My Brother's Keeper

Trying to rescue David from the system.

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Jan. 28, 2009

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Today, though, he wasn't calling from a pay phone on Bleecker Street. He was on a cell phone at Seventh and Pine, saying he was browsing apartments, was owed $100,000 and would be buying me a new Mercedes. He sounded as bad as ever, and the call ended when he set down the phone to talk to a stranger.

I listened to the fuzzy, disjointed conversation for a minute, then hung up, heart sinking, and put on my shoes. As I walked, I hoped this was just one more delusion: Could he really be here? It didn't seem possible.

A few minutes later, he was squinting up at me from a Pine Street stoop, exhaling cigarette smoke, hands quivering. He was encircled with bags, papers and a new stereo. After exchanging strained pleasantries, I said the only thing that came to mind:

"C'mon, Dave. Let's go."


"I'll get the car; I'll take you back to Jersey."

Poor idea. This set him off on a rant that swerved between tears and hostility. He paced, shrieking about John McCain, modern R&B, our grandparents' house in Virginia. He was burning with mania.

After calming him somewhat, I rushed to the police station on Ninth and South. The response from the officer on duty was almost comically unhelpful: "Mentally ill? You mean, like ... retarded?" He seemed far more interested in the sandwich on his desk, and he strained to convey that his hands were tied. Unless my brother was hurting someone, he said, there was nothing to be done.

When I returned to the stoop, David was gone, an empty yogurt cup the only evidence he'd ever been there.

He was out there somewhere, though, struggling with his bags, muttering to himself, a Person to Avoid. My grim hope was that he'd cause his own arrest somehow, wend his way through the mental healthcare system and eventually land back in New Jersey. After a fruitless hour of searching the streets, I headed home, called my wife and parents, and tried, unsuccessfully, to distract myself with work.

Late that night, David resurfaced with a bang, entering my neighbors' unlocked house as they watched television upstairs. Owen and Karen live directly behind me, and they kept their composure--despite the discovery of a stranger strumming their guitar in the darkened living room. They dialed 911 and engaged him in conversation. Soon enough, they deduced he was my brother, and called me too.

The subsequent scene was everything I'd dreaded in the past: Owen and Karen, my wife, her friend, two cops and me and my sick, handcuffed brother out on the street for all to see. Neighbors peeked from their doors, alerted by the commotion and flashing lights. David, his possessions gone, clearly exhausted, kept on in a low, steady patter, punctuated by the occasional screaming jag.

The policemen didn't seem to know what to do. They told me if David were arrested, he'd be back on the street in a matter of hours. When I insisted he needed to be hospitalized not jailed, one of the cops regaled me with a touching story: "There's a lady on Front Street who walks around wearin' a gas mask; shits in a bag." He shrugged, grinning. "City's fulla crazy people, y'know?"

Yes, I nodded. I knew.

Nearing midnight, my brother and I were alone again, now jostling toward Pennsylvania Hospital in the back of a filthy police van. One of the officers had finally remembered the 302 forms--commitment papers--as if they were a long-forgotten wives' tale. I stared at the bloodstained floor while David, hands cuffed behind him, rambled about hidden connections, enemy skeptics and the size of R.E.M. concerts.

A policeman helped us into the hospital, where I was taken to a closetlike room to file the papers. David would now be held until a mental health court could review his case. All in all, a terrible day.


I awaited his hearing with anxiety, picturing myself arguing for his 20-day-minimum commitment in a soaring, mahogany-paneled courtroom. But the tattered Logan building I found myself in was low-slung and shabby, more a crumbling library annex than a court of law. I was ushered into a faded waiting room with others there to plead their own cases against family members. We nodded to one another in tired solidarity, and didn't say a word.

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Michelle Kelleher said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 06:15AM

“Very good story. Having a nephew who is bi-polar, I understand some of this disorder. And I also see a holistic doctor who has helped me understand in my healthy world how many other things effect our well being, like food allergies as you mentioned and lack of certain vitamins and minerals that are crucial to a healthy life. Nice read!”

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2. LKS said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 09:02AM

“Very well- written story about the complexity of this issue. I truly hope your brother continues to do well. Good luck to you and your family.”

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3. Kathleen Turner said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 03:25PM

“An inspiration. I love it and I think I love you.”

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4. ccaruso said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 06:30PM

“Jacob Lambert articulates the frustration that so many families experience in trying to get help for their loved done wirh mental ilness. The national website( ) can direct people to their local affiliates. Although there is no cure yet for mental illness, there is help for those affected by it.”

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5. David Lambert said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 06:58AM

“Boy, now I know what it feels like to be front page news in Philadelphia! Actually, I've never considered myself to be this strange, and I'm not sure I said or did exactly what my brother says I said or did. Oh well, I guess this is what happens when you're the nutty brother of a working writeer. Dave Lambert”

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6. Timothy K. Peterson said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 07:25PM

“Thank you for sharing your story. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was sixteen. Thankfully my delusions of the radio talking directly talking to me and snipers pointing their arms at me lasted shortly. It is still a persistent possibility that like the Hulk I will "Hulk out" at any given stress or lack of sufficient sleep. My medications have been very effective and it has been helpful for me to read Kay Redfield Jamison's literature on her own bipolar disorder while being a leading psychiatrist. Though I risk sounding patronizing I'll share this anyhow. There are strengths within bipolar disorder for productivity and creativity. Supposedly some of history's great minds were touched by this creative fire. A short list includes Dickens, Newton, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Goethe, and Mark Twain (Redfield's, Touched with Fire AND I applaud you and your family for taking care of your brother with this difficult illness. However, as you already evidenced he can be productive and if given the opportunity his creativity can be unleashed toward that end as well. May God bless you and your family as you all work to restore your brother into who you remember him to be. ”

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7. Gwen Ceccardi said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 08:51AM

“These young men are both my nephews, and I have seen their parents' feel both heartache and pride in their sons (emotions ALL parents feel at one time or another in raising their children). Jay, this was an excellent article and very informative to the general public who knows nothing about mental illness. Dave, I remember you as a child interacting with my daughters at Grandmother Lambert's house in Alva. You seemed to adore my girls at the time. I pray for your whole family, since I love you all. Aunt Gwen”

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8. Robin Angel said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 02:59PM

“So well written. Thanks for sharing your story with all of us. It will be helpful for others going through mental illness with a family member. We love you. R & R”

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9. Sarah said... on Feb 1, 2009 at 04:26AM

“That you so much for sharing what must be a very personal story. Good luck for the future.”

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10. Arlean Lambert said... on Feb 1, 2009 at 08:31AM

“Even though David says he has never repaired a clock and that wasn't him who left the empty yogurt cup on the stoop, you wrote a fabulous, loving, and accurate account of our seventeen year journey. Thank you, Jacob, for bringing balance into our lives with laughter sometimes when we were at our lowest point. I love both you and David with all my heart. Mom ”

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11. PMD said... on Feb 2, 2009 at 06:37PM

“This article should be required reading for every elected and appointed office holder. Lambert has perfectly illustrated the entirely mundane intersecting and parallell processes which daily trip and trap our most vulnerable and marginalized. The overarching heartache, the capacity, after decades of numbing experience, to come to the sputtering re-realization that THIS CAN'T POSSIBLY BE HOW IT IS is accurate and pervasive in this country. The shame is ours; other countries do better, we can too. Thank you, Mr. Lambert, you have powerfully conveyed what urgently needs to be told and retold until hands are not just untied, but extended.”

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12. Cody Watts said... on Sep 15, 2009 at 08:42PM

That was impressive, and insightful. Fantastic piece.”

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13. Nicole Martelli said... on Mar 6, 2010 at 09:04AM


What a beautiful piece. It's amazing how little we really know about the people we grow up with. It sounds like you had to grow up a little earlier than a lot of your peers. Life's lessons don't care how old we are, just that we learn them. Keep writing...I look forward to reading.”

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14. diane said... on Jun 18, 2010 at 12:32PM

“please forward to Jacob Lambert
Hi Little "J": Remember me? Number 11 Crowell. . .one of my very favorite little boys. . .remember playing catch? going to your baseball games and loving every minute of the time I spent with you.

A wonderful article. I, too, remember David very well. I especially remember a little guy sitting with two elderly neighbors who enjoyed and loved him to bits! I also remember my bell ringing on each and every Christmas morning with hot cross buns in hand and wishes for a very merry Christmas.

Crowell Place, what wonderful memories.

How r u Little J? Enjoying a good life? Sure hope. Think of you and your family very often.

Be fun to hear from you. . .


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15. SS said... on Jul 23, 2010 at 09:03AM

“Jacob Lambert, This is a great piece you have written. I know your brother, and speak with him almost weekly. He actually calls into my job and try’s having conversations about IT and his new ideas to make money by selling an application he designed or what ever comes to his mind that day. Before reading this story I would listen along to his stories and wonder where they where coming from. I empathize with your family and wish you all the best. I hope this receives you well.

P.S. I spoke with him less then an hour ago

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16. Brian lindstrom said... on Jan 27, 2011 at 11:26PM

“Thanks for writing this, Jacob. Very powerful. You have helped the general public understand just what it means to have a loved one coping with severe and persistent mental illness.
The parallels between Sandy Morgan and James Chasse, a Portland man with schizophrenia who died in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006 are a frightening reminder of what a truly national--even international--problem this is.

Glad to hear that David is currently doing well.



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