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Andy Neiman Was a Comet Flashing Through the Darkness 

click to enlarge Andy Neiman as columnist Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie.


Andy Neiman as columnist Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie.

Now 48 and a half years since his birth, six months since his disappearance and five months since he was found in the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, New York, we are called to think of St. Louis actor-producer-writer-teacher-musician Andy Neiman in a celestial way.

At his memorial service, held June 25, his father, Ben, and brother, David, remembered how Neiman as a small boy wept when Superman, who arrived with superpowers from the dying planet Krypton, relinquished them so he could marry Lois Lane. "My brother threw a stage 5 tantrum and couldn't understand why Superman gave them up," David said. "He wanted superpowers, and at times, he believed he had them."

His mother, Lainie, remembered toddler Andy crooning "My Blue Heaven" to gatherings of relatives and friends. "Andy seemed a little closer to God and the angels," she would say.

His uncle, Tom Collinger, applied more than two dozen nouns to Neiman, including philosopher, teacher, tutor, scholar, master of unease and unrest, but landed on comet.

"Andy was a comet that burst upon us so as to cause gasps and oohs and ahhs as comets do," Collinger said. "And, as comets do, they exit, and we can't ever forget them ...."

Until the meteor that came to be known as Halley's Comet was spotted traversing our corner of the universe, cosmologists believed that these shooting stars made one pass through the solar system never to return. But then they took note that Halley was returning approximately every 75 years.

And so it might be — at least metaphorically — for Andy's Comet. That's if his family and friends have anything to say about it. Many are determined to draw lessons from Neiman's life and death — to move it from metaphor to practical for the benefit of his beloved daughter, Eliyah, age eight, but also for people who suffer from mental illnesses. They believe that sharing his story is one way to do that.

Neiman's illness was bipolar disorder. Many stories, books and scholarly papers have been written about this peculiar and pernicious disease that has afflicted so many brilliant people, including performers such as Mariah Carey, Jimi Hendrix and Carrie Fisher. With each story shared, a greater understanding develops. The stigma attached to mental illness that over centuries provoked people to murder, institutionalize and marginalize humans with mental disorders slowly recedes. Researchers, physicians, therapists and policymakers are encouraged to develop new approaches.

But there is still much to be done. And there is reason to believe that Andy's family and friends could make a substantial difference because of the skills and passion they will bring as they honor his memory. Among Andy's closest relatives and friends are educators, scholars, marketing experts, social workers, attorneys, playwrights and actors.

"I come from a family of communicators," Lainie Neiman said. This is an understatement: The family teems with extroverts, comfortable with living life out loud, arguing, laughing, walking in the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil. They, too, burn bright.

Big Bang

Andy Neiman burst into the universe Sunday, June 3, 1973. He was the first of three children for Lainie Collinger Neiman and Bennett Neiman with David and Emily to follow in 1976 and 1979. "Andy broke me in as a mom," Lainie would say. Then she went celestial again. "When I got my first glimpse of Andy at three minutes old, I felt we had already known each other. We were like E.T. and Elliott."

It wasn't long before Lainie and everyone noticed that this child had developed an enormous sense of whimsy and a need for attention.

At the memorial service, Lainie recalled toddler Andy "saying hello to every lady in the grocery store. And when they failed to respond, he would take umbrage: 'I said, 'HI!'"

Andy learned to play chess at age three. He would ask questions that were at once impertinent and adorable. "Are you Christian or Jewish?" he would ask. "Do you believe in Jesus?"

Andy found an audience beyond family, friends and shoppers at age eight at the Jewish Community Center arts camp where he stepped into the title role of Pinocchio.

Lainie Neiman remembered Andy reveling in the applause and adulation. But he would add: "Mom, it's so hard when the applause stops."

So he would do what he could to remedy that.

There was his bar mitzvah a few years later, special because it was the first for Central Reform Congregation. The congregation was then establishing itself in St. Louis' Central West End, with Rabbi Susan Talve, who went on to become a moral force across the region. The occasion was special, too, because like a sponge Neiman absorbed CRC's teachings, its values, its essence. "Studying for his bar mitzvah with me," Talve said, "Andy never settled for easy answers."

Neiman's devotion to Torah study would continue throughout his life. "Andy knew more Torah than many rabbis and more Shakespeare than many English actors," his mother said.

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