The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók
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.
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók