Back When I Was Normal

Mental illness robbed Roger Fogelman of a bright future as a poet. Was it too late to redeem his legacy?

(Photo Illustration by David Ziarnowski)
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By Marla Brown Fogelman
Sunday, February 22, 2009; Page W16

In 1961, a University of Virginia graduate student named Roger Fogelman, who had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, was awarded an Academy of American Poets University and College Poetry Prize. His work appeared in the Academy's 1960-1966 anthology along with that of Louise Glück , who would go on to become the 2003-2004 U.S. poet laureate.

Roger did not become a poet laureate, but he did become my brother-in-law.

As his caregiver Maureen opens the apartment door on this late summer day in 2008, I see that my brother-in-law, Roger, former award-winning poet and current shut-in, is planted on a couch by a wall. Wearing a gray T-shirt and plaid pajama-like pants, he looks heavier than I've ever seen him, but his gray hair looks freshly washed and combed.

"I'm doomed," he says in greeting.

"You look pretty good for doomed," I say, settling in next to him and looking around the cluttered living room, which contains an armchair, a TV on a table and various boxes.

Although I've known Roger for three decades, which is almost as long as I've been married to his brother, Charlie, I have never before been inside his apartment. There are several semi-legitimate reasons for this, such as geography and dysfunctional family dynamics, but it's also because I have been reluctant to venture inside the Astoria, Queens, building where Roger and his roommate of 27 years have been living courtesy of Transitional Services for New York's psychiatric outpatient program.

Before Roger, I had never had either a brother-in-law or a familial relationship with anyone who suffered from chronic mental illness. I didn't know much about it, except that the phrase frightened me -- as did the word schizophrenia, with which Roger had been diagnosed as a young adult. He was in Creedmoor Psychiatric Center at the time of my 1977 wedding to Charlie, but a year later, he was able to take the train down to visit us in Silver Spring. The three of us went to the National Zoo, where Roger stood with his legs crossed and discoursed on the differences between seals and sea lions, waving cigarette after cigarette in the bright, cold autumn air.

Thereafter, he started visiting twice a year -- for Thanksgiving and Passover -- and he and I developed a certain rapport. He called me a "clever girl," and I expressed wonder at his mastery of languages ranging from Albanian to Yiddish, and his fluency as a poet. Now, while Roger points out a poster of the Amharic alphabet on a nearby wall, I think about how I had previously promised him that the next time he came to Silver Spring we'd go to the neighborhood Ethiopian-run coffee shop so that he could converse with the owners in their native language.

But that was before "9/06," as Roger calls his own personal 9/11, when, in 2006, a bout of pneumonia set him on a downward physical and emotional spiral from which he has not been able to resurface. After months of daily phone calls, during which Roger insisted that he couldn't walk or even leave his home without fear of "exploding," I finally decided that the time had come for me to go to Queens. Sitting next to him on this squeaky sofa, I tell myself I shouldn't feel guilty -- at least I'm here now. And fortunately, Roger doesn't chide me but seems genuinely glad I'm seeing him in his "minimally supervised" habitat.

"There's a book of mine I want you to give to Benjamin," he says, referring to my younger son, who is a college senior and, like Roger, writes poetry.

He directs me to a blue hardcover sitting on top of a tower of books near the TV table. "Victorian and Later English Poets" seems as heavy as a brick and looks like the kind of tome that sits in the stacks of a state university library for years, attracting dust and possibly mold. But as I leaf through the pages and examine some of Roger's inked markings, I can tell that this book has been loved.

Before his tenure as a Transitional Services patient, Roger had been a professor of English literature at Nassau Community College on Long Island, as well as a compulsive consumer and writer of poetry. As an undergraduate at Cornell, he had won the James Morrison Poetry Prize, beating out fellow classmate and later '60s folk singer, cult hero and novelist Richard Farina. When Roger was a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, one of his poems was chosen for the 1960-1966 University and College Prizes anthology of the Academy of American Poets. Years later, when I saw Roger's name listed in the table of contents across from that of Louise Glück, I was both awed and saddened.

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