Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Bartok, Mira. The Memory Palace: A Memoir. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.
Mira Bartok’s memoir is a story of her relationship with her schizophrenic mother, Norma. In her prologue, Bartok sets the stakes: she gives the hypothetical situation of a homeless woman on a ledge five stories up. She’s in her own world of fantasy. There’s an ambulance below. The woman yearns to be set free. The people below are trying to help her, save her from a fall, from death. The woman only wants to fly.
This is the tragedy of mental illness, a world in which reality (the rescuers below holding their safety nets) is clouded by the voices and visions inside a woman’s head, sounds and images she cannot control (“red eyes of a leopard, men with wild teeth and cat bodies, tails as long as rivers”). Her life hinges on the precarious balance between reality and the demons inside her mind. Bartok captures this internal struggle in the space of one paragraph of prose.
The woman could be Bartok’s mother or “yours” and resides in a “working-class neighborhood in Cleveland, or it could be Baltimore or Detroit.” The implication is this homeless person could be anyone, in any city because mental illness can affect your family as it has affected Bartok’s, and it impacts every city, every place.
Bartok brings the reader into her own life, the life of a woman who has lived through the ravaging effects of Norma’s mental illness. At the beginning of her book, Bartok tells of her decision to disassociate herself from her mom. It’s a decision fraught with guilt and necessitated by survival, and it’s only when Bartok is informed of her mother’s serious cancer that she and her sister go to see their mom again after a sixteen-year separation.
In the memoir’s fifth page, Bartok introduces her own struggles with memory loss after a car accident at the age of 40. She returns to her injury near the end of the book, after she has painted a vivid picture of her mother’s deterioration, and chronicles her own cognitive impairment from that car accident. Like her mom, Bartok ends up on welfare because she is unable to work or function, and it gives her a small taste of Norma’s incapacitation.
Bartok uses passages from her mother’s diary, the one she discovers in Norma’s rented U-Haul after she and her sister find out about her cancer, to provide poignant chapter intros to her book. The passages give insights into the thought patterns of a woman caught in the throes of a blurred and shattered reality.
Bartok takes us on a journey back through her “memory palace,” her attempt to recreate the fragments of her life into some coherent whole through imagery and visualization. She uses a first person narrative throughout the book and weaves back and forth through various time periods from her memories. We see her as a five-year-old when her mother comforts her after Bartok has been punched in the face by a neighbor boy. We are told of her mom’s life before mental illness, Norma’s passion for music, the divorce from her husband when Bartok was four, how her mother became unhinged after the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Norma’s fragile hold on reality, the desperate attempts to cling to Bartok and her sister by their mother, the constant demands for help at all hours and under any circumstances, and the emotional toll this takes on them.
Bartok is an artist and makes use of her drawings in the book to add depth and texture to her prose. Her writing is personal and the images she elicits are searing, mythical, and poetic. One of the best examples is her closing tribute to the memory of her mother: “If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in that place between sleep and morning. Without her long nights waiting in the rain, without the weight of guilt I bear when I buy a new pair of shoes. 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.”
Mira Bartok succeeds in painting a picture of the devastating effects of mental illness. She touches the reader with a personal account of her life and honors the memory of her mother and all those who suffer from debilitating mental illness.