Friday, May 6, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: The Two Bobbys--Fischer and Neugeboren

Friday, May 06, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: The Two Bobbys--Fischer and Neugeboren

My brother Robert experienced his first psychotic break in 1962, and has been in and out of mental hospitals and halfway houses ever since. In 1997 I published Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival in which book I set Robert’s particular history as a mental patient in the context of our family history: our childhood, his life in and out of mental hospitals, and our relationship through the years. In 1999, I published Transforming Madness: New Lives for People Living with Mental Illness, where I wrote about people who had been institutionalized for mental illness—some for as much as 15 years—but who had made their way back to full, viable, and gloriously imperfect lives, and where I also told the ongoing story of Robert’s life. The essay reprinted below, which brings Robert’s story forward to recent times, was published originally in The Huffington Post on the first anniversary of Bobby Fischer’s death, January 17, 2009 (Robert and Bobby Fischer were in their high school’s chess club together), and then, somewhat revised, in Midstream (Winter, 2010).

The Two Bobbys: Fischer and Neugeboren

by Jay Neugeboren

In the spring of 1956, when my brother Robert was thirteen, I gave him a chess set for his Bar Mitzvah. Robert was an excellent chess player, and when, at 14, he entered Erasmus Hall High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1957, he joined the chess club. Bobby Fischer also entered Erasmus that fall and he too joined the chess club. By this time, at 14, he had become the youngest player ever to win the United States National Junior Championship. Yet when Robert, who would spend most of his adult life as a mental patient, would try to get Fischer to play with him, Fischer would refuse. “’With you, Neugeboren, I don’t play,’ he always said to me, Robert says. Why not? “Because,” Robert says, smiling, “he said I played crazy.” (Bobby’s sister Joan, five years older than her brother--I was five years older than Robert--had introduced Fischer to chess when he was six by buying him a chess set from the candy store over which they lived.)

In 1972, at the age of 29, in Reykjavik, Iceland, Fischer defeated Boris Spassky and became the first American-born player to become international champion. In the remaining 35 years of his life, he did not, except for a rematch with Spassky in 1992 that resulted in Fischer’s permanent exile from the United States, ever play tournament chess again. He became an itinerant madman and recluse--chess was nothing more than “mental masturbation,” he declared--and his primary antagonist when he surfaced periodically, often in rambling broadcasts from the Phillipines, became the international Jewish conspiracy.

Jews were a “filthy, lying bastard people,” hell-bent on world domination through ruses such as the Holocaust (“a money-making invention”), and the mass murder of Christian children (“their blood is used for black-magic ceremonies”). On September 11, 2001, he told a radio audience that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were “wonderful news.” What he wished was for the United States to be “wiped out.”

“We all started together at Erasmus, but then the three Bobbies dropped out--” Robert often says “--Bobby Fischer, Bobbi Streisand, and Bobby Neugeboren.” Fischer dropped out of Erasmus during his junior year, after he won the United States Chess Championship for the first time. Robert dropped out a few months later when our parents moved from Brooklyn to Queens, and, at the beginning of his senior year, transferred him to Forest Hills High School. Soon after, he dropped out of both Forest Hills High and our parents’ apartment, and, at 16, moved into a run-down apartment with several older men on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Three years later, when Fischer’s sister and mother, Regina, moved out of their Brooklyn apartment, Fischer, who had been traveling in South America and Europe, moved into the apartment and lived there by himself. His mother joined a peace march, across the United States and Europe to Moscow, and on the walk met a man she later married and with whom she settled in England. During the remaining 38 years of her life, Fischer saw her rarely, and became deeply distraught when, in 1997, he was unable to attend her funeral. Our mother left New York for Florida in 1973, and during the remaining 20 years of her life, so traumatized was she by Robert’s illness, that she saw him only twice.

Early in 1962, in the same year that Fischer moved back into his mother’s apartment, Robert, following a drug-enhanced cross-country trip to California, where he lived for six months, moved back into our parents’ apartment, became floridly psychotic, attempted to kill our father, was taken away in a straitjacket, and was incarcerated on a psychiatric ward at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

Both our mother and Fischer’s mother were Registered Nurses, and in both families they were the ones who put food on the table and paid the rent. Fischer’s father, Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist, abandoned the family and divorced Regina when Bobby was two, after which Regina raised Bobby and his sister on her own.

Although our father did not abandon us (throughout our childhood, however, he and our mother constantly threatened divorce), he failed at every business he tried, and it was our mother who, working at various jobs, including 16-hour double-shifts as a nurse, supported the family.

Like Fischer’s mother, our mother was a crusader for a peaceful, non-violent world, and in the four small rooms of our apartment regularly went on tirades about how religion, by setting people and nations at war with one another, were “the cause of all evil in the world.”

During Bobby and Robert’s teenage years, both mothers, fearing their sons were deranged, arranged for psychiatric evaluations. Fischer’s mother took her son to the children’s psychiatric ward at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital; our mother took Robert to the Director of Adolescent Services at Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital. Whereas the doctor at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital declared Bobby Fischer healthy, the doctor at Kings County told my mother that Robert should be hospitalized immediately, and that he would probably have to live in a mental hospital for the rest of his life.

A day or so later, Robert confided that he’d “cheated” at the interview--“I passed the admissions test!” he exclaimed proudly--by giving the psychiatrist answers he knew the psychiatrist wanted. Why? Because he wanted to find out what a mental hospital was like. Well, you might be able to get in, I said, but once you’re in, it might not be so easy to get out. Robert agreed to a second evaluation, which I arranged at Bellevue Hospital, where the Director of Adolescent Services declared him to be totally healthy.

In the fall of 1962, at about the time Robert was leaving Elmhurst Hospital for an eighteen-month stay in a psychiatric facility that specialized in treating adolescents, Fischer began living at a YMCA. He also began denouncing the Russians, accusing them (with justification) of rigging their tournaments, and railing against tournament promoters for stealing money from him. He played in fewer and fewer tournaments, began moving from apartment to apartment, living in seedy hotels, and carting around suitcases filled with vitamins and herbal remedies he believed could stave off toxins secretly being put into his food and water by Soviet agents.
In 1968, when he was 25, he moved to California, where he spent his days riding busses and reading chess books, and his evenings prowling parking lots and placing white supremacist leaflets under windshield wipers. It was in California that he became infatuated with Hitler and the Third Reich, and began collecting Nazi memorabilia. Although Jewish, he joined the Worldwide Church of God, which was based in Pasadena, and which believed in baptismal immersion and the imminent coming of Christ, in following strict Sabbath proscriptions, and in Jewish dietary laws.
In 1972, he emerged from seclusion to defeat Spassky, but after this victory his whereabouts and life again faded into a self-willed obscurity.

During the years Fischer was living in California, Robert often talked of returning there--his months in California, he said, were the happiest of his life--but after living outside a mental hospital for more than a year, during which time he completed his second year at C.C.N.Y., he broke down again, and was committed to an insulin coma ward at Creedmoor Hospital in Queens, where he would reside for four-and-a-half of the next half-dozen years.

When Fischer defeated Spassky in 1972, and when, a year later, our parents moved to Florida, Robert was a patient on a locked ward at Creedmoor. Three years later--Robert was then in his first lock-up at Staten Island Psychiatric Center, where he would live, on and off, for the next two decades--our father, without ever having seen Robert again, died.

During these years, and ever since, Robert became obsessed with Jewish dietary laws, demanding of each emergency ward, hospital, and group home in which he lived that they provide him with kosher food. He often celebrated the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, and would ask me to say Kaddish with him for family members. At the same time, though without Fischer’s anti-Semitic venom, he would also regularly disavow his Jewish identity, claiming to have been born a Baptist, to have converted to Christian Science, and to have evolved into a Buddhist.

During these years, there were long stretches when Robert and I lost touch, and I would usually locate him again only when I’d receive a call from a hospital psych ward, asking if I were Robert Neugeboren’s brother. Fischer, too, disappeared for long periods of time during these years, living, for the most part outside the United States--in Budapest, the Phillipines, Switzerland, Japan. At one point, worried that secret agents might be manipulating him by sending signals through his jaw, he had all his dental fillings removed. “If somebody took a filling out and put in an electronic device, he could influence your thinking,” he explained. “I don’t want anything artificial in my head.”

By the time Robert was in his late thirties, he had lost all his teeth--they had either rotted, been pulled, or been knocked out--and had begun wearing dentures. Earlier, he had sometimes believed that alien forces were speaking to him through his fillings. And when, some time in the mid-eighties, the staff at South Beach punished him by taking away his dentures--and subsequently losing them--Robert refused to be fitted for new dentures. He has been toothless ever since.

In the decades that followed on his 1972 defeat of Spassky, Fischer often turned down lucrative offers to play chess publicly, including a $1.4 million dollar offer from the Hilton Corporation to defend his title in Las Vegas. In 1992, however, when the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer was in production (Fischer was enraged that the producers used his name without permission), he emerged from his 20 year retirement to play a $5 million dollar rematch against Spassky on the island of Sveti Stefan in Yugoslavia.

At the time, United Nations sanctions had been imposed on Yugoslavia and its President, Slobodan Milosevic, and Americans were forbidden to do business there. Fischer denounced the ban, and the Department of the Treasury warned him that if he played chess in Yugoslavia, the penalty could be a $250,000 fine, ten years in prison, or both.

At a press conference preceding the match, Fischer took the Treasury Department letter out of his briefcase and spat on it. He also stated that he was not an anti-Semite (since he was pro-Arab, and Arabs were Semites too), and demanded that tournament officials raise the toilet in his bathroom to a level higher in the air than anyone else’s.

The Treasury Department responded by indicting him and issuing a warrant for his arrest. Fischer played the match, defeating Spassky easily, but now officially a fugitive from justice, he continued to live in exile, never again in the remaining 16 years of his life returning to the United States.

A dozen years after the second Spassky match, in July of 2004, while Fischer was attempting to board a plane scheduled to take him from Tokyo to Manila, the Japanese government accused him of trying to leave their country with an invalid passport, and imprisoned him for nine months. A year later, in 2005, he moved to Iceland, which had offered him citizenship, and he lived there until January 17, 2008, when, at the age of 64, following a long illness, he died of kidney failure.

When I called Robert and told him that Bobby Fischer had died, he said he’d already heard the news.

“I don’t believe it’s true,” he said.

He didn’t believe that Fischer had died? But it was in The New York Times this morning, I said.

“The New York Times? All the news that’s fit to spit, if you ask me,” Robert said, and repeated his belief that Fischer was still alive. “He lived on our street, you know,” he added, “at the Nostrand Avenue end, across from the candy store
--where all the Irish lived.”

We talked about how things were going for him at his home, a supervised residence for about two dozen former mental patients that was located in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York, and just before we said good bye, he mentioned Fischer again. “I don’t think I look like him,” he whispered.

During his childhood, Robert was called Bobby, but once he entered his teen years--at about the time he joined the Erasmus chess club--he stopped using the name Bobby. When he was Bobby, and beginning when he was three years old, he was famous in our neighborhood for his singing, tap-dancing, and imitations of Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. He performed on street corners, in candy stores and barbershops, and at family gatherings. During his teenage years, he acted in school and summer camp productions, where he usually had the lead, and where people were forever telling him he was going to be the next Danny Kaye or Fred Astaire.

Robert was also a gifted writer, publishing poems in little magazines when he was in his teens, becoming editor of the weekly newspaper at our summer camp, and of a mental hospital newspaper during his first long-term hospitalization.

In 1957, after Fischer won the United States Open Championship, The New Yorker described him has having “a mischievous, rather faunlike face,” and noted that “though school tests have shown [Fischer] to have generally superior intelligence, he does no better than average in his studies, displaying little interest in most of the subjects taught and being restless in class.”

The New Yorker could have been describing Robert, who, until he ballooned up in recent years from side-effects of antipsychotic medications, had had a playfully mischievous and faunlike face. And though Robert won a New York State Regents Scholarship to college, and though he did well on annual State Regents exams, his teachers (and our parents) repeatedly complained about his poor grades, his restlessness, and the ways in which he would, with jokes and banter, delight and distract other students.

In competition, Fischer was, from his early years, known for his killer instinct--“I like the moment when I break a man’s ego,” he told Dick Cavett after his triumph over Spassky. But ruthless and mean-spirited as he could be in matches and in his anti-Semitic and anti-American rages, with friends, as long as they did not betray his whereabouts, Fischer had a reputation for being exceptionally generous and kind. In Reykjavik, when he was playing against Spassky, he left thousands of dollars under pillows for the maids who cleaned his room.

Although Robert complained ceaselessly about money--“I have no money! I have no money!” he’d cry again and again--he regularly gave money away to other mental patients, even though the giving left him broke. When I once asked why, he shrugged and gave an answer that seemed to him self-evident: “Because they’ve had very hard lives.”

But he could also be nasty, especially with those paid to care for him in mental hospitals: screaming at them, hitting them, biting them. And in the months before and after Fischer’s death--in his own sixty-fourth year--Robert’s health, like Fischer’s, began to decline precipitously, and as it did, the rage he had previously vented on hospital workers, he now poured forth on the staff and residents of his group home.

He began, also, to be hospitalized every few weeks: for heart problems, lung problems, incontinence, and--most of all--from myriad problems associated with Parkinsonian symptoms (tremors, drooling, troubles with balance and walking, lack of impulse control), which symnptoms were themselves a result of the massive amounts of antipsychotic medications he had been taking for more than four decades.

The more his physical condition deteriorated, the nastier he became: screaming at people in his residence, striking staff members, refusing to shower, refusing to clean his room, or to clean up after himself in bathrooms and communal spaces.
Until a year or so before this, he had been enjoying the best period in his adult life. Whereas he had never, in the preceding five decades--when he had been hospitalized approximately 60 times for psychotic episodes--lived outside a locked facility for even two full years, he had now been living in a group home, the Clinton Residence, on West 48th Street, for more than seven years without even a single hour of hospitalization.

Early in 2006, not long after Fischer moved to Iceland, the staff psychiatrist at Robert’s residence recommended that Robert move to Wanaque House, a block away, where he could enjoy greater independence. At Wanaque, Robert had a room of his own, cooking privileges, and less supervision.

But at Wanaque, almost from the day he arrived, he started having serious physical problems, and the more his physical health failed, the more his irritability rose. He began urinating and defecating in public spaces, and stuffing large amounts of paper towels in toilets and sinks; he became unable (or unwilling) to dress himself, wash himself, or get up or down staircases without assistance; he began using racial slurs against young black residents who, the staff feared, might retaliate.

In September of 2007, on a morning when Robert was unable to move his legs or feet, he was taken to Roosevelt-St. Luke’s Hospital, where doctors concluded that his problem was due not only to drug-induced Parkinsonism, but to anemia, which condition had probably been aggravated by a severe loss of blood brought on as a result of an anal fissure for which Robert had been hospitalized a few weeks earlier. Roosevelt-St. Luke’s transferred Robert to the Kateri Residence, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center, for physical therapy.

At Kateri, Robert did exceptionally well for a week or so, and was calm, lucid, and in playfully good spirits. When I visited him with my two sons, Aaron and Eli, and mentioned that on the following day, I was going to City Hall with my fiancĂ©e, Kathy (she was 57, I was 69), to get our marriage license, Robert wept softly, gave me a hug, then turned to his nephews. “This is very good news, you know,” he said, “because this way, if they have children, the children won’t be bastards.”

A day or two later, the director of Wanaque called to tell me that the director of Kateri had hung up on her after accusing Wanaque of “dumping” Robert on them. When I attended a conference at Kateri later that day, Robert’s social worker said Wanaque was refusing to take Robert back, and that Kateri would, therefore, discharge him to a nursing home as soon as possible. She handed me a small brochure. “Pick out five nursing homes,” she said, “and we’ll do the paper work.”

She told me that the people at Wanaque and Fountain House were a bunch of liars and that I shouldn’t believe anything they said. She also said I should only look for nursing homes outside Manhattan.

But Robert only knew people in Manhattan, I protested.

The social worker again insisted that no facility in Manhattan would take him.

But why not? I asked.

“Because he’s schizophrenic!” she declared.

After the conference, I found Robert in a lounge, and from the calm, joking man he had been a few days before, he had regressed to the raving wild man he had been 20 or 30 years ago, during his worst times in state hospitals. He began shouting at me, ordering staff around, and soaring off into flamboyant riffs that were comprehensible only if, like me, you knew him across a lifetime and could decode his references.

A day later, the Kateri social worker telephoned to report that Robert had become so unruly that they had transferred him to an inpatient psychiatric ward at St. Luke’s hospital.

When I visited Robert the next day, he was as floridly psychotic as I’d ever seen him. Given Robert’s history of stability during the previous eight years, the chief of psychiatry was baffled, and I explained what I thought had happened: Robert had been caught in a crossfire between two institutions--one telling him he could never go back to where he was living, and to the neighborhood that had been home to him for eight years, and the other telling him he’d been dumped on them and they were shipping him out to a nursing home.

At this point, I called the director of Wanaque, who now assured me that Wanaque would take Robert back, at least until they could find a nursing home for him. I also called people I knew in the city’s mental health system. Three days later, Robert was discharged to Wanaque, and back at Wanaque, his psychotic symptoms vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.

The staff psychiatrist at Wanaque, however, was “at his wit’s end,” he confided some weeks later. The problem, he explained, was that medications used to reduce Robert’s Parkinsonian symptoms (by producing more dopamine in the brain), had the opposite effect on his psychotic symptoms (where medications were used to reduce the amount of dopamine in the brain), and finding a pharmacological balance was fine-tuning of the most difficult and treacherous sort.

In addition, the nursing homes to which the staff had been making application were rejecting Robert. The logistical problem--true for thousands of others in Robert’s situation--soon became clear: group homes such as Wanaque were ill-equipped to care for elderly people with histories of mental illness who developed disabling medical problems, while nursing homes that could provide such care were ill-prepared--and/or unwilling--to accept people who had psychiatric conditions and histories.

By Thanksgiving, 2007, Robert had become the only person at Wanaque who had a (temporary) home health aide assigned to help him with the ordinary stuff of life--getting dressed and washed, cleaning his room, getting to and from meals and medical appointments. When he developed a blood clot in his left leg, the hospital saw to it that a physical therapist visited two mornings a week for a while, and, Robert’s physical health continuing to fail, he was given a wheel chair, and home health aides were assigned to him ten hours a day, seven days a week.

Although Robert continued to live in the city in which he was born and had resided his entire life, and dozens of his cousins and old friends lived in the city, in the eight years he had been out of a mental hospital, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of visits he had had from any of them. So that just as his brilliance and fame had been less spectacular--more local--than Fischer’s, so his state of exile was less spectacular, and considerably less newsworthy.

In limbo, then, between two states of misery--Wanaque, and a place yet to be found--he continued to live in a room that was less than a hundred feet square, and contained a bed, a dresser, a chair, a small desk, and a broken TV set on a broken cabinet. Kathy and I visited often, and many visits were delightful (while waiting in the street one day to let two men who were lugging a huge TV set pass, one of the men turned to Robert. “Thanks for your patience,” he said. “Why?” Robert replied without missing a beat. “Do you think I’m a doctor?”). His memory, especially long-term, remained intact, and he delighted in reminiscing about friends and relatives, about homes and hospitals he’d lived in, about Erasmus, about California, about growing up in Brooklyn.

Bobby Fischer, he informed us at lunch one day, had moved into Wanaque and was living in a room on the floor above his. Really? I said, and when Robert insisted it was true, I told him that I still had the chess set I’d given him, and I offered to bring it. He said it was better that I keep it because everything in his room that had any value--and much that didn’t--was always being stolen from him. Then he talked about walking home with Fischer from school, and about a satchel, containing a chess set, that Fischer always carried with him.

Fischer’s death, and Robert’s friendship with him when they were boys--and the sad, uncanny parallels in their lives--had put into relief, yet again, the sorrow of Robert’s life: his early brilliance, flair, and sweetness, and how they had devolved into an ongoing misery whose pain and despair I could only imagine. And yet, it occurred to me, the mad thoughts and acts that had marked most of his adult life had served, I believed--as with Fischer--to defend against feelings and thoughts immeasurably more terrifying than the symptoms of madness he, or Fischer, exhibited.

Madness itself, in addition to being a defense, was also a kind of exile, as was, in both their lives, years without end in which these men were disconnected from almost everything--friends, relatives, places, work, passions--that had held meaning and pleasure for them when they were boys.

How had it happened? How could it be that such otherwise bright, gifted young men had descended into a darkness from which they never fully emerged? And what--in their biology or their situations--in their genes, their families, their choices, or their sheer bad luck--had brought about conditions of madness and misery that had, across lifetimes, proven refractory to amelioration or reversal?

How could it be that the sweet giggling infant I would, in our Brooklyn bedroom, lift from his crib and take into my bed, so we could snuggle and laugh together--how could it be that this child, ablaze with promise and delight once upon a time, had turned into the agitated, fearful, heavy, shapeless old man--all flab and dead weight--who, as I discovered on the evening of one of his hospitalizations, I could barely lift.

Taken to Roosevelt-St. Luke’s because of a fall that left him badly bruised and confused, Robert was, when I arrived, lying on a gurney in a dark corridor, covered in his own piss and shit, and unable to keep from screaming at me while I maneuvered him into a wheel chair so that he could continue moving his bowels. An hour or so later, after he was settled in his room, we talked in the easiest way--about Wanaque, about summer camp, about his niece and nephews--and when visiting hours were over, I kissed him good bye and he smiled at me. “I really appreciate your coming here, Jay,” he said, and he did so in a calm, natural voice, as if he were a man in whose life nothing had ever gone wrong.

In April, 2008, Robert celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, and became eligible for a permanent home health attendant. Three months later, a nurse arrived at Wanaque to to evaluate his eligibility. When she introduced herself and put out her hand, Robert shook his head sideways. “I don’t shake hands,” he said angrily.

The nurse moved away. “You can do what you want,” I whispered to Robert, “but if you screw up this interview and you’re not approved for a home health attendant, you can count on Wanaque shipping you to a nursing home as soon as they can.”

“Okay then,” he said, and for the rest of the interview, and the physical exam, he was a model of cooperation, charm, and sanity. A few days later he was approved for a permanent home health attendant.

A month later, I told him that Kathy and I would visit with him on Labor Day.

“That’s good,” he said, “as long as we don’t have to work too hard.”

By this time, the staff psychiatrist having found a workable balance in Robert’s medications, and Robert no longer fearful he would have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home, he was in generally good health and spirits, so that when it came time to eat dinner on Labor Day, he made his way to the dining room without a wheel chair, a walker, or even a cane.

When we were done eating, Robert reached over and, eyes moist, took my hand. “Glad you could be my guests today,” he said to me and Kathy. “It’s been a good day, don’t you think?”

And just as I had been wondering how it could be that the spirited young man I had grown up with had turned into a debilitated, lifeless old man, so I now wondered about the mystery--and miracle--of his resilience. It never ceased to amaze: that people who had had the most wretched and unenviable lives were able, as Robert was, to survive and to do more than survive: to retain an ability to be themselves in all the complexities and contradictions of their identity, history, and feelings, and to be capable still of taking ordinary pleasure in this often cruel and incomprehensible world.

Posted by Eric Obenauf at 9:11 AM 0 comments Labels: Jay Neugeboren, You Are My Heart

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: Perfect Health But for the Quintuple Bypass

Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Jay Neugeboren: Perfect Health, But For The Quintuple Bypass

A dozen years ago I had emergency quintuple bypass surgery that saved my life. But the surgery would never have taken place, and I wouldn’t be here, if a life-long friend of mine—Rich Helfant, a cardiologist—had not listened to me tell my story. I also told the story in a book, Open Heart: A Patient’s Story of Life-Saving Medicine and Life-Giving Friendship, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003. The article reprinted here appeared on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, April 2, 2004.

Perfect Health, But For The Quintuple Bypass

By Jay Neugeboren

Two surprising medical studies -- one questioning the value of so-called good cholesterol and another finding that extremely low levels of cholesterol may reduce the risk and severity of a heart attack -- have put the debate over coronary disease back on the front pages. And while any new scientific knowledge is of course a good thing, I worry that our continued focus on medical testing and prescription drugs as the primary ways of preventing heart disease will distract us from a more important element in treating illness: the well-trained doctor who knows his patient.

Consider my experience. Five years ago, at the age of 60 and without any conventional risk factors or symptoms, I received a diagnosis of coronary artery blockage -- over the phone, from a cardiologist 3,000 miles away -- and underwent emergency quintuple bypass surgery.

Two doctors had examined me in the previous months (I had been experiencing some shortness of breath and a burning sensation between my shoulder blades), but they failed to discern my problem. This may have been somewhat understandable. For the previous 25 years I had swum a mile a day and regularly played tennis and basketball. I had never been a smoker. My cholesterol and blood pressure levels were normal. And, at 5 feet 7 inches tall and 150 pounds, I was perhaps five pounds heavier than I was in high school.

One of the doctors performed an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram and diagnosed a viral infection of my heart muscle. Fortunately, I had also been talking frequently to a childhood friend who was the former chief of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. When I told him that my cardiologist thought the problem was viral, he replied, ''It's not viral -- I want you in the hospital as soon as possible!''

Within a few days I was admitted to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where an angiogram revealed that two of my three major coronary arteries were 100 percent blocked, with the third 90 percent occluded. In a six-and-a-half-hour emergency operation, my life was saved.

Since then, I have been thinking: as miraculous as the technology is that saved my life, if not for the clinical judgment of an old friend who took the time to consider my entire case, all the medications and machines in the world would have been useless.

In cardiology, I've learned, getting the diagnosis right is no simple matter. If you add up all the commonly known risk factors -- smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, genetics -- they account for only about half of heart disease cases. Moreover, according to the American Heart Association, 50 percent of men and 63 percent of women who die suddenly from heart disease have no previously known symptoms.

Although baby boomers tend to obsess about cholesterol scores the way we used to obsess about SAT scores, such figures are often meaningless or misleading. Add to this the fact that the way doctors are now taught, and the way the health care system is now run, have undermined the traditional doctor-patient relationship. Not only do doctors have less and less time to meet with us, but, given the vagaries of health insurance, the doctor we see one time may not be the same doctor we see the next time, and so we often remain strangers to one another.

It is also not comforting that a study in 1997 of 453 residents in internal medicine and family practice revealed that they failed to identify the distinctive sounds of common heart abnormalities with a stethoscope 80 percent of the time. True, using a stethoscope, listening to the patient and taking a careful history may not be the only ways to accurately diagnose heart disease. But in the words of Dr. Bernard Lown, inventor of the defibrillator, listening to the patient and taking a careful history remains ''the most effective, quickest and least costly way to get to the bottom of most medical problems.''

My old friend the cardiologist has similar concerns. ''The diagnostic acumen of the physician at the bedside, on the phone or in the office, has been severely compromised,'' he told me. ''Because the mind-set has become, 'Well, the tests will tell me anyway, so I don't have to spend a lot of time listening.' ''

This, I suspect, was the mind-set I ran into. I was seemingly healthy, two doctors who examined me failed to discover the gravity of my condition, and I nearly died.

So, while it is surely important to pay attention to cholesterol research and advances in technology, it might do at least as much good if hospitals and insurers would simply give doctors the time to know and hear us. The dictum of the great physician William Osler -- listen to the patient and the patient will give you the diagnosis -- still holds true.

P.S. My friend Rich Helfant’s line to me was, “It’s not viral, goddamnit! I want you in the hospital as soon as possible!” The NY Times cut the word “goddamnit.”

Posted by Eric Obenauf at 7:36 PM 0 comments Labels: Jay Neugeboren, You Are My Heart

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: Hitler's Doctor is Living in the Bronx

Tuesday, May 03, 2011
Jay Neugeboren: Hitler's Doctor is Living in the Bronx

In 2008 Two Dollar Radio published my novel, 1940. It was my first published novel in more than 20 years (though during those years I had not, as writer, been idle: I’d published three non-fiction books, two collections of stories, one young adult historical novel, and had had a screenplay produced). But I had begun my writing life as a novelist — had, in fact, written 5 unpublished novels by the age of 23 before I ever wrote my first short story — and it was sheer joy for me to return to a form that, as reader and writer, had been my first love. “Hitler’s Doctor is Living in the Bronx” tells, in part, how 1940 came to be. It was originally published in The Huffington Post on July 21, 2008.

Hitler’s Doctor is Living in the Bronx:
How 1940 Came to Be

by Jay Neugeboren.

Ten years ago, while reading Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler, I came across a fact that was, to me, a revelation: Hitler’s doctor, it seemed--a man named Eduard Bloch--was Jewish, and had lived in the Bronx all through World War Two. So grateful was Hitler to his childhood physician that in 1940 he intervened to provide Dr. Bloch and his family with visas that enabled them to escape Austria and the Holocaust.

Rosenbaum devoted only a half dozen pages to Bloch, but what I read took up residence in a small room of my mind, and I tried to find out more. Other than some basic facts of Bloch’s life, however, these derived largely from articles Dr. Bloch wrote for Scribner’s (“My Patient, Hitler”), and from U. S. intelligence agency (O.S.S.) interviews, the man himself remained a mystery. And so I began conceiving a story in which I conjured up what such a man--one who’d not only known Hitler intimately, but had been the unique beneficiary of his generosity--might have been like.

At the same time, I’d been doing research for a novel about a woman, Elisabeth Rofman, who was a medical illustrator at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and whose fictional incarnation was inspired by the obstetrician who had delivered my youngest child--a woman who had started out as a medical illustrator. “But while I sketched,” she’d once told me, “I kept watching all these doctors perform operations, and thinking: This isn’t so hard. I can probably do what they’re doing.” And so, in mid-life--during World War Two--she’d entered medical school and had become a doctor.

Then, one day, while an artist was showing me how, by dipping dry sable brushes into carbon dust, medical illustrators achieved their effects, I suddenly realized that Elisabeth and Dr. Bloch were part of the same story--that they were going to meet, and that they might even, against all predictability, fall in love. And so my novel began: while visiting her father in the Bronx, Elisabeth calls on Dr. Bloch, bringing regards to this newly arrived exile from a nephew, who (due to Hitler’s largesse to the Bloch family) is practicing medicine in Washington, D. C.. And thus did 1940 begin to breathe, and come to life . . . .

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: Fiction vs Non-fiction

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Monday, May 02, 2011
Jay Neugeboren: Fiction vs Non-Fiction

'Fiction vs. Nonfiction: the power of a well-made story' appeared in the May 5, 2006 issue of Commonweal. It began as a belated response, not so much to James Frey and his book, but to the hullabaloo/circus surrounding it, and the inanity of so much of the public dialogue. The title was not mine, for, as my brief remarks indicate, I don't see fiction and nonfiction as being at war with one another. They are--like the short story and the novel--simply different ways of telling stories. The assumptions we bring to a story, however, do depend upon what a writer (or publisher) calls that story--fiction, nonfiction, memoir--and thus, how, in the privacy of our reading experience, we relate the story, via memory and imagination, to what we take to be the actual world and actual events and people in it.

by Jay Neugeboren.

In the spring of 1965, my literary agent called to tell me that Harper's magazine wanted to publish a short story I'd written. The story, "Luther," told of a New York City teacher's longtime friendship with a black student who, while serving time in jail, becomes a Black Muslim. There was one problem, however, my agent said. Harper's assumed the story was derived from my experiences as a New York City teacher, and the editors wanted to run it as nonfiction.

"But I made it all up!" I protested.

The next day my agent called to tell me that since the story was not "true," Harper's had decided not to run it.

I was reminded of this when I read, in the media hullabaloo concerning James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, that Frey had originally submitted his work as fiction, but that when there were no takers, he decided to call it a memoir.

The question, then: Why, in such instances, are publishers and the public more willing to embrace a story when told that it is "true"--that it actually happened--than when told that it is, on the same subject and with the same narrative line (or even, the same words!), a work of fiction? Why this curious belief that nonfiction, because it is "true," may not only be stranger than fiction, but that it is, ipso facto, stronger?

'Twas not ever thus. In the early part of the twentieth century, large-circulation magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Scribner's, Smart Set, and the American Mercury routinely ran a half-dozen or more short stories (along with novellas and serial installments of novels) in each issue, and only one or two nonfiction articles. This began to change in the early 1930s: fiction started to slip, nonfiction to rise, coinciding with H. L. Mencken's heralding of "the sociological article as the important form of literary interpretation of American mores." In our own time, influenced in part by the advent of the New Journalism and the "nonfiction novel" (see Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote), only one large-circulation magazine, the New Yorker, continues to run fiction in each issue.

The element of voyeurism can explain some of this: the frisson of seeing into the lives of the rich and famous, the glamorous and the unsavory, whether the person be Donald Trump or O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton. When we read of the private lives of Humbert Humbert, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Gregor Samsa, it would seem to be peeking less into their bedrooms (though we do that) than into their psyches, while simultaneously journeying into the imaginative and emotional recesses of our own hearts, fears, and desires.

There is this too: that James Frey's life, like the lives of those who have written confessional memoirs (Kathryn Harrison, Brooke Shields), becomes a public commodity. What was it like to be a drug addict? To have sex with your father? To suffer from a mental illness? We can talk with those who tell us the "true" stories of their lives; neither we nor Oprah can ever talk with Emma Bovary or Gregor Samsa.

We are often told that writers "should write what they know." True enough. Yet we come to know things in various ways, and not solely by experiencing them. (One thing I discovered during several decades of college teaching, for example, was that young men and women often write better about love--and sex--before they experience it than after.) "Desire is creation," says a character in Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, and this speaks to what often inspires the writing of fiction (and the living of any interesting life), for it suggests that what may be most interesting about us lies not in what happens to us, but in what we dream might happen to us.

Left alone with a novel--with a world where privacy and possibility reign--to have a novel's characters and story mingle with our own stories, is to create a mix that may be more complex than that which results from reading about what has actually taken place. For when we do the latter, our engagement with the work is largely and necessarily conscious, and deliberate.

When a story is invented, it has the potential to move beyond ordinary reality, beyond its individual characters and their tales, thereby giving us entry to a world that may be unsettling and revelatory precisely because it speaks to elements of our lives that remain ultimately mysterious. I've sometimes said about my own works of fiction that (as with "Luther") I hope readers will find them at least as real as if they had never happened.

While the preeminence of fiction may be on the decline, the power of a well-told invented story remains: a world of let's pretend, though child-like in its origin, is anything but childlike in mature works (think: Proust, Nabokov, Munro, Trevor, Saramago, Chekhov, Kafka). Perhaps, then, we sometimes prefer that our stories correspond directly to that world we read about in the newspaper and see on TV, because this is more comforting than considering the possibility that what we or others imagine may be at least as real as the world we can see, touch, hear, smell, and feel, may yet, in ways beyond predictability and beyond our control, prove true.
Posted by Eric Obenauf at 9:48 AM 0 comments

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: Writing For My Life

Thursday, April 28, 2011
Jay Neugeboren: Writing for My Life

In 1957, at the age of 19, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease—operated on, and irradiated—and, believing I had a year to live, I wrote a novel. Charles Van Doren had been my freshman English teacher at Columbia the previous year. This was before he was on the quiz show Twenty One. By the time I completed the novel, he had become, arguably, the most famous professor in the country. He had become a mentor and friend, and had encouraged me to write the novel; when it was done, I showed it to him. He was enthusiastic—compared it to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and recommended the book to several publishers on my behalf. For a brief while—until the rejections began coming in—I believed I might become, at 19, the American literary equivalent of France’s Francoise Sagan. I recall walking from class with him one afternoon (a class in 18th century English Literature), and telling him about the rejection I’d received the previous day. I said it hadn’t bothered me at all, and he said, “Really? I can’t believe that. Seems to me it would be as if someone had told you you your child was ugly.”

“Writing For My Life” appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.

by Jay Neugeboren.

In February, 1957, a few months before my nineteenth birthday, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. The malignancy, in my neck, was surgically removed, as were adjacent glands, and I was irradiated on both sides of my neck. In the half-century since, I’ve never had a recurrence.

Chance, Pasteur famously wrote, favors the prepared mind. When it comes to medical survival, it would also seem to favor those whom it chooses to favor.

At nineteen, my life was saved because, rarely sick, I became concerned about some swollen glands that appeared during an ordinary winter cold and didn’t go away when the cold did. Visiting on a Sunday afternoon with a cousin who was doing her medical residency, I asked her if she’d take a look at my throat. She looked at my throat, palpated my neck, and suggested that I get things checked out at my college health service. The next day, I went to the Columbia College health clinic, which was housed at St. Luke’s Hospital, where a young resident felt my glands, after which he called in another doctor. This doctor--a tall, elderly man with white hair and a neatly trimmed straw-colored moustache--felt my glands, nodded once, then told me to make an appointment to come in to the hospital at the end of the week for a biopsy.

In 1957, I didn’t know what a “biopsy” was (I figured it was some kind of test for an infection connected to swollen glands) and so I was a bit taken aback when, after telling my mother and father that I’d be staying overnight at St. Luke’s Hospital on Friday for a biopsy, they cloistered themselves in their bedroom, where I heard my mother, who was a Registered Nurse, weeping hysterically while my father kept trying to calm her down. When my mother emerged from the bedroom, she told me that everything was going to be all right--I shouldn’t mind her tears, she’d had a hard day at the hospital--and that there was no reason for me to have the biopsy done at Columbia. Instead, she would make some calls to doctors she knew and worked with in Brooklyn.

She did, and two weeks later, a biopsy was performed at a Brooklyn hospital, and the surgeon, after opening my neck and seeing the glands, removed all that he could find--“stripped” them, in my mother’s words. When the results of the biopsy came through ten days later, and I asked my mother what the report said, she told me that the excised lymph nodes had turned out to be ‘completely benign’ and, again, that there was nothing to worry about. It was not until I had occasion to review my medical records twenty years later that I discovered, definitively, that two pathologists (one was Sidney Farber) had, in 1957, confirmed the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease.

On February 12, 1999, forty two years after the biopsy, and a few months before my sixty-first birthday, despite being physically fit (swimming a mile a day, playing full court basketball with teenagers), and having no conventional symptoms or risk factors (no chest pain, nausea, dizziness; I’d never smoked; I had normal blood pressure and cholesterol scores, and no positive family history of heart disease), and despite not having had a heart attack, an angiogram revealed that my coronary arteries were more than ninety-eight percent blocked.

I’d been experiencing some occasional shortness of breath while swimming (but if, while swimming my daily mile, I rested for thirty seconds or so, I could complete the mile), and some intermittent burning sensations between my shoulder blades (which I figured was ‘swimmer’s shoulder’). Still, I was concerned--I just didn’t feel right--and called my family doctor. His nurse, to whom I reported my symptoms, noted that I hadn’t been in for a check-up in two-and-a-half years, and she scheduled me for an exam. I went for the exam three weeks later, and given that I was sixty years old and had never had a stress test (or seen a cardiologist), my family doctor recommended I make an appointment with a local cardiologist. I went for the stress test/exam a week or two later, and although neither my family doctor nor the cardiologist saw any urgency in my situation, I did.

And so I telephoned several childhood friends who were physicians, reported what was happening and how I was feeling, and when the local cardiologist, after an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram, diagnosed a virus of the heart muscle, one of my doctor friends, Rich Helfant, with whom I’d gone to Hebrew School and High School, shouted into the phone from three thousand miles away (he was in Palos Verdes, California, I was in Northampton, Massachusetts)--“It’s not viral, goddamnit! I want you in the hospital as soon as possible.”

Eighteen months later, visiting with this friend, and talking with him about his having gotten the diagnosis right by phone from across the country, he smiled. “Let’s face it,” he said. “You and I wouldn’t be sitting here today and talking if you hadn’t gone to high school with the right guys.”

We know many things--the percentages of those who survive cancer and heart attacks, and from which cancers and what kinds of heart attacks, and for how long, and how we can successfully treat some cancers and most kinds of coronary artery disease--but there remain many things we don’t know, and what we often overlook in our desire for answers and for “scientific” truths, are, simply, the facts of luck and of mystery. Why do some people who are in great shape and follow all the recommended rules (e.g., Jim Fixx) suddenly keel over in the prime of life, while others, who seem to follow none of them (e.g., Winston Churchill), live full lives into advanced ages?

And there’s this too: given my mother’s often histrionic penchant for dwelling on illness, and my parallel penchant, when I was growing up, never to allow that anything was wrong with me, what prompted me on that Sunday afternoon, with my mother nearby, to ask a cousin to check out what might, on another day, have seemed the ordinary aftermath of an ordinary cold? And why did I, forty-two years later, despite the lack of urgency expressed by doctors who physically examined me, persist in pursuing, with friends, what might, at another time, have seemed groundless anxieties?

When I was told at nineteen that I didn’t have cancer, part of me believed this was so. But if there was no cancer, why was I being radiated? Believing, then, in another part of me that I was going to die within a year, and, romantic soul that I was, wanting to leave something behind, I decided to write a novel. (The novel, two hundred pages long and satiric in intent, told the story of a young man who, convinced he is going to die within a year, feels compelled to deliver a message of hope to the world; through a series of improbable events he becomes a hero, dispensing homilies far and wide. At novel’s end, the rumor of his death has become non-existent.)

At twenty, I wrote a second novel, and by the time the magic five year period arrived when, supposedly, I didn’t have to worry about cancer anymore, I’d completed another three (unpublished) novels. It was as if I somehow believed that as long as I kept making up stories, I could stay alive.

So: grateful for the gift of life given back to me at last three times (doctors, operating on me for a ruptured appendix when I was two-and-a-half, lost my vital signs for thirty seconds), and without underestimating the supreme importance of surgical skill, biological luck, and the good fortune to have had access to doctors who knew me and listened to me, I sometimes think that the element of chance that favored me--that, against all odds, gave me life and kept me going--was enhanced, at least in part, by my desire, born fifty years ago, to spend my working hours imagining lives different from the one I was actually living.

For even even while I may occasionally receive, from within, physical signals of alarm unheard and unseen by others, when I sit down to write fiction--to make things up--I also see worlds nobody has seen: worlds of possibility, where anything, for good or for ill, and against predictability, might occur.
Posted by Eric Obenauf at 12:07 PM Labels: Jay Neugeboren, You Are My Heart
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Jay Neugeboren: Writer's Odds

Monday, April 25, 2011
Jay Neugeboren: A Writer's Odds

"A Writer’s Odds” originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.

by Jay Neugeboren.

I recently sold a short essay on Ingmar Bergman to The Notre Dame Review, which was especially welcome news since I’d written the original version of this essay in 1962--46 years ago--and had been submitting slightly revised versions of it, if intermittently, ever since.

A few months after I’d written the Bergman essay, as it happens, I sold my first short story, by which time, at the age of 24, I’d accumulated, by count, 576 rejections. By this time, too, I’d written five unpublished novels, and it would be another three years, and nearly 2000 more rejections, before I sold my first book.

During those years, in order to keep track of where things were, I kept a scoreboard pasted to the wall beside my desk on which I listed the title of the work, the place I’d sent it to, the date on which I’d sent it, and the odds. Most stories went out at somewhere between 500 and 1000 to 1, novels usually had odds of about 10,000 to 1, although, depending on the early morning mood of the handicapper, these odds could, on any given day, ascend to several hundred thousand to one. At the bottom of the scoreboard I posted additional opportunities: a Best Bet, a Long Shot, a Hopeful, a Sleeper, and a Daily Double. Shrewd bettors in those years, undismayed by previous losses--the odds became outrageous once a story collected more than thirty rejections--could have cleaned up. Several times, in fact, after sending a story around for a few years, I’d change the title and send it back to a place I’d previously submitted it to, and it would, the second or third time around (this happened at The Atlantic, for example), be accepted.

Things didn’t change much after I began publishing. Thus, my eighth book, The Stolen Jew, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and winner of Best Novel of the Year Award from the American Jewish Committee (and still in print), was rejected 17 times during a two year period, and a non-fiction book published a decade ago, Imagining Robert, also still in print and also a New York Times Notable Book, along with being a Book of the Month Club Selection, a Featured Selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club, and the basis for a prize-winning PBS documentary--was rejected, during a three year period, by 41 publishers.

During the years I taught writing, what I used to say to my students, as to myself, was that while it was hard not to feel rejections personally, one shouldn’t take them personally. Given the long list of commercially successful books turned down by publishers--from Catcher in the Rye and Peyton Place to A Separate Peace and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance--who could figure out how to figure--how to tout--the vagaries of the literary marketplace? Best was to keep your eye on the object: to write the books and stories you wanted to write, and to hope that, with persistence and luck--and never underestimating either--your work would see its way into print. And once it did, as in any good story or--or any interesting life, since the essence of both was unpredictability--anything could happen.

And sometimes I’d console myself, or celebrate, as with the Bergman essay, by reciting a faith-based mantra learned during the basketball playing days of my Brooklyn youth: If you keep making the right moves, eventually the shots fall.
Posted by Eric Obenauf at 11:24 AM Labels: Jay Neugeboren, You Are My Heart
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Jay Neugeboren: My Father's Eyes

Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Jay Neugeboren: My Father's Eyes

A year or so ago while I was visiting with Oliver Sacks, he asked me to close one eye and look into a machine—a stereopticon. Then he asked me to open the closed eye, which I did, and of course, the scene—mountains and lakes—changed magically from two dimensions to three dimensions. Oliver was fascinated with the phenomenon—the difference between monocularity and binocularity, a subject he was writing about in his book The Mind’s Eye — and I said that this was not a new experience for me, and was one that, as with him, had always interested me because my father was blind in one eye. I told Oliver that I used to walk around my house, when I was a boy, a hand or piece of cardboard over one eye, so that I could see the world the way my father saw it. I tried to hit and throw and shoot baskets with one eye closed, and gloried in stories about one-eyed athletes. “You should write about this,” Oliver said. And so I did.

The following appeared in the latest, Fall 2010/Winter 2011 issue of the Author's Guild Bulletin.

by Jay Neugeboren.

In 1936, the year my father and mother married, my father suffered a detached retina and lost all sight in his right eye. His left eye was already severely compromised; without glasses, he could not read the large one and two-foot high numbers on advertisements in supermarket windows unless he pressed his nose right up to the glass. I was born two years later, in 1938, and throughout my childhood I’d often walk from room to room of our small four-room Brooklyn apartment while covering one eye with a piece of cardboard so that I could see the world as he saw it. At Halloween and other dress-up occasions, I always chose to be a pirate, a patch over my right eye.

When, at eleven, I was a member of a Cub Scout pack, I earned an arrow point by demonstrating how, despite not being able to perceive distance, my father could score in basketball by calculating angles so that the ball would slam off the backboard and carom down through the hoop.

But why, with one good eye, couldn’t he see in three dimensions?

My Cub Scout den chief drew a diagram and explained that, since our eyes were lodged asymmetrically in our heads (and were not equidistant from some central point), they each saw objects and scenes differently--with binocular (as opposed to monocular) vision. If you were looking at a ball, for example, your left eye would see the ball from a different distance, and angle, than your right eye did. Actually, he explained, each of your eyes was seeing a different image of the ball, which images were somehow combined instantaneously in the brain so as to enable those of us with binocular vision to see the ball--and the world--in three dimensions.

The great passion of my early years, along with reading novels, was sports: I lived as much of my life on ballfields and in local schoolyards as I could, and when I was thirteen, in the concrete backyard to our building, my father taught me how to throw a curveball. When I tried out for the baseball team at Erasmus Hall High School--I was five foot three and weighed one hundred ten pounds--facing guys older and bigger, I not only struck out the side twice in a row but attracted dozens of players to the chain link backstop, and they seemed as amazed as I was that the ball could leave my hand, head for the batter’s head or shoulder (if he were batting right-handed), and then, thanks to my father’s coaching, dip swiftly and suddenly away from him in a two-to-three foot arc, and cross the outside corner of the plate.
But how, I wondered, not being able to perceive distance, was my father able to throw and catch a ball? And how was he able to shoot baskets, or drive a car? And what would happen to him if he lost vision in his one good eye?

The summer I was six years old, my parents rented a two room bungalow in Long Beach, New York. My father slept in our Brooklyn apartment during the week, and on Friday evenings took the train to Long Beach to be with us for the weekend. The first thing he’d do after he arrived would be to get out of his suit and tie and into a bathing suit, after which I’d walk to the beach with him. And all week long I’d hope it would be raining on Friday night, because when we got to the beach, he’d take off his shirt, then hand me his eyeglasses to hold for him while he went swimming in the ocean.

He never hesitated--just handed me the shirt and glasses, ran to the water, waded in, and dove straight into the first line of waves. He’d thrash his way out to where it was calmer, and then would swim further and further out while, his glasses tight in my fist, I’d stare as hard as I could--as if by concentrating with all my might I could keep him from going under--and I’d pray that he’d return quickly (by this hour the lifeguards were gone), for what would I do if, one evening, he disappeared, and I had to walk home alone? What would I tell my mother?

Most weekday nights, on his way home from work, he stopped at the local candy store where he’d take out a novel from their rental library, and he’d spend most evenings lying on the living room couch, reading, a hand cupped over his good eye to shield it from the glare of the lamp.

Through all the years of my growing up, my father worked in the printing business as what was called a ‘jobber’: he had ‘accounts’--businesses and individuals who would place orders with him--for stationery, invoices, business cards, invitations--which orders (jobs) he’d take to various printing shops around the city to get the work done, after which he’d pick up and deliver the order (or, on school vacations, have me deliver them) to his customers. Sometimes, when I asked about his business, he’d show me how he prepared material for the printers--how he wrote out the words, and created columns, charts, and designs with a straight-edge ruler, a protractor, and stencils--and I was always astonished at how neat and clear his handwriting was, and how graceful his script.

I remember wondering why it was that a man so compromised in his vision had chosen to spend so much of his life having to look at words on paper, but I never asked him about this. Later on, though, after I’d begun publishing books, I’d sometimes find myself attributing my own love for words and story--for how magical it was that words on a page, in my mind and feelings, could be transformed into entire worlds--to those times we were together in printing shops and factories, where what had been blank sheets of paper would fly out from the presses--across rows of small blue flames, positioned there to dry the ink--with words on them, words that in my life, as in my father’s, were suffused with enormous power.

I recall, too, when I was in the fifth grade and we had a unit on people who, like Helen Keller, had overcome physical disabilities, going to the front of the room, and telling the class that my father was blind in one eye, yes, but that because he was, his hearing had improved miraculously and he could now hear things, especially music, better than most people.

Although what I told my class was largely a sentimental wish, it turns out that, neurologically, I may have been on to something, for we now understand that the nervous system has astonishing plasticity, and that when areas of our brain ordinarily used for one function--seeing, for example--are disabled for that function, that region of the brain can often be taken over--reallocated--for other sensory functions such as hearing.

At about the time I was trying out for my high school baseball team, Tommy Thompson, blinded in one eye when he was a child, was the starting quarterback on two Philadelphia Eagles championship NFL football teams. A few years later, Bob Schloredt, a one-eyed quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies, was voted the Most Valuable Player in the Rose Bowl. I doted athletes like these, who, despite handicaps, had succeeded: Whammy Douglas, a one-eyed pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns, Gene “Silent” Hairston, a deaf Golden Gloves champion, and on others who, later on, would occasionally make their way into the ruminations of characters in my early stories and novels.

My father failed at the printing business, and it was my mother, a Registered Nurse, who, often working double-shifts and taking on extra jobs, brought home the money that paid the rent and put food on the table. Although they fought about money constantly--my mother railing at my father for not earning a living, and my father retreating into a depressed silence because he’d failed to provide for us, I never recall either of them, even in their most heated arguments, referring to the fact of my father’s impaired vision.

From the time I was about ten years old--1948--until my father’s death in 1976, at the age of 72, however, my mother would chastize him at least once a day for having given up his driver’s license, and he would respond with the obvious: that he couldn’t see well enough to drive, especially at night, and that he didn’t want to endanger us or others. Although their cruel dance--a painful mix of rage, guilt, venom, shame, and humiliation--was a constant in our lives, in this one thing, and with a confidence he rarely showed on other occasions, he’d state his case and stick to it.

And though he occasionally threatened to put an end to my mother’s misery (and his own) by killing himself, he never, to me, or to her, or to anyone else I knew, excused his failures or moods by reference to his faulty vision. So that, when I walked around the house with one eye covered, I was identifying with that part of him which, though wounded, was also a source of strength. When I closed one eye while shooting baskets, or throwing a ball, or crossing a street, I was training myself to do what he and men like Tommy Thompson and Bob Schloredt did: I was noticing shadows, and which way they fell; I was becoming aware that the smaller objects were, the further away they were likely to be, and that the brighter similar colors were, the closer they were likely to be. I was noticing the way people and things overlapped, whether they were arms or legs or curtains--and I was paying attention to the infinity of small and large markers that, like roadsigns on highways and yard lines on football fields, defined space; by being attentive to such things, I could, in my mind--the way all of us do when we watch (2D) movies or look at photographs--turn two dimensions into three. In this way I could not only see the world the way my father saw it, but I could also, briefly, be my father, and could be close to him in ways that eluded us through most of our lives.

In the decade before he died, I began publishing stories and novels, and he talked to me about them in ways he’d rarely talked to me about anything else. He even bragged to others that I’d not done the expected or the predictable--become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer--but had become, his emphasis, a writer and maker of stories. How sweet, it occurs to me, that I had somehow chosen a vocation whose task, as Conrad reminds us, is “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.”
Posted by Eric Obenauf at 9:37 AM Labels: Jay Neugeboren, You Are My Heart
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