My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell, by Sarah Payne Stuart '73 (HarperCollins, $25) is a warm and knowing account of the genus Boston Brahmin and species of Winslows and Lowells, including cousin Bobby '39, Litt.D. '66, the poet. "Half the people in the book," says the author, "went to Harvard (and half of those to McLean's)." Marvelously, much in this memoir is sad and funny, as in this passage, on different ways of losing one's mind. Dementia in old age erased grande dame Aunt Sarah's; for manic-depressive Bobby, there was no oblivion in madness.
In my family you are either crazy or built to stand those who are. The two extremes do not understand each other at all and yet seem to fit together in a larger dynastic sense like a cog and a wheel. They are deeply attracted to each other --the strong, nonneurotics and the clinically insane--subconsciously wishing to compensate for traits lacking in themselves.
Bobby was at one extreme; Aunt Sarah, who could sweep into Mass. Mental to visit an incarcerated relative on the way to Symphony, was at the other. Aunt Sarah survived Bobby by 15 years, dying in 1993. At 99 she was so physically hale that she helped the nurses up when they fell on the ice. Of her husband of 50 years she had not the slightest memory. "Who was I married to?" she would ask. "My father?"
...Aunt Sarah had survived by thinking the happy thoughts she was supposed to have, and when the thoughts began to sour, her constitution had responded with the loss of her mind, another form of survival. But when Bobby lost his mind, it was not a survival technique; he remembered everything he had done to the people he loved, and suffered endlessly for the suffering he had caused. And so, though he led a life as irregular as Aunt Sarah's was regular, he was never free.
One time, when Bobby actually was imprisoned, serving time as a conscientious objector, Aunt Charlotte invited Sarah to go with her to visit him. Aunt Sarah said she would love to; what was Charlotte wearing? They had a long discussion about what one wore to prison. The next morning, dressed to a T, the sisters stood on Beacon Street, and Charlotte hailed a cab with a white-gloved hand. "The prison in Danbury, Connecticut, please," she instructed the driver as they got in. The cabbie turned to her and said, "Lady, why in the world would someone like you want to go all the way to Danbury Prison?" Charlotte turned to him grandly. "My son is staying there," she said. When they arrived at the prison, the guard at the desk gave them a queer look. "I would like to see my son, Robert Lo-well," Charlotte said imperiously. "Oh, him!" said the guard with contempt. "He spends whole days in the library." When Bobby appeared his face was aglow. He ran up to his mother and aunt and kissed them. "Oh, Mother," he said, "I'm so happy. It's so peaceful here."