November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

by Elizabeth Swados

The daughter of a suicide and the sister of a schizophrenic, Elizabeth Swados seems a perfect candidate for mental-health problems. That the successful playwright-composer (Runaways) is able to write such a clear-eyed book about her family is laudable. More amazing is that The Four of Us manages to be both a moving tribute and a searingly honest examination of mental illness and its ramifications on the other members of a household.

Raised in an upper-middle-class, intellectual Jewish family in Buffalo, Swados, 40, was something of a prodigy: While a Bennington student, she composed her first professional works for La MaMa, an experimental theater workshop in New York City. But underneath the accomplished child of privilege was a terrified young woman who both embraced and resented what she perceived to be her mandate: to be successful.

Her brother, Lincoln—also brilliant, but erratic even from childhood—had disappointed Swados’s father, a successful lawyer who could not bring himself to see that the boy was mentally ill. Her mother—perhaps feeling guilty about Lincoln’s disease—alternately ignored Elizabeth and harped on her daughter’s looks, her boyfriends, her “wild” behavior. As the son became sicker, the mother withdrew until she finally committed suicide when Swados was 23. Lincoln died a street person at 46, in 1989.

This would be a thoroughly gruesome story—and there is much about it that is horrific—were it not for Swados’s way of including loving anecdotes. While Lincoln, as a child, played terrible mind games with his sister (he created a terrifying, fictional “Aunt Matilda” to teach Elizabeth manners), he also showered his sister with praise. ” ‘You are a princess,’ Lincoln often said to me. ‘You are my Princess Elizabeth sister.’ ”

Swados’s frankness about her life is also impressive; she admits to having had love affairs with both men and women, and to consuming large quantities of drugs.

Never whiny or self-aggrandizing, Swados succeeds in evoking both the culture of her cosmopolitan and politically liberal family and the era in which she grew up. (About a hippie boyfriend in the ’60s: “I believed our active sex life was transforming my writing, thinking, musical taste, and physical posture…. Sometimes we audited each other’s classes just to watch the other learn.”)

This book is more than a personal catharsis; it should be required reading for anybody who comes from a family, complicated or—well, what other kind is there? (Farrar Straus Giroux, $19.95)

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