Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 26, 2007

My Brother’s Madness

Filed under: literature,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

In the course of looking up long-lost friends on Google a few years ago, I discovered that one of my closest from Bard College had developed schizophrenia. An article that originally appeared in the upstate New York Glens Falls Post-Star took my breath away:

Claude Pines spent his days in the mental hospital smoking cigarettes and staring at a clock, thinking about how life would be different when he got out.

How had he fallen this far?

He was a smart guy. He went to Columbia University. He had been a medical student at Einstein College of Medicine and even did a term in psychiatry. Now, he was one of them.

He had fallen into a different class of people. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. The symptoms of his disorder could be treated with medication and therapy. The stigma of having such an illness, however, would not be as easy to get away from.

As much as I would have liked to contact Claude and be a friend to him once again, I simply lacked the will to follow through. Since my own brother had killed himself after a brief struggle with schizophrenia, the disease remained a source of some personal anguish. About a year ago, I discovered that Claude had died of leukemia at the age of 63. Compounding the original shock of learning about his battle with mental illness, the news of his passing left me at a loss for words. After a day or so I wrote a tribute to him on my blog.

Soon afterwards his brother Paul left a comment there:

Touching piece, Louis. Your observations are deceptively political in the fundamental meaning of that word as Aristotle meant it when he called man a “political animal.” By which I understand an animal connected to others of his kind by common interests and experiences that sometimes rises to the level of sympathy, the ability to feel with another. Your reflections on what mental illness can do, and does to many who a moment ago felt they had a unique destiny is in this sense profoundly political. In Claude’s case, his suffering was punctuated by laughter, and the wisdom that blossomed from his struggle with a mind that he found he could not trust. He learned, instead, to trust his heart.

Claude’s illness was a deep mystery to me. In the three or so years we were friends, I could not think of anybody saner, especially at a place like Bard College where emotional torment was the norm. Claude always seemed to know what he was about and never suffered the kinds of depression that afflicted the average student, at least on an outward basis. Apparently, the disease was always there but I could not recognize it.

When Paul wrote that note on my blog, he was in the final stages of a memoir about his brother and himself. Titled “My Brother’s Madness,” it recounts his dysfunctional family background and his struggle to provide emotional and material support to his younger brother. Despite the enormous frustrations he had to put up with in looking after Claude, Paul does everything possible to be a loving and dedicated brother. If this story was simply told as a straightforward narrative, it would be compelling enough on its own terms.

But as a highly respected novelist and poet, Paul elevates the memoir into the ranks of fine literature. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, it is marked by the author’s courageous effort to be honest with himself and the reader. Most of all, it is carried along by his unique voice, a mixture of Jewish hipster and spiritual voyager.

Growing up a few blocks from Ebbets Field, Paul Pines was a true child of the 1950s, which was much more about looking tough than sensitive. This was especially true when you had to fend off rival gangs of Irish or Italian youths. As a perpetual truant and an unsuccessful car thief, Paul fit right into the neighborhood as this encounter with his high school principal would indicate:

We sit in straight back chairs. Bullethead [a nickname for the principal] tells us that he has been a cop and a trolley-car conductor and understands boys in motorcycle boots with ducks-ass hair welded in place by Dixie Peach. There are quite a few of us walking up Flatbush to Church Avenue every morning to the walled fortress spanning several blocks. Erasmus boils over with students in two overlapping sessions, out of which a small stream of elite students are siphoned off from the raging river of Irish Lords, Pig Town Tigers, Gremlins, and Chaplains into the top tier. I fall into the lower one, a Blackboard Jungle minus Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. Three days a week I take in the triple-feature cowboy movies at the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street instead of going to school.

Paul thought of himself as a budding gangster, fed by fantasies inspired by the pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins. After his father sent him off to Cherry Lawn, a progressive private school in Connecticut, he still saw himself as a rebel without a cause, but one with roots in Lord Byron as well as the mean streets of Brooklyn. After reading Freud, he discovers that being able to use his mind fills him with elation. “I am a wet chick burst from its shell.”

After graduating from Cherry Lawn, he attended Boston University but spent more time hanging out at Harvard University, where the top minds of the 1950s where holding forth, including Eric Fromm. He began writing poetry and befriended a budding novelist named Russell Banks, who would go on to write “Continental Drift,” a powerful tale about the fateful encounter between an out-of-work boiler repairman from New England and a Haitian boat person.

As was the case for many young people in the late 1950s, the beat generation was a deep influence on Paul. After “devouring” Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind,” Paul dropped out of Boston University and headed off to San Francisco. Unfortunately, most of the famous poets he wanted to look up were no longer on the scene. He does drop off a collection of poems with Ferlinghetti at the famous City Lights bookstore, only to get the following feedback: “Keep writing. You have not found your voice.” One might hope that Paul would send off a copy of “My Brother’s Madness” to Ferlinghetti (still alive at 88), since he has clearly found his voice and then some.

Eventually Paul wound up at Bard College, which in 1961 was suspended between two bohemias in time. The beat generation was pretty much over, even though its writers were still making headlines. Most had been college students during WWII and the more successful had settled into writing careers. We also predated the 1960s counterculture, which would be fed by the Vietnam War radicalization and psychedelic drugs.

Paul’s brother Claude showed up at Bard the following year, a refugee from Antioch College, a place that he found pretentious. Claude was two years younger than Paul and much less prone to wanderlust. Not long after meeting him, we became the best of friends. Even though Claude was only 2 years my senior, he seemed much more mature and self-assured. I had skipped my senior year of high school and came to Bard in a state of adolescent turmoil. With his tweed jacket and pressed chinos, Claude came across as a psychiatrist in the making and always had patience for my Sturm und Drang. Indeed, he planned to go to medical school and become a shrink, inspired by a desire to help people as well as by ambitions to enjoy the good life. His father, who had died two years earlier, was a successful surgeon and Claude hoped to follow in his footsteps. After spending two years at Bard, Claude transferred to Columbia general studies since it had a better track record for placing graduates in medical school.

After I graduated Bard and moved to New York in 1965, my contacts with Claude fell off. I was preoccupied with staying out of the army and he was up to his eyeballs in school work. I later discovered from another Bard graduate that he had gone off to medical school in Belgium and had even learned French in order to keep up with classes. Soon afterwards, I got involved with Trotskyist politics and lost touch with everybody I knew at Bard, including Claude.

In late August 1987, Paul persuaded Claude to check himself into the psychiatric ward of New York Hospital in White Plains after a year of mounting crisis that had reached the breaking point. Claude could not hold down a steady lab technician job (the medical profession had proved too stressful) and was sure that people were watching him and saying disparaging things about him behind his back, the classic symptoms of paranoia. In a few brief sentences, Paul provides more insight into mental hospitals than a hundred pages of Foucault:

Dr. P apologizes for not being able to spend more time with me this afternoon, but will be sure to see me when I come again. Claude, he reflects, is a particularly interesting case, judging by what little information he has: “Not an acute psychosis but one resulting from prolonged morbidity, developing for a long time into a florid delusional system. He states this with the satisfaction of an angler who has just boated a prize marlin. We will discuss my brother’s situation next time, after he has observed Claude more closely. Dr. P. pumps my hand, then disappears.

I pace the dilapidated corridor, stopping to copy numbers from two public pay phones in the hall. Posted between them is a “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” and the number of a lawyer specializing in patient advocacy. Besides it, on the wall, are names and numbers scribbled by a dozen anonymous hands like the enigmatic graffiti of a lost civilization.

Eventually Claude wound up in Glens Fall, New York in the Adirondacks where Paul had become an adjunct professor at the local community college and married a local woman, an accomplished opera singer. They were raising a baby girl who was the apple of their eye. For most men in their fifties, this would represent a satisfying climax of a life filled with ups and downs.

But this idyllic scene was disrupted by Claude’s appearance. Claude lurched from one mental or physical crisis to another. Like many schizophrenics, he dosed himself with cigarettes and alcohol which at least had the merit of not inducing the shakes, as his prescribed anti-psychotic medications did. Despite his disability, Claude was in many ways as clear in his perceptions as he was when I knew him at Bard. After he takes a job checking groceries, he complains to Paul about the humiliation but is not sure what he can do: “I feel like a medieval philosopher defining God in the negative. I say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t want to bag groceries, mop floors, or be a janitor.’ I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t know what I can do.”

Eventually Claude discovers that he can speak effectively to mental health professionals at conferences around the country. With his unique combination of medical school training and mental illness, he becomes an advocate for more sensitive treatment, especially on using psychotropic drugs. Despite their often terrible side-effects, they at least would deliver him and fellow sufferers from the perpetual fear that torments them. At the end of one lecture, Claude recalls a David Frost interview with futurist Isaac Asimov: “Frost asked what he thought would be the greatest breakthrough of the coming century. Asimov answered: understanding of the human brain. Strides over the next fifty years will make the answers of today seem primitive.” Paul writes that “the intensity and duration of the applause” for his brother blows him away

As grim as all this sounds, I can report that “My Brother’s Illness” is also a triumph of the human spirit. Even if Claude Pines had been a total stranger, I would have found this memoir gripping for in the final analysis his brother has turned their lives into literature as this finely honed excerpt would demonstrate. It is an account of a dinner with their mother, who–like Claude–was a source of pain and pleasure throughout their life:

Claude’s letter reminds me of a dinner I had with Charlotte at the Copley Plaza during my freshman year at Boston University. It was the only time she visited me there and it came at a point when I felt miserable in my situation. I spoke openly about my impatience with the academic drudgery and social isolation, and my plans to move to San Francisco to live among the Beats. When I finished, she gazed across the linen tablecloth and told me that she loved me. At first I thought this a touching affirmation. She went on from there to confess that it had taken every ounce of her will power not to actually seduce me.

My heart stuck in my throat. Confused by my own responses to my early images of her posing like Venus fresh from the bath, I felt a wave of guilt and desire. We finished the meal in silence. In front of the elevator, she held the back of my head tenderly. I kissed her cheek and left.

Claude’s letter brings the evening back. I replay the conversation at the Copley, then decide against writing Claude about it. It will only muddy the water. But as I consider Charlotte’s revelation, her words that evening are more redolent of the confessional than seduction; I hear in them the unaddressed longing I had glimpsed as a child under the piano when she played her violin. What could I say to make it clear to my brother what he has never seen for himself? The woman he had encountered at the hotel in Geneva and I at the Copley in Boston had surfaced briefly from a hidden depth. It had been Thai’s speaking.

Interview with Paul Pines on NPR’s Leonard Lopate show.

Order book here

Paul Pines website

2 Comments »

  1. Excellent post, Lou. Your blog rises far above the hackery that afflicts the so-called “Marxist Left.” Your talents were wasted in the SWP.

    Comment by John B. — November 27, 2007 @ 3:51 pm

  2. […] last work was a memoir titled “My Brother’s Madness” (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/11/26/my-brothers-madness/) that I reviewed in November 2007. Here’s an excerpt from my […]

    Pingback by Last Call at the Tin Palace « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 7, 2009 @ 11:00 pm


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