Monday, March 21, 2011

Book review: 'Memory Palace' a haunting story of illness, loss and remembrance


The Memory Palace:‭ ‬A Memoir,‭ ‬by Mira Bartok.‭ ‬Free Press,‭ ‬305‭ ‬pp.,‭ ‬$25

By Bill Williams

Norma Kurap Herr was a talented musician when she started hearing voices at age‭ ‬19.‭ ‬She struggled with schizophrenia for the rest of her life,‭ ‬and was in and out of psychiatric wards and often homeless before she died at age‭ ‬80.

In this new memoir Mira Bartok,‭ ‬one of Herr’s two daughters,‭ ‬describes in heartbreaking detail her mother’s descent into chaos and its effect on the author and her sister.

Herr frequently threatened to kill herself and warned her daughters to be careful because someone,‭ ‬perhaps Nazis,‭ ‬might try to kidnap,‭ ‬kill or rape them.‭ ‬At night she would pound on her daughters‭’ ‬bedroom door,‭ ‬screaming and frightening them.‭ ‬In one scary scene,‭ ‬Herr grabs a broken bottle,‭ ‬pins the author to the floor,‭ ‬slices into her neck and threatens to kill her.

Finally,‭ ‬as young adults,‭ ‬Bartok and her sister reluctantly decide to change their names and cut off all contact with their mother.‭ ‬They communicate with her through a post office box,‭ ‬but do not see her again for‭ ‬17‭ ‬years.

Bartok is an engaging writer who helps us see the devastation of schizophrenia and its cruel impact on a brilliant woman who loved music and art,‭ ‬but was captive to a malady that took control of her brain.‭ ‬Bartok quotes another schizophrenic as saying,‭ “‬It’s like your head is plugged into every electric socket in every house on every street.‭”

The book excels in its exploration of the fragility of memory,‭ ‬which is particularly relevant here because Bartok was involved in a horrific traffic accident that severely damaged her brain in‭ ‬1999.‭ ‬It appears that she still has difficulty performing simple everyday tasks.

Bartok describes the science of memory,‭ ‬the impact of brain damage on memory,‭ ‬and the difficulty of trying to write an accurate memoir when her memory is foggy and sometimes differs from what her sister recalls.‭ ‬The author admits her confusion and uncertainty about certain particulars and conversations.

Before the age of‭ ‬10,‭ ‬she writes,‭ ‬children‭ “‬have a kind of childlike amnesia.‭” ‬As adults,‭ ‬they might learn about long-ago events from someone who cannot tell the difference between reality and a dream.

The author’s discussion of her leaky memory raises the obvious question of how she could recall numerous word-for-word conversations from decades ago.

The book’s title comes from a Jesuit priest who visited China to teach scholars how to create an imaginary palace to keep their memories safe.

Although the first half of this book captures the reader’s interest as it describes the chaos of living with a schizophrenic mother,‭ ‬much of the second half meanders as Bartok travels to Italy,‭ ‬Israel,‭ ‬and Norway for extended stays.‭ ‬She writes children’s books,‭ ‬marries and divorces a man who suffers from apparent bipolar illness,‭ ‬pursues her devotion to art and sets out to learn more about her dad,‭ “‬an aspiring alcoholic writer‭” ‬who left the family when the author was‭ ‬4‭ ‬years old.

But these chapters serve as a diversion that take us away from the central theme of Bartok’s complicated,‭ ‬strained relationship with her sick mother,‭ ‬who loves her daughters deeply even while she while she is gripped by a terrible illness.

When Bartok and her sister learn in‭ ‬2006‭ ‬that their mother is dying from cancer,‭ ‬they return to Cleveland to be with her.‭ ‬They find the key to a U-Haul storage locker where their mom has put family memorabilia,‭ ‬journals and letters that bring back memories and show how much she loved them.

In a poignant scene of mother-daughter love and renewed connection,‭ ‬the author helps her terminally ill mother to the bathroom,‭ ‬and then assists her as they move slowly back toward the mother’s bed.

‭“‬We stay in the middle of the room for a long time,‭ ‬holding on to each other‭” ‬Bartok writes.‭ “‬I wrap my arms around her tighter.‭ ‬My mother closes her eyes and relaxes into my embrace.‭”

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at‭ ‬billwaw@comcast.net.

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