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New Memoir Chronicles The Unique Relationship Between Two Brothers From Peoria

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Before Rob Fromberg became a writer and teacher, he was a 19-year-old from Peoria abruptly thrust into the role of full-time caretaker for his younger brother.

That relationship is the focal point of Fromberg's new memoir, How To Walk With Steve.

Rob became his brother Steve's full-time guardian in 1980. There wasn't much help available for him stepping into that role.

"My brother Steve has autism. So as you can imagine, or possibly not, at that time, he was born in the early '60s....you know, autism was not a household word like it is now. It took years for him to even be diagnosed as having autism," Fromberg said. "It was still very much unknown even among clinicians, but he was nonverbal for a long time. He ran and ran and ran - very hyperactive."

Fromberg had an interest in art and music from a young age. The son of artists, he often found himself alienated from the conservative culture of 1960s and 1970s Peoria. He moved to New York City as a teenager to immerse himself in the emerging punk rock scene.

"I was interested in Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and New York City. So I felt very frustrated to get out as soon as I could," Fromberg said.

But Fromberg's parents died young. His father, an abstract expressionist painter, filmmaker, and Bradley University professor, died in 1977. His mother died in 1980.

That left his brother Steve in need of support. So Rob moved back home.

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Robert Fromberg

"A fair amount of the book is childhood, a young person's point of view of seeing autism, relating to a close family member with autism, being unable to really understand how to cope with somebody who had such severe behavior problems, and then also moving into young adulthood and really assuming a parental role," Fromberg said.

Peoria was an important place to Steve. He was able to draw an accurate map of the entire city freehand from memory.

"The original title of this book was Peoria. And Peoria is sort of a metaphor for the entire story of my life," Fromberg said.

Steve today lives in North Carolina, but the brothers still come back to Peoria for visits. One unlikely place holds special significance for them.

"He shows me one site that was very important to him. Very important to me, very important to my father, that I had forgotten about, and he and I had never seen together and that's the final scene of the book," Fromberg said. "(To) my brother, this is the most important place in the world."

That place is an employee entrance at the WEEK-TV studios in East Peoria.

"My father used to hand off film to be developed there, and then get back the film that had been developed. And so it was just a an odd little memory of that moment," Fromberg said.

How to Walk with Steve is out now from Latah Books.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.