From The Awakenings Review
Volume 3, Number 1 (Summer 2004)
The Hillside Diary and Other Writings
by Robert Gary Neugeboren
Edited and with an introduction by Jay Neugeboren
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Boston University
Trade paperback, 200 pp.
Reviewed by Paul McComas
“I am really feeling much better but at the present rate of progress it feels like I’ll be here forever.” So wrote Robert Neugeboren, then 31, in a 1974 letter to his older brother, Jay. This paradoxical declaration aptly describes the writer’s longtime struggle, for Robert, now 61, has spent the bulk of his adult life to date in a series of mental hospitals, psychiatric wards and intermediate-care facilities. Robert’s collected writings from between these various sets of walls speak volumes about the perniciousness of major mental illness—and about one bright, insightful man’s determination to overcome or at least manage it.
In organizing his brother’s journal entries, poems and letters into a single, cohesive book, noted author Jay Neugeboren (Before My Life Began; Open Heart) demonstrates both sensitivity and a canny sense of strategy. He retains Robert’s idiosyncratic spellings and punctuation (as do I in this review), thereby enhancing the work’s immediacy and authenticity, and he wisely leads with the candid and self-disclosive Hillside Diary: 38 sequential entries written by the 18- and l9-year-old Robert during his initial hospitalization in the Spring of 1962. To his credit, the editor omits from his keen and discerning introduction any diagnostic language, nor is the reader informed of the specific events that sent Robert to Hillside. Thus, we encounter Robert not as a patient, nor as a pathology, but as a person.
The care provided at Hillside seems to have been of high quality. Robert speaks admiringly of the clinicians, who show him genuine, attentive concern. He spends a great deal of time participating in expressive-therapy activities; a painter and poet, Robert is encouraged in his creative endeavors and clearly benefits from them. He also reads voraciously—often, books he has shoplifted while on leave from the facility—attends film screenings and high-holiday services, hangs out with friends and develops crushes on several female patients. He is, in many regards, a fairly ordinary (if rather literate) young man—yet one whose illness denies him an ordinary life.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of young Robert’s personality is his self-awareness. “Why my wrath over effeminency [sic]?” he writes at one point. “Probably because I fear it in myself.” Elsewhere, he contrasts the guidance he’s receiving at Hillside with what he knows of Eastern philosophy: “What I learned from zen about how not to press [my] issues I am now unlearning by watching and having professionals watch [them].” He regards his own limitations with a clear, unblinking eye: “I can only hear what I understand and that fluctuates.” After a group therapy session, Robert poignantly relates, “Amy stopped me and thanked me for what I had [said] at the meeting and asked my age, saying that I had marvelous insight. I said I had it but still it didn’t help.”
Robert’s insight and wisdom are matched by his wit. He informs one doctor that the Rorschach tests are “only ink-blots” and that it is “a crime to make them anything else.” His poems, too—the pieces penned at Hillside, as well as later works included in the book’s second half—display a facility for wordplay and wry humor:
so I climb, paperbacks in hand
urgently needing the toilet and the key the
key, wrong key again
must be freudian
Elsewhere, he writes of a “mass of mobbing peoples / most of them are creeples / so let them be.” And then there is this playful admonishment to his apparently remiss brother and sister-in-law, taken from the book’s closing section, “Letters, 1958-1976”: “When you guys said you were putting down roots I didn’t think you meant you would allow the good earth to engulf you. How come no lettuce? not the season?”
The 40 pieces in the book’s “Poems” section display both thematic range and a unique and freewheeling sensibility. What’s more, this poetry fills in the gaps in the reader’s understanding of the author. Liberated from the confines of the diary format, Robert’s muse takes wing, and his words fairly sing:
wisdom, love, health
may not grow on trees
but watching trees grow aids all three so happy another birthing day mother our mother who art on earth
My criticisms of this book are few, and minor. It is difficult to keep track of the many friends and fellow patients whose names Robert drops throughout the Hillside Diary. (Then again, he was writing to himself.) His tendency to describe the food served at each meal makes psychological sense but also makes for tedious reading. Still, this habit does set up a telling contrast when he occasionally, and promisingly, breaks the pattern: “went to lunch forget what we had”; “the lunch was a little inadequate but so what.”
I took a special interest in Robert’s story because of parallels between it and a (fictitious) story of my own. “Now I Know My ABCs,” included in my book Twenty Questions, centers on an l8-year-old’s psychotic break, her subsequent hospitalization and her first stumbling steps toward recovery, all told from the point of view of her older brother. In the Neugeborens’ case, the hospitalized 18-year-old speaks for himself; the older brother, serving as editor, provides helpful context and heartfelt commentary. Reading Hillside thus enhanced my comprehension of my own work.
Most importantly, though, it enhanced my comprehension of the real-life Robert Gary Neugeborens of this world—talented, intrepid men and women from whose words and example each of us has much to learn. What does Robert ask of life? Merely “to have a girl and be happy … to understand the world around me and to love those who love me.” He writes reverentially of the “glow” he feels each time he is “in touch with a human being,” and he notes, “I am beginning to understand that getting sick is no ones fault, that it just happens and then we have to go about getting well.”
That’s a deceptively simple, yet a vital, understanding to reach. Through their fine, frank book, the brothers Neugeboren are helping countless others to reach it as well.
Published by The Awakenings Project, www.awakeningsproject.org