over the years, he had heard about Robert through Jay, a longtime friend now living in New York.

"I knew it would be a good film because it was a good story," he said. Meeting Robert bolstered his hunch. "When I found out that he was engaging, charismatic and funny, that he danced and sang and could draw portraits, I knew I had a film character," he said.

In addition, he saw an opportunity to address important social issues such as the impact of mental illness on families and the problem of inadequate care.

"We want people to start talking about this issue. We don't get a lot of conversation about what does it take for a family to maintain a member with mental illness and what does it do to society when these people are shunted aside."

The film is the centerpiece of a year-long series of screenings and discussions sponsored by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Animating Democracy Initiative of Americans for the Arts, a program of the Ford Foundation.

The first showing, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Wright Hall at Smith College in Northampton, followed by a discussion with Hott, editor Diane Garey and Jay and Robert Neugeboren.

Jay Neugeboren, who is 63 and the author of 13 books, was writer-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for many years. In 1973, he also became Robert's caretaker after their parents moved from New York to Florida and his mother felt too overwhelmed to continue caring for Robert.

Robert, 59, had his first episode of mental illness at age 19 during his freshman year at the City College of New York. Over the years he was given different diagnoses, including manic depression and schizophrenia, and treated with numerous drugs and techniques. Jay often refers to his brother as a walking archaeological dig of mental health treatment in the 20th century.

The film picks up where the book ends, moving the story ahead to what's happened in the last five years. Perhaps most important for Robert is that for 21ž2 years, he has been living in a halfway house, outside the confines of a hospital.
"He's doing nicely," Neugeboren said. "He's been very happy about the book and even more about the film. He loves the camera and the camera loves him . . . Even though it shows him at some times which are not especially flattering, when he loses control, he has no problem with it because that's who he is."

Calling the film an honest and respectful portrayal, he said, "My hope is simply that the film can reach an audience that the book didn't reach and therefore create more tolerance and educate people more about the ways in which mental illness informs a person's life and a family's life."

Many of Hott and Garey's previous films were aired nationally on the Public Broadcasting System, and he said they produced this one too with PBS in mind. "We are now talking with them about putting it on the schedule," he said.

Like some of their other projects on such topics as tuberculosis and the history of nursing, "Imagining Robert" includes humor. "One can think these might not necessarily be hilarious, but we like to put an element of humor and, of course, entertainment, in all of our films," Hott said.

"I knew that even though his story might be sad, the guy himself is not sad. It's an uplifting film."

© 2002 UNION-NEWS.


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