Few books nourish the psyche and stir the heart as much as My Brother's Madness."-David Unger, author of Life in the Damn Tropics
My Brother's Madnessby Paul Pines
My Brother's Madness is based on the author's relationship with his brother-who had a psychotic breakdown in his late forties-and explores the unfolding of two intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Circumstances lead one brother from juvenile crime on the streets of Brooklyn to war-torn Vietnam, to a fast-track life as a Hollywood/i>… See more details below
My Brother's Madness is based on the author's relationship with his brother-who had a psychotic breakdown in his late forties-and explores the unfolding of two intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Circumstances lead one brother from juvenile crime on the streets of Brooklyn to war-torn Vietnam, to a fast-track life as a Hollywood publicist and to owning and operating The Tin Palace, one of New York's most legendary jazz clubs, while his brother falls into, and fights his way back from, a delusional psychosis.
Few books nourish the psyche and stir the heart as much as My Brother's Madness."-David Unger, author of Life in the Damn Tropics
In this gracefully written memoir, poet and novelist (and practicing psychotherapist) Pines narrates his and his younger brother's lives through the matrix of his brother's mental illness. A bright and sensitive child, Claude Pines was damaged by his parents' divorce, an unstable mother and relentless persecution at the hands of his father's monstrous second wife. The story alternates between scenes from the Pines brothers' childhood and Claude's descent into paranoid schizophrenia, an illness that began to assert itself when Claude was a promising medical student and which inexorably drove him into a marginal life. The author deftly handles the complex structure, and the writing compels with rich characters, black humor and clear evocations of locales ranging from an upper-class Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1950s to the drug-blighted Alphabet City of Manhattan's Lower East Side of the 1960s. Paul Pines resists making easy diagnoses and illustrates the complicated relationship between environmental and hereditary causes for a disease like Claude's. While the narrative loses some of its intensity over its last third as Claude slowly remakes himself as spokesperson for his fellow sufferers and Paul settles into a solid middle-class life, it remains engaging throughout. Never descending into easy sentimentality, Pines portrays the family tragedy of mental illness and the bare possibility of redemption we have in this life. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
- Northwestern University Press
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My Brother's Madness
By Paul Pines
Curbstone PressCopyright © 2007 Paul Pines
All rights reserved.
Claude in his crib: blue eyes, haloed by golden ringlets. At three years old, my joy at the sight of him is immense. I will never be lonely again. He stares at me. I know what he sees. It is easy because I see through his eyes as well as my own. I recall what it was like to sit in the middle of that playpen, having recently been there, where he is. He will always be one step behind me. I like this idea. But our experiences are not identical. His cheeks glow with the excitement of something that was lacking for me: the sight of another. I jump up and down, smile and wave my hands. I know what he sees. My laughing face staring at him through the bars.
"Say good-bye to your brother."
My father appears. He stands at one end of the crib, grips it with his fingers, and pushes it out of my bedroom. I follow as far as the threshold. Beyond, the hall is dark and smells of Brilliantine, the flowery sheen on my father's dark hair combed back from his high forehead. I can't see my brother, or hear him. But my own voice screaming comes back to me as from afar.
"No! Daddy, please!"
"He'll be in the blue room. You can visit whenever you want." My father's voice is soft but unyielding. His trim mustache shapes itself around his words. "This way you'll both get more sleep."
My father doesn't know what he's doing. He wears his dark wool suit, which is where I locate another odor — nutty peanut butter. The hall smells damp, like the dirt where I dig for night crawlers in Prospect Park. The blue room is at the far end. To reach it, I have to pass the linen closet full of sheets and towels. Ghosts hide there, seep out at night in wisps of smoke between the cracks to take shifting shapes that hover outside my bedroom door or drift into the blue room. They leave behind cold pools of air. First thing in the morning I can feel where they've been. Our father doesn't know this, or what might happen to my brother at night in the blue room all alone.
I throw myself on the bed and pound on the pillow. Our father doesn't know what he has done. He doesn't know how dangerous it is for my brother to be alone at night in the blue room. Or that he has taken away my other set of eyes.
I'm always relieved to see Claude at breakfast in the kitchen. Heads resting on identical red cushions, we lie side by side on the floor next to the stove sucking on our bottles until I am three-and-a-half and insist on drinking from a glass. My brother's eyes are closed. He holds his bottle straight up in the air. His cheeks hollow, and he makes a loud sucking noise. He refuses to let go of his bottle until he has drained the last drop from it. At four, he still won't let it go.
And I know why.
My mother nursed me for the first three months of infancy. She tells me this when I crawl into bed with her and ask why Claude won't drink from a glass. She explains that there was no milk in her breasts for Claude, which is why he hugs his bottle. When she kisses me I taste salt on her lips. Her hair against the pillow is the color of her violin. She doesn't smell like my father, but sweet like brown sugar in oatmeal. Her breasts, she whispers, just "dried up."
I wonder why they dried up for Claude and not for me. I try to imagine dried breasts but see only dried pudding skin or brown paper bags that have been blown up and exploded. But hers are so round against my cheek. The way they push against her nightgown makes it clear that they are no longer dry.
Our father moves Claude out of the blue room and into mine when he is four and no longer fits into his crib. He sleeps in the twin bed next to mine. The sound of his breathing comforts me.
This is true four years later, making Sunday morning rounds with our father. I am grateful for my brother's presence beside me in our new Oldsmobile. It is always cold and dark when we start out, moving between hospitals. First we stop at the Brooklyn Jewish, then the Swedish, before parking in the space reserved for him in front of the Adelphi. Ben is a surgeon, and must visit his patients after he has operated on them to make sure that they don't die like Mr. Middle, who bled to death because no one was around to pack his throat with ice. Our father hardly spoke a word to anyone for weeks after Mr. Middle died, even though our mother said this happened to people who drank too much. Her explanation didn't make our father feel any better.
Claude and I wait for him in the car with the heat on, listening to the radio, hoping no one has died. When someone does, our father returns to the car clutching his overcoat, lips pressed tight, looking straight ahead, never at us. We then drive in silence to the next hospital and the next until we get home and he locks himself in his study. When no patient dies, he walks briskly back to the Olds, then makes puns and asks us about school between stops.
This morning he tells us how much he wants another child, a baby sister for us. His eyes glow. We also would like to have a sister. A beautiful little girl. Surely he can make that happen.
Our father shakes his head sadly.
Why not? We want to know why he and our mother can't have a little girl.
"Your mother didn't want children." He stops at a red light. "She would have preferred to concentrate on her career."
"But she wanted me," I protest. Didn't she nurse me for three months before her breasts dried up?
"One child was workable," he answers. "Claude was a surprise. I slipped that one in."
He says this playfully, so that we all can enjoy the trick he played on our mother. But Claude isn't smiling; he gazes beyond us with a look I recognize from a black-and-white photo, one of several on the antique table in the downstairs hall. When we get home I sit down and study it.
In the photo he is three and I am five. Golden curls lick his face, but the impression of beauty falters around tremulous lips, eyes glazed with invisible tears. I stare boldly at the camera, displaying full rows of baby-teeth. My eyes shine, too, but not with tears. My head tilts toward the photographer. Claude tilts away, as if to avoid an impending blow.
On the same desk, a snapshot taken the summer before shows us in short pants fishing with hand lines for spiny sunfish we call crappies, at the edge of a basin in Prospect Park full of floating debris. Claude faces the water, back hunched, eyes fixed on the point where his line disappears. I face the camera shirtless, ribs pushing against a thin covering of skin, more interested in being photographed than catching crappies. I have none of my brother's feel for the bait and how to pay out line, set the hook. My brother loves waiting. I always strike too soon.
I study the photos.
If I was nursed for three months and Claude not at all, then why do I look like a Halloween skeleton, and suffer from allergies and asthma attacks that leave me struggling for breath like a dying crappie? My brother isn't forced to take spoonfuls of "red medicine" from the Gay Clinic in Biloxi, which my parents rush for at the slightest hint of a wheeze.
Claude never cries or complains, just smiles as if that is what he's been sent to earth to do. But how does my brother, who wasn't nursed at all, float through Brooklyn Friends School on a bubble of light, while I who nursed for three months have a permanent seat on the "bad-boy bench" in the front hall? It's clear we are different, even though I believe I can see what he sees, look out at the world through his eyes. I am possessed by the dark, drawn to and scared of it at the same time. His bright curls and round body dispel the shadows that pool in corners of our home, under beds and behind closet doors.
At ten years old, I still fear the shapes which chase me in my dreams up and down the attic stairs. Claude sleeps nearby. Our beds are separated by a night table. When I wake from a nightmare, I crawl into his bed and hug him until I can get to sleep. He never protests. Claude is there to comfort me.
We go to bed early Saturday evenings in order to wake up for Sunday rounds with our father at 6:00 AM. Barring an emergency, we get back in time to turn on the Motorola, get under the covers and hear Bob McNeil address his friend, Froggy the Gremlin: "Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy." In addition to The Bob McNeil Show, we listen to Nat King Cole, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Gunsmoke, Autolight Theater, The Green Lantern, Boston Blackie, and The Shadow. We delight in Amos and Andy and their adventures at The Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge Hall. When undertaker Digby O'Dell in The Life of Riley complains about the toothpaste company that advertises on the walls of his funeral home, "If not satisfied, return the empty box," we joke about it for the next two weeks. We are roused by the sound of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon calling out in a deep baritone to his faithful husky: "Mush, King! Mush!"
The radio is an escape from our parents' increasingly harsh arguments. Their fights bewilder and frighten us. Once our mother left the house for two weeks and nobody knew where she was. We can sense tension building under the surface but are shocked when it bursts into the world with the suddenness of a summer storm. This morning we brace ourselves. Our father is talking about having a daughter, how a little girl would bring such joy to our lives. He is so taken with this idea he can't hear the rumble of thunder until it breaks. "Just who the hell do you think you are?" Our mother's voice peals from the kitchen. "I don't take orders from you."
"If you'll just listen ..."
"You always assume the moral high ground. Bastard! I should expose you for who you really are! Let the whole world know."
Our father's fantasy of a third child dissolves in the deluge. His voice shifts from enthusiasm to a soft-spoken appeal. "It was just a thought."
"I know exactly what it was."
"Be reasonable, dear."
"Why should I? Afraid the neighbors will hear us? That's what really scares you, isn't it?" His footsteps follow hers up the stairs, into the study. "I'm going to open the window and yell so everyone can hear me. The whole neighborhood ..."
"Charlotte, sweetie, it was just an idea."
We hear the window open behind his desk. It faces the Schillers' house next door. Our mother's voice becomes a roar. "Another kid? How can I feed another mouth on what you give me, you cheap sonofabitch!"
"What can I do? Tell me what you want," he begs.
A door slams. She's locked herself in the bedroom. We won't see her the rest of the day. He'll spend the night in his study, a strip of light under the door burning into our bedroom.
Claude and I turn up the volume on the Motorola just as Tonto tells the Lone Ranger he can track rustlers even through the Badlands. This time we know what our mother and father are fighting about. He wants a daughter and she wants to concentrate on being a lawyer. But something is supposed to happen when you track rustlers through the Badlands, a conclusion that includes punishing the bad guys and restoring the herd.
I know something even more important but can't figure out how to say it except in the way I finally do.
Claude's eyes dart like caged parakeets. "Me, too."
"No, you don't."
He thinks I mean that I understand why our parents act as they do: it's the question foremost in his mind. Claude hopes that their arguments are like a cold from which they will finally recover. This is Tonto's promise to the masked man.
What I understand exists at the secret heart of the Lone Ranger; things between our mother and father can only get worse. I understand that I am a masked man, alone with this knowledge. But this isn't what I am trying to articulate. I have to track what I want to say, which is why the Lone Ranger needs Tonto. If I set him to the task, he will guide me through the Badlands of my mind. Perhaps we will find it together, behind the bit of sagebrush, rustlers with stolen cattle, or the inevitability of a parental bloodbath — but this is where the Lone Ranger and Tonto part ways. For me what is known, no matter how trivial or grave, is viewed against the backdrop of knowing itself. In this awareness, the watcher watches himself watching. It is an activity that defines the Lone Ranger. I want to explain this to my brother, but can't find the words.
I realized this a year ago, curled under the Steinway watching our mother play her violin. Huddled there, I saw myself in the living room of our house on Lincoln Road, on a street bathed in moonlight, surrounded by quicksilver maples. I could see the Empire Boulevard trolley, Ebbets Field bleachers, Botanical Gardens bounded by the Triumphal Arch in Grand Army Plaza, our father's office on Eastern Parkway, and beyond to the webbed cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. I understood, then, that this way of seeing expanded in ever- growing circles to contain the galaxy and beyond that the entire universe, all of it rising from the point I occupied in that moment under the piano. From this perspective, the shaky condition of our home, so frightening up close, melts into an ever-expanding structure, the meaning of which lies not in the microscopic dissonance of our household but in the grand design that enfolds it.
"I do understand," Claude insists, attempting to force from me a concession which I am unwilling to make.
rue de Bièvre
Paris/April 22nd, 1986
Ten days later, Carol and I, our Maltese, Violet, secure in her flight bag, land at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Lila, a leggy Argentine in her late thirties, meets us at the gate, her long chin and nose crowned by a gamine cap of black hair styled after that of her best friend, Paloma Picasso. In the cab she informs us that the director they've hired feels "our movie" can't be made in Paris, which has no comparable jazz scene. The closest thing to it is the African music scene in Montparnasse, but that would be a different movie. They've decided to explore Sao Paolo, which is closer in spirit to the music and street life of the Lower East Side.
"But Paris is the city of Sidney Bechet, Bud Powell, and Dexter Gordon."
Lila smiles indulgently, then makes small talk until we're installed in an apartment on the fourth floor of rue de Bièvre, overlooking the walled garden of Francois Mitterrand's mistress across the street. Gendarmes in black slickers at either end of the narrow block ensure privacy. Over lunch, her husband Jean, a boyish man with a head of contentious curls, lets me know I'll be flying to Rio with Lila, the director, and his Brazilian starlet girlfriend as soon as he can make the arrangements. Carol will stay in Paris. With the self- assurance of one born to privilege, Jean asks for my passport. Two days later, he informs me that I leave for Rio sometime next week.
The prospect of moving again feeds my worry about Claude. I dial his number, amazed at how easy it is to reach New York directly, and tell him that I'm going to Rio. "That's crazy," he says, then cautions me to be alert, things are not what they seem. When I ask what he means, Claude answers, "Just that." He takes our number at rue de Bièvre, repeats his warning, then hangs up.
Carol tries to be stoic about remaining in Paris with Violet. But our little Maltese mirrors my wife's moods. Watching the dog drag her tail, I know exactly how Carol is feeling. On our afternoon walk, Violet sniffs the ancient stones, but remains constipated and refuses to pee outside.
Strolling in the shadow of Notre Dame, I recount a dream I had the night before. In it, Claude swaggers down a dark Brooklyn street until he turns into a guppy. Carol suggests I call him again.
I dial his number as soon as we get back to the apartment. Someone picks up on the second ring.
"Hello." I hear a pulsating sound, like breath inside a snorkel. "Claude?"
"Paulie, is that you?" A pause, then: "Listen, Paulie. I'm under suspicion."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't go into it on a transatlantic line. It has to do with mugging old ladies. You have to be here to know what I'm talking about."
"Mugging old ladies?"
"That's what they're saying. Don't worry. I know how to handle it." Another pause, then: "Paulie, be careful."
"Careful of what?"
He does a credible imitation of Tony Bennett singing I Wanna Be Around ...
to pick up the pieces
when somebody breaks your heart
somebody twice as smart
as you ...
Excerpted from My Brother's Madness by Paul Pines. Copyright © 2007 Paul Pines. Excerpted by permission of Curbstone Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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