Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Memory Palace

by Mira Bartok
New York, Free Press, 2011
302 pages    Memoir

The image of memory imbedded in the book The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok is profound. Based on the teachings of a 16th century Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, Bartok speaks of the palace of the memory, where we keep tokens that trigger our memories, each memory assigned a room in our minds. 

Bartok also acknowledges that our memories are pliable so that even if the core of the long term memory remains, the memory transforms each time we attempt to retrieve it. In other words, each time we retell a story from our past or think about an event, or look at a photo, the memory is slightly different. 

When Bartok was very young with a sister one year older, their brilliant but alcoholic father left and they were left with their equally brilliant but schizophrenic mother, Norma. They found their stability in each other and in their grandparents, who lived in their Cleveland neighborhood. Once a piano prodigy, Norma, talks to unseen people, shows up in places that embarrass her daughters, such as school, shouts and curses obscenities, and accuses her daughters of terrible things. Their response is to study harder, practice more, and count the days until they can leave for college. As Bartok says, “We children of schizophrenics are the great secret-keepers, the ones who don’t want you to think that anything is wrong.”

After the girls leave home, Norma lives in her mother’s home, ostensibly to take care of her mother, but she can hardly take care of herself, let alone a mother who has developed Alzheimer’s. Soon, she is on the streets, in cheap motels, and homeless shelters. Myra and Rachel change their names to Mira and Natalie and move far away to protect themselves from their mother who obsessively searches for them. They cannot have contact with her because in her obsessive need to protect them, she becomes violent. Mira keeps a post office box and when she has an address for her mother, Mira writes to her and Norma writes in return. These letters are poignant reminders of Norma’s madness but also of Norma’s love for her daughters. She is constantly beseeching Mira to return to Cleveland to find the key to the house so they can all live together and then everything will be alright.

When Norma is in her early eighties, Mira and Natalie are contacted by the women’s shelter where she has resided for several years. Norma is dying, and the girls, who are now middle aged women, return to be with her until she dies, and by being with her, they begin to bring some peace and closure to their own lives, even as they bring peace and closure to their mother’s life. Bartok says, “But in the end, as my sister says, we got the best of her back—her sweet essence that not even schizophrenia could take away.”

Among their mother’s things, they find a key to a storage locker where Norma had created her own memory palace. The unit is filled with the stuff of her life and the childhood of her daughters, including Mira’s childhood drawings and several journals that document Norma’s life over the past many years. Bartok has included items from her mother’s journals and letters at the end of every chapter, giving us a glimpse into madness. We are also given a glimpse into a woman who is always trying to learn and grow even as she struggles to survive. In one letter, she suggests to her daughter that when she needs to calm down, she should recite the bones of the body in alphabetical order. 

Although we learn some of Mira Bartok’s life and her career, that is not the primary focus of The Memory Palace. We are led in very poetic ways to an understanding of brilliance, madness, and the resilience of the human spirit. Bartok’s tenacity is as strong as her mothers and leads her through a debilitating auto accident which threatens her own memory and sanity. We are given glimpses into Bartok’s life as an anthropologist by the stories that she uses to connect her mother’s story to the agelessness of memory. She also includes some of her art work as chapter headings, art that forms the basis of the memory palace. 

The Memory Palace is beautifully written and heartbreaking to read. Reeve Lindbergh, in her review in the Washington Post mentions that the book is “not so much a palace of memories as a complex web of bewitching verbal and visual images, memories, dreams, true stories and rambling excerpts from the author's mentally ill mother's notebooks. It is an extraordinary mix.” 

Bartok closes her book with these reconciling words: “If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in that place between sleep and morning…Let me dream a palace in the clear night sky, somewhere between Perseus, the Hero, and Cygnus, the Swan—a dark comforting place. A place lit by stars and a winter moon.”

The schizophrenic handyman who works for us is in jail for having assaulted someone. It happened while I was reading The Memory Palace. My children have always worried about his violent tendencies, which are greatly aggravated by drinking and drugs. I assure them that I don’t think he would ever hurt anyone in our family, because he loves our family. Yesterday, I received a letter from him which he wanted me to pass on to his mother. It is a letter so full of schizophrenic ramblings that I have been hesitating to let his mother see it. The Memory Palace has helped me understand that by giving her the letter, I will be helping her come to some understanding of the state of her son’s mind at this juncture. She can store this memory in her palace as well. The book also helped me understand my children’s concern at a level that I had not understood before.

The Memory Palace is often linked with The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, both books that I have read and appreciated. What I most loved about The Memory Palace is the depiction of the unrelenting love of Norma, the mother, whose illness makes it impossible for her to express her love for her daughters except through her constant search for them and her pleas for them to come home. Bartok acknowledges that and hopefully she has come to a peaceful place now that she has created this memorial to her mother and her madness.

An interview with Mira Bartok in the Shelf Awareness newsletter:
The book’s website:

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