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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.