email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFranz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
The Memory Palace is one of the most beautiful, tragic and hopeful memoirs that you will ever read. Mira Bartók's artistry, imagination, compassion, and skill with words have created a book about family and mental illness that will be read for many years to come by a wide range of people: the mentally ill, their families and friends, mental health professionals, social service workers, and—I would hope—politicians and the wider community.
Bartók's mother, Norma Kurap Herr, who was born in 1926 and died in 2007, was a gifted pianist and intelligent, creative woman with an inquiring mind, who suffered her first episode of schizophrenia at age nineteen. As the years passed, her episodes became more frequent, her behavior more bizarre and self-harming, the periods of lucidity shorter.
She married Paul Herr and had two daughters, the author and her sister Natalia, but Herr left the family when his daughters were young, and they heard little more from him. He had been a promising author, his first novel compared to the writing of Albert Camus, and he mixed with other writers like Saul Bellow and Nelsen Algren. But he was also an alcoholic, and died at the age of sixty, leaving next to nothing behind.
Bartók's maternal grandfather seems to have been a violent, controlling man who ruled over his wife, daughter, and granddaughters with a terrifying force. After his death in 1980, the author's grandmother continues to be a reluctant carer of her ill daughter, and clearly ashamed of her behavior. When she develops dementia, the roles are reversed, and Bartók's mother attempts to care for her as well as manage her own illness, tasks which are patently beyond her capability.
Throughout their childhood, Bartók and her sister endure both neglect and the paranoid delusions of their mother. She sometimes kept them from school, and from piano lessons, fearful they would be kidnapped, raped, killed. She would burst into their bedroom and demand answers to impossible questions about sexual behavior. The two girls pushed a dresser against the door: 'When I think of my mother beating her cold white fists against our flimsy door, and how I can't go to my lessons anymore, I don't know whether to kill her or take her in my arms and sing her to sleep' (100).
Bartók is concerned both for her mother's welfare and for her own (and her sister's) if she doesn't protect herself from her mother's incessant demands. This forms one of the repeated questions through the memoir: is my mother safe, and am I safe from my mother? The author's compassion for her seriously ill mother does not waver, despite everything that happens, including her mother's occasional violence. She is careful not to overplay the violent episodes, despite their potential for catastrophe, noting that people with schizophrenia are statistically less prone to violence than the general population. But when they attempt to get her to sign guardianship papers and she attacks Bartók with a broken bottle, the two sisters decide to change their names and not give their mother any contact details. For the next seventeen years, the author communicates with her mother via letters through a post office box address.
One of the prominent problems shown in the book is that Bartók's mother is inadequately treated: 'I felt held hostage by her illness and by the backward mental health system that once again was incapable of helping our family in crisis' (148). There is an important paragraph midway through this book about the first psychiatrist Norma Herr consulted, before she was married. It seems that the mental health system spectacularly failed her from the very beginning, and her family of origin did not give her the support she needed. On return from her periods in hospital, she is so medicated she appears catatonic, but the much touted medications do little to relieve her mental distress, and eventually produce tardive dyskinesia. Once deinstutionalization takes over, she is mainly homeless, or lives in a shelter, her life as chaotic as her thoughts and the voices that plague her. There appears to be no one prepared to supervise her illness, let alone champion her cause for mental health treatment. Unlike Emma Forrest in Your Voice in My Head, there is no psychiatrist, or any other caring professionals, on whom Bartók's mother can depend. And, following on from that, there is inadequate support for her family as well.
I should add that when Mira Bartók and Mental Health Services for Homeless Persons attempted to obtain legal guardianship for Norma, the judge dismissed them, declaring her sane because he said she could buy her own cigarettes, balance her checkbook, and use correct change!
The central motif, and what makes the title of the memoir, is the memory palace. Bartók, going through her mother's collection of possessions in the U-Haul storage room, ponders on some words in her last diary about a palace. She recalls the story of the Greek poet Simonides who was able to remember where everyone was standing in a palace on the day it collapsed (he had stepped outside and was unharmed), and so could assist in the identification of the bodies. As she writes:
A memory palace. A man named Matteo Ricci built one once. I read about him the year after my accident. Ricci, a Jesuit priest who possessed great mneumonic powers, traveled to China in 1596 and taught scholars how to build an imaginary palace to keep their memories safe. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember. To everything they wanted to recall, they were to affix an image; to every image, a position inside a room in their mind. His idea went back to the Greek poet Simonides... (31)
Bartók constructs her own memory palace, and describes each picture in it as she proceeds through the memoir. As her own brain functioning has been disrupted by a car accident and resulting coup-contrecoup injury, and her mother's is disrupted by schizophrenia, so the reader learns about memory and how unreliable, fluid, changeable with time and context and emotion it can be: 'Since I knew what Ricci didn't at the time, that memories cannot be fixed, my palace would always be changing. But the foundation would stay the same' (32).
The author's illustrations head every chapter, black and white dream-like pictures of her mother when young, of important images emotionally, of symbolic objects. There are quotations from a wide range of writers and texts and her mother's diary entries precede each chapter. They are a mixture of disordered thought and paranoia and moments of beauty: 'My only thought yesterday was of the beguiling, deceptive charm of writing and music' (83).
Mira Bartók has attempted to describe the beauty and terror of her mother and her illness, how difficult it was to be her daughter when she phoned thirty times a day warning about some danger that could befall her, but how also she was still her loving and beloved mother: 'I have always known deep down there is great love and sweetness inside her, her true self she had at birth, but schizophrenia devours it every day' (249). There is a problem for the reader here, because going on the material provided, it is difficult to see this deeper personality. And the violent episodes are disturbing, despite their infrequency. One other aspect of the memoir that I felt of concern is the description of Bartók's husband William, who we know as an unemployed poet with a mood disorder. We learn of him through the lens of time spent in Norway, in an extreme environment that would test most of us, and I couldn't help but wonder what he was like elsewhere; what did she see in him, and why did they marry?
Despite these concerns, I think Bartók has produced a memoir of great beauty and importance that deserves a wide readership.
© 2012 Sue Bond
Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane, Australia. She has an erratically maintained blog, http://thewordygecko.wordpress.com, and degrees in literature, medicine, and creative writing.