Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Free Press, January 2011
Hardcover, 320 pages
Synopsis from Simon and Schuster:
" People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you've been through," Mira BartÓk is told at her mother's memorial service. It is a poignant observation about the relationship between Mira, her sister, and their mentally ill mother. Before she was struck with schizophrenia at the age of nineteen, beautiful piano protÉgÉ Norma Herr had been the most vibrant personality in the room. She loved her daughters and did her best to raise them well, but as her mental state deteriorated, Norma spoke less about Chopin and more about Nazis and her fear that her daughters would be kidnapped, murdered, or raped.
When the girls left for college, the harassment escalated—Norma called them obsessively, appeared at their apartments or jobs, threatened to kill herself if they did not return home. After a traumatic encounter, Mira and her sister were left with no choice but to change their names and sever all contact with Norma in order to stay safe. But while Mira pursued her career as an artist—exploring the ancient romance of Florence, the eerie mysticism of northern Norway, and the raw desert of Israel—the haunting memories of her mother were never far away.
Then one day, Mira's life changed forever after a debilitating car accident. As she struggled to recover from a traumatic brain injury, she was confronted with a need to recontextualize her life—she had to relearn how to paint, read, and interact with the outside world. In her search for a way back to her lost self, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where she believed her mother was living and discovered that Norma was dying.
Mira and her sister traveled to Cleveland, where they shared an extraordinary reconciliation with their mother that none of them had thought possible. At the hospital, Mira discovered a set of keys that opened a storage unit Norma had been keeping for seventeen years. Filled with family photos, childhood toys, and ephemera from Norma's life, the storage unit brought back a flood of previous memories that Mira had thought were lost to her forever.
The Memory Palace is a breathtaking literary memoir about the complex meaning of love, truth, and the capacity for forgiveness among family. Through stunning prose and original art created by the author in tandem with the text, The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists—or is lost—between them.
My take on this book:
Once I started reading this book I couldn't put it down. It is a sad but needed story of how mental illness not only effects those diagnosed with it, but those that love the people affected by it.
In the Memory Palace Mira Bartok takes the reader on a difficult journey allowing the reader to see her turbulent childhood growing up in a home where there is no father and her mother is suffering the effects of schizophrenia. Her extended family wasn't much better, her grandfather was an abusive alcoholic and her grandmother was often more worried bout what the neighbors would think than what to do about her daughter(Mira's mother) who was progressively getting worse. Mira's only hope for escape was to do well in school so she could get into college and move away. Once she moves away to college her mother becomes much worse often traveling for hours just to show up at Mira's job or school, often threatening to kill herself if Mira didn't come home. The only way for her and her sister Rachel to find any semblance of peace was to change their names and keep their whereabouts from their mother. The only contact with their mother was thru a post office box a few hours away from Mira's home. After seventeen years away from her, they get information that she is dying. It is then that they decide to reunite with their 80 year old homeless mother.
This story is about the hard choices that had to be made in order for Mira and her sister to feel safe, and how they are able to reconcile and find forgiveness for their mother.
I commend this author for being able to rise above the circumstances of her childhood and for being able to share her story. This book was often hard to read, so I can imagine how difficult it must have been for Ms. Bartok to write. The sense of shame she felt as a little girl, was so easy to imagine as I read this story. I think about how she was allowed to get a dog, and what comfort that dog must have been to her.
The author easily transported me to Cleveland, I place I used to visit often. She describes the area with such accuracy, its easy to imagine her mother sleeping in the airport, or on a park bench. I found myself wondering if maybe I might have passed her while walking thru that airport.
My mind continues to think about Norma Herr, wondering what this intelligent woman might have accomplished in life had she not been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of nineteen.
Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and has been noted in The Best American Essays series. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she runs Mira's List (http://www.miraslist.blogspot.com), a blog that helps artists find funding and residencies all over the world. The Memory Palace is Mira's first book for adults. You can find her at: http://www.mirabartok.com and find out about upcoming events and book tour at http://www.thememorypalace.com.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.