In “My Brother’s Madness,” Paul Pines considers mental illness and the ability of families to heal grievous wounds.
This is the first work of non-fiction by Pines, a psychotherapist, novelist and poet who lives in Glens Falls. He has owned a jazz club, written two novels and six books of poetry and hosts the annual Lake George Jazz Weekend.
‘My Brother’s Madness: A Memoir’
AUTHOR: Paul Pines
PUBLISHER: Curbstone Press, 324 pages, ISBN 978-1—931896-34-4
HOW MUCH: $15.95
The first half has a two-strand story line. One, printed in italics, follows Pines’ life in the 1980s and his brother Claude’s battle with mental illness. The second chronicles their life from infancy in Brooklyn to middle age.
In the latter half of the book, the story lines converge. They come together, I think, because Paul and Claude are compelled to come together. Their mother, who lived longer than their father, dies of colon cancer. Claude becomes so mentally ill that Paul must commit him. And, finally, when Claude is stabilized from his illness, he comes to live with Paul and his family in Glens Falls.
Two years younger than Paul, Claude loves math and science — with a dash of philosophy. Pines describes him as blessed “with an intuitive sense of the body and the interaction of its systems.”
Claude attends medical school in Europe and enrolls in a rigorous psychiatric program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. However, he drops out because of stress caused by his instructors’ obsession with latent homosexuality and their stated and unstated accusations that Claude is homosexual.
Over the next few years, Claude has several jobs and becomes successful at lab work. But at the same time, he is unraveling. Pines describes his brother as being psychotic, paranoid and schizophrenic. When he is better, Claude expresses a frustration of mental health patients, friends, family and caregivers: Mental illness has “a chameleon ability . . . to shift symptoms,” making the treatment for one part of the disease suddenly useless and requiring a new approach. Pines describes a halfway house as “a space turned inside out by sorrow.”
“My Brother’s Madness” captures the difficulties of living with mental illness. It describes the unpleasant, sometime lethal side-effects of taking anti-psychotic medications. It describes how hard it is to stay well, how easy it is to go off medication. And it shows how difficult it is to hold even a menial job — let alone an engaging and rewarding one.
Pines describes himself, his brother and their family in frank, realistic terms. There are no superficial heroes or villains. Claude has great mental problems and he is able at one point to overcome them. But as life progresses he loses ground, and Pines is honest in describing the setbacks, too.
Although he is the narrator and moving toward a better life, Pines is frank about his own failings. After Claude is institutionalized in 1987, the brothers participate in family therapy. The process reveals Pines’ shortcomings and he shares those without holding back.
He aspires to be an artist but is frank about the challenges of succeeding in films or literature: A well-written novel alone is not enough for financial security, a deal to write a screenplay can fall through, an interview with a New York Times Magazine editor can lead to nothing.
Pines’ father, Ben, a well-known surgeon, and his mother, Charlotte, an attorney and violinist, have a turbulent marriage that ends in divorce. Afterwards, Charlotte remains a strong force in both Paul’s and Claude’s lives. Ben marries a substantially younger woman, who tries to drive father and sons apart. Pines offers evidence that, in an effort to control the house, his stepmother poisoned the family dog. The descriptions of the parents and their troubles are unsettling but not nearly as enlightening as the descriptions of life with his brother.
As it becomes evident that his brother is clinically mentally ill, Pines’ past resentments of him increase. The two men have loud arguments and say hurtful things to each other. As his brother gets sicker, the experience piles stress on Pines. He is living in Glens Falls, far from Claude’s apartment in Westchester County. His wife, Carol, has just given birth. He is skating on the edge of financial disaster, trying to make a living.
Although Claude is a growing emotional burden, it is he who, paradoxically, offers Pines a way out of his financial crisis. While looking for a community mental health program to house his brother when he is released from hospitalization, he is hired as a relief counselor at a group home in Glens Falls. From this work, Pines decides to become a psychotherapist.
In a few places, some well-timed humor seems to signal that Claude is stabilizing or improving. For example, he is in the institution over Christmas and invites Paul, Carol and daughter Charlotte to the ward Christmas party. As a gift, Carol brings a fruitcake. “There are some who might question the idea of bringing a fruitcake into a nut house,” observes Claude, “but not me.”
In some books about mental illness, there is a suggestion that death is a release from torment. Claude dies from leukemia, after surviving decades of mental illness, a stroke and heart surgery. Despite all his problems, I felt his death was a loss, a void — not a release from torment.
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