Robert": Documentary chronicles brother's battle with mental illness
April 25, 2002
By RONNI GORDON of the Union-News
film "Imagining Robert" shows brothers Jay and Robert Neugeboren
shopping for shoes, eating in a restaurant, riding in a car.
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.
wants the kind of stuff any of us would want, the ordinary stuff of
life," Jay Neugeboren says in the film.
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.
and director Lawrence Hott said that over the years, he had heard about
Robert through Jay, a longtime friend now living in New York.
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.
he saw an opportunity to address important social issues such as the
impact of mental illness on families and the problem of inadequate care.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
212 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."
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
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.
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,"
knew that even though his story might be sad, the guy himself is not
sad. It's an uplifting film."