on January 10, 2011
I don't particularly care for harrowing survivor memoirs from children of abusive or mentally ill family members. They almost always come off as sensational, blaming, or whining diatribes, and do we really need another one of those? The good news is The Memory Palace doesn't even come close to falling into that trap. Mira Bartok's story of her relationship with her schizophrenic mother who eventually becomes homeless is at once compelling, compassionate, and possesses some of the most beautiful and lyrical prose I've ever read in memoir. And did I mention it's also a page-turner? However, what really sets this book apart is how Bartok integrates her beautiful artwork into the structure of the book to help recall her past and to bring her authentic story to the page. The Memory Palace is essentially an illustrated memoir that details the incredible bond between mother and daughter, the issue of homelessness, and how we, as a nation, perceive mental illness and disability in our culture. It is a visceral and profound story, and is so much more than a blur of one sensational event after another. This is an artful memoir of an examined life, one that exudes strength, determination, and above all, love. Highly recommended.
on January 8, 2011
I wish there were more stars to give this book. It is beautiful and heartwrenching. Through all the heartbreak, trauma, and pain, the love between Mira and her very ill mother prevails. I love that she tells her story in vignettes that include her experiences with travel, education,creative pursuits and other relationships. The artwork is breathtaking and enhances the storytelling perfectly. That she and her sister are able to come full circle and reconcile with their mother in her final days is a tribute to their resilience and unwavering love for each other.
on January 6, 2011
Ms. Bartók's memoir is an intense revelation of love between mother and daughter that breaks the barriers of mental illness, isolation, desperate measures and accidental injuries. As I read this heart-rending biography I marvel at the survival of such love; loves come and go but one perseveres against all odds. Ms. Bartok travels frequently and these experiences are included with her more profound experiences regarding her mother. This book will appeal to anyone who has ever loved someone with a mental illness, or been separated for long periods from a parent. But a more universal appeal is also here, that of the girl in search of herself as well as her family. She is always ready to try new things, to make unusual efforts on her journey. A beautiful book.
on February 5, 2011
In 1968, I was married to a beautiful woman who was raised in a family with hidden histories of mental illness. To this day I do not understand all that happened within our own family as a consequence of my wife's schizophrenia, but Mira Bartok's book captured events parallel to those we endured. We had four children who had the greatest mother a child could ever have until her illness surfaced in 1981 and led to her leaving our family when the children were 3,7,10 and 11 years old. Hers was a religious and inaccessible delusion that God was calling her to leave her home and become a bag lady and a prophet to correct the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church.
Although we had family counseling, and the children were most successful in their academic careers, many of their fears and sufferings were never shared and continue to this day to affect their adult memory of their individual childhood experiences.
Last week, their mother told me for the first time in thirty years, what a fine father I had been to them and how sorry she was that she had caused us such trials. It was as if the clouds parted and the sun shone brilliantly through. Certainly, Ms. Bartok's memoire retold a similar revelation. There is hope and her own life and guilty feelings are not the conclusion. It is so helpful for those of us dealing with loved ones suffering from mental illness to hear Mira's story.
on April 15, 2011
A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. Albert Camus
This is the second volume of anguish to come my way out of Cleveland, my home town, this year. The first was a marvel, from Jill Bialosky, History of a suicide: my sister's unfinished life.
That one came with the wallop of an atomic bomb. But it didn't prepare me for the hydrogen bomb follow-up (atomic bombs are merely the trigger for the 24x more powerful H-bomb) that came my way by an innocuous-seeming mention in the high school class newsletter of The Memory Palace by one Myra Bartok. What an innocent title, but the subject beckoned: a schizophrenic mother. Another author from my high school, I'll give it a look.
I started reading, and stopped breathing: Myra Bartok (a name she chose for herself taken from the famous Hungarian composer) and/or her writing is : Unrelenting, menacing, powerful, astonishing, raw, heartbreaking. Bialosky had stood me up with the left hand, and Bartok finished the fight with a right cross. Out cold.
Bialosky hailed from Shaker Heights, the tony east side suburb that proletarian west siders like us may never even see after a lifetime in Cleveland (though I left town at 17). Turns out Ms. Bartok grew up a mere four blocks from my house. I knew every reference to the local schools, and landmarks, first-hand, back-of-my-hand.
I finished the book, but still I wonder: how she could even function, let alone write a NY Times bestseller after her abusive childhood, abusive from every quarter, grandfather, grandmother, classmates, but especially her schizophrenic mother. It simply astonishes.
Brief digression: regained contact with a long lost friend recently, but what became of his first wife, I asked? Turns out she succumbed to schizophrenia. Sounds terrible, but reading Bartok's book, makes it Technicolor, or IMAX. I had no idea.
I also had no idea how our society has, at least in Bartok's case, no capability whatsoever for dealing with the problem. Bartok's mother slips in and out of psych wards, hospitals, shelters and the like, like, well, Houdini. No stopping her.
So back to Bartok's book.
It is horror after horror after horror. The hits - literally - just keep coming. The scene where her mother attacks her with a broken bottle, and cuts her throat is cinematic, but this is not a movie, this is real life. But you can't stop reading, and you can't start breathing so you make it through, as it were, on one ---- long ---- breath.
The good news here is our protagonist lives to tell her tale, and the comeback here is quite simply this: Myra Bartok took an experience that would lay low the average person, and made it into art in the retelling. Myra Bartok kept faith, in herself, in Bartok or art, as it were, in her writing, in her person. This is her affirmation, this book in your hand.
How did she do it? Maybe it's genetic. Her father - who abandoned her when she was very young - was a gifted novelist, and when still up-and-coming, hobnobbed in Chicago with the local literati royalty: Bellow, Algren, Terkel. His first novel was compared favorably with Albert Camus, Myra says; great things were expected of him (and not quite delivered). Myra got all his DNA, and maybe then some, and if he wouldn't be proud (he died of drink in New Orleans while still young), Watson and Crick surely would be. It's all in those helixes ladies and gentlemen, they might say.
Why are stories like this worth the travail? (and you really suffer right with MB). Because it's worth something to know that as bad as you have it, or imagine it, there is worse. That means you don't have the right to quit, whatever it is you are feeling like quitting.
And stories like these are worth it because there is the prospect of pressing on, of making a comeback, in spite of it all, all the hurt, pain, injustice, and improbability. That one can find one's way back, somehow, to those images where one's heart first opened, and paraphrasing, to one's work and one's engagement with life, in spite of it all.
No Schadenfreude going on here; our author is too innocent, the crimes against her too outrageous. There is no almost joy here, in these pages, (save some degree of respite at the end), be warned, just resolve. Just perspective as to what really goes on here on planet earth, the sometimes beyond comprehension evil in the operating system of this place we call home.
Bluesman Bobby Rush once put it this way: "I am so grateful for what is, because I know how bad things could be."
Read this book. Know. Then be grateful. And press on. Just like our author herself.
PS You may wish to give a look as well to her sister's book, published 2004: SCRAPING BY in the Big Eighties, by Natalia Rachel Singer. Wider scope, more political/sociological, but Natalia is fighting her demons, too, and making art of it, too. Confirms my genetic hypothesis. The sisters got the writing gene, WW, double dominant. Transparent, nothing held back, powerful. Recommended.
on January 18, 2011
Although I didn't grow up here, I live in Cleveland now, and this book was set here. I also had a mother who suffered through a nervous breakdown, and what was likely undiagnosed chemical depression, so I was very interested in this book from the beginning.
This is not an easy read. It is a tale of a daughter whose mother's mental illness caused her to only communicate with her mother through a social worker and a post office box. It is a story of her growing up, her worries and her guilt. If, like most of us, you can't imagine children leaving their mother to live homeless in the street while they continue on with their lives, reading this book will bring you a greater understanding of why it may sometimes be necessary to do so. For me, it also highlights the need for some type of reform of our broken mental health care system. When a mentally-ill mother holds a knife to her daughter's throat and is let out of the hospital and sent home on her own the same day, there's a problem. I don't pretend to know how to fix it (if I did, maybe I could run for office), but it definitely needs to be fixed somehow.
The writing ... well, the writing is luminous. The Memory Palace is a house of memories in one's mind where you place pictures of things that will stir your memories, and as she takes us through her own memory palace, Ms. Bartok's words embed themselves in your heart. You feel her quiet sorrow and the embarrassment that she is caused by her mother's illness; her fears when her mother leaves her alone when they're out, saying that she'll be right back, and she never comes back. As she goes through her own battle with a brain injury, it helps her understand a bit more about what her mother must feel with the voices inside of her head battling for dominance.
This is not an "I must finish this all in one sitting" type of book. It's a book that you read in parts and give yourself time to digest before going on to the next. There are excerpts from her mother's journals that give a deeper insight into the brilliant mind that was ruined by schizophrenia. I think that it's the type of book that could win literary awards, and I applaud the author for her strength in putting this story on paper.
Then, outside, beneath the marquee, I see a woman with dark curly hair, pacing, smoking in the thrumming rain. She is alone and muttering to herself. Something about her reminds me of the old lady downtown who wears three coats and asks people on the street for a dime. I run to my mother, even though she could be that lady with the coats, the lady who has no teeth and who talks to her hands. When my mother sees me, she hugs me close.
This will be my purgatory: the knock at the door at midnight, my mother, hair wild as snakes, the sound of sirens and doors slamming shut, the violent rush or arms and hands, my mother placed in restraints and handed over to strangers. And me, sitting in a green room beneath cold fluorescent lights, tapping my foot to a song I played long ago.
As my grandma's Alzheimer's worsened, my mother's surprise visits to my sister and me increased, as did her disappearances to shelters and cheap motels. It was as if she were in training to be homeless.
on September 20, 2011
Early in THE MEMORY PALACE, Mira Bartók describes her own life as a palimpsest, a tablet or parchment used again and again after earlier writing has been erased. Following a life-altering brain injury, Bartók leaves messages for herself on what she calls her memory table, working hard to appear healthy and articulate, a process she describes as second nature. "We children of schizophrenics are the great secret-keepers, the ones who don't want you to think anything is wrong." It is clear from the beginning of this touching, evocative memoir that the life related by Bartók is anything but right.
Bartók recounts a stark, excruciating childhood, filled with countless incidents of uncertainty, embarrassment, and downright abuse. Her beautiful, brilliant, musical mother is gravely mentally ill; her father, a writer, deserted his wife and two daughters, leaving behind only a collection of lovely books. The two little girls regularly run to their grandparents' house nearby for meals, but the situation there is scarcely better. Their grandmother feeds them, but also burdens them with talk of their mother, Norma's, illness at quite tender ages. Their grandfather's abusive tendencies are arguably worse than their mother's neglect. Bartók recalls having the story of Medusa read to her at the age of five or six. She casts her mother in the role of Medusa, seeing herself as Pegasus. "For years I dreamed I was a winged horse, watching, from the sky, my mother's serpentine head float away from her body." Medusa's children sprang from the blood of her severed head. Norma lost her mind in pieces after her children arrived.
After graduating high school, Bartók leaves Cleveland, Ohio, for two years of college in Michigan followed by art school in Chicago. Her art and her jobs, working in education and in a museum, give Bartók a sense of purpose and stability. Her mother's behavior continues to deteriorate, punctuated by increasingly strange and distressing phone calls day and night. There's what seems to be an accidental overdose and an incident involving her mother brandishing a knife at an airport. Worst of all, Bartók receives a surprising interruption at work. Her mother shows up unannounced at the museum, harried, haggard, and demanding her daughter go home to Cleveland. At this point, the sisters decide they must take desperate measures to survive.
The young women change their names and go into hiding. Her sister, Natalia, cuts off all contact with their mother, but Bartók keeps post office boxes through friends and writes to her mother, giving her vague details about her travels to Italy, Norway and Israel, never providing enough detail to reveal her location. She sends her mother presents: postcards from museums, calendars, art supplies, warm clothes, paintings, a red sweater. By this time, their mother is sleeping in hotels, shelters, airports, bus stations, and eventually, park benches. Schizophrenic. Homeless. Alone. Of essentially abandoning her mother, Bartók says, "If I am to be really truthful, there is something in my nature as well, something that, like Natalia, and even our mother, made me choose my freedom and creative life above all else."
Seventeen years pass this way. Soon after Bartók's car accident and resulting brain injury, her mother becomes seriously ill. Social workers contact Bartók at one of the post office boxes she's kept through a friend. Upon hearing the news, the sisters decide to go to their mother, eighty years old now and dying of stomach cancer. While caring for her in the hospital and arranging her transfer to a nursing home, the sisters discover their mother's life: two big garbage bags full of belongings, family keepsakes kept in a U-Haul storage unit, a women's shelter full of caring friends, a bank account, a safety deposit box. As her mother slips away, Bartók finds her mother's journals. In reading them, she rediscovers her mother and realizes that her damaged brain works in similar ways to her mother's schizophrenic one.
Melancholy, regret and loss permeate this beautifully crafted memoir. Throughout the story, whether she is in Europe, Israel or America, Bartók clearly shows her continuing love and concern for her mother. At the same time, she maintains the emotional as well as the physical distance necessary for her own well being, harboring guilt every step of the way. Bartók gracefully and deftly illuminates the complexity of familial love and its unusual capacity for healing and forgiveness.
If you like books about art, this is a great book. If you like books that are beautifully written, this is a great book. If you like books written in bits and pieces, this is a wonderful book. If, however, you're like me and like books that have beginnings, middles and endings/closures, this book probably won't be one of your favorites. It's often hard to tell just what or who this book is about.
I really don't mean to go against the grain here or be offensive to anyone. I know that many people have loved the book. And it certainly is well-written, especially the parts about art and the natural world, much in the style of, say, Annie Dillard, but I found that there were so many loose ends to the overall story (along with meanderings that seemed to go no where and offered little benefit or enlightenment to the story) that it wasn't fulfilling to me as a reader. In fact, the loose ends and meanderings detracted from the story so much that I ended up disliking the book more that I probably would have if not for all the digressions and loose ends.
I give kudos to the author for her attempt to make written art from her and her mother's experiences. However, I feel this may have been better accomplished on a canvas rather than in a book.
This is a book I don't completely regret reading, but I wouldn't do it again, knowing what I know now. The book just didn't do it for me personally.
on January 13, 2011
I finished reading this book last night, and I've been thinking of it all day, having read it with full engagement over a week. It affected me increasingly, the more deeply I read into it. Most of all, it's an honestly felt memoir, in which the author Mira's fear of, and inability to live, near here mentally ill mother Norma, leads her to make many life choices that would otherwise be unexplainable. All the settings--Cleveland for much of the book, where I happened to also grow up--are extremely faithful. In the case of Cleveland, it's right down to what certain streets look like. Norma writes a postcard to Mira at one point, about the site of the new women's shelter where she's then living: "I'm in pain on Payne Avenue." I remember Payne Avenue, and it is treeless and wind-swept, just as Mira reports, when she at last reconnects with her mother, after 17 years of deliberate separation. The sections on Florence, Italy, where Mira lives for a time; her depiction of an arts colony in Israel; and the grittiness of Chicago, are all very well drawn.
I'll concede what a critic in the NY Times Book Review pointed out last Sunday--there are some flaws in the book, but I forgave them all. Mira suffered a traumatic brain injury not many years ago, and so occasional repetitions and vagueness about lesser players in the narrative are not out of character.
Just since The Memory Palace was published earlier this month, the book's major social theme--the potentially violent and uncontrolled behavior of those with mental illness--has been thrust into the national consciousness by the assassin in Tucson. I know the author would urge us to be more vigilant in trying to help the mentally ill, though she over and over encountered the refusal of the system to deal with her mother. On a personal and a social level, this is really a book worth reading. Congratulations are due to the author and the publisher, it's a brave book, and I'm glad I've read it.
on May 22, 2011
The Memory Palace vividly describes a frightening mental illness. My mother was diagnosed with schizophrania in 1958. One week after my marriage, I had to arrange for her hospitalization when my father's doctor told me I would be taken to court if I refused. I had an ambulance to pick her up when she had dinner at my aunt's house. In the psyche hospital viewing room, I watched as they admitted my screaming, straight-jacketed mother. I felt like a traitor.
Months later, she returned home, a different person, although she refused to see me until after the birth of my daughter, a year later.
Shortly before my mother's death at age 94, she thanked me for having her hospitalized. "Nobody did anything for me. I don't know what would have happened if you didn't do what you did."
Mira's book explains the childhood horrors I lived through. Only the writing itself seems schizophranic. Past and present become a jumbled maze. Ultimately the book seems theraputic for the author but trying for the reader. I felt like an intruder in a psychiatrist's office. Maybe the gritty details of her mother's illness were too familiar. Do not expect to read this book for entertainment, obviously not the author's purpose. Learn, understand, and say,"There but for the grace of God go I!"