The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace

3.3 223
by Mira Bartok
     
 

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“ People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through,” Mira Bartók is told at her mother’s memorial service. It is a poignant observation about the relationship between Mira, her sister, and their mentally ill mother. Before she was struck with schizophrenia at the age of nineteen, beautiful piano protég… See more details below

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Overview


“ People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through,” Mira Bartók is told at her mother’s memorial service. It is a poignant observation about the relationship between Mira, her sister, and their mentally ill mother. Before she was struck with schizophrenia at the age of nineteen, beautiful piano protégé Norma Herr had been the most vibrant personality in the room. She loved her daughters and did her best to raise them well, but as her mental state deteriorated, Norma spoke less about Chopin and more about Nazis and her fear that her daughters would be kidnapped, murdered, or raped.

When the girls left for college, the harassment escalated—Norma called them obsessively, appeared at their apartments or jobs, threatened to kill herself if they did not return home. After a traumatic encounter, Mira and her sister were left with no choice but to change their names and sever all contact with Norma in order to stay safe. But while Mira pursued her career as an artist—exploring the ancient romance of Florence, the eerie mysticism of northern Norway, and the raw desert of Israel—the haunting memories of her mother were never far away.

Then one day, Mira’s life changed forever after a debilitating car accident. As she struggled to recover from a traumatic brain injury, she was confronted with a need to recontextualize her life—she had to relearn how to paint, read, and interact with the outside world. In her search for a way back to her lost self, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where she believed her mother was living and discovered that Norma was dying.

Mira and her sister traveled to Cleveland, where they shared an extraordinary reconciliation with their mother that none of them had thought possible. At the hospital, Mira discovered a set of keys that opened a storage unit Norma had been keeping for seventeen years. Filled with family photos, childhood toys, and ephemera from Norma’s life, the storage unit brought back a flood of previous memories that Mira had thought were lost to her forever.

The Memory Palace is a breathtaking literary memoir about the complex meaning of love, truth, and the capacity for forgiveness among family. Through stunning prose and original art created by the author in tandem with the text, The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists—or is lost—between them.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This moving, compassionately candid memoir by artist and children’s book author Bartok describes a life dominated by her gifted but schizophrenic mother. Bartók and her sister, Rachel, both of whom grew up in Cleveland, are abandoned by their novelist father and go to live with their mother at their maternal grandparents’ home. By 1990, a confrontation in which her mother cuts her with broken glass leads Bartók (née Myra Herr) to change her identity and flee the woman she calls “the cry of madness in the dark.” Eventually, the estrangement leaves her mother homeless, wandering with her belongings in a knapsack, writing letters to her daughter’s post office box. Reunited 17 years later, Bartók is suffering memory loss from an accident; her mother is 80 years old and dying from stomach cancer. Only through memories do they each find solace for their collective journey. Using a mnemonic technique from the Renaissance—a memory palace—Bartók imagines, chapter by chapter, a mansion whose rooms secure the treasured moments of her reconstructed past. With a key found stashed in her mother’s knapsack, she unlocks a rental storage room filled with paintings, diaries, and photos. Bartók turns these strangely parallel narratives and overlapping wonders into a haunting, almost patchwork, narrative that lyrically chronicles a complex mother-daughter relationship. (Feb.)
Library Journal - BookSmack!
Beginning at the end, we're given a summary: the author's 80-year-old homeless paranoid schizophrenic mother has just flown off a window sill. She survives but then ends up on her deathbed with cancer. This ends 17 years of estrangement during which Bartók went to great lengths to conceal her own identity and whereabouts from her mother. Chilling in its horrible intimacies, this is an amazing rendering of an artist's life surrounded by, and surviving, mental illness. Bartók also reveals her own brain trauma from a car accident.What I'm Telling My Friends All you'd need is to see my copy to know-I have Post-It notes marking phrases and sentences I wanted to repeat because they were so good. About one-third of the way through, I thought that if this book were a person, I'd consider making out with it. Julie Kane, "Memoir Short Takes", Booksmack! 10/21/10
Kirkus Reviews

A disturbing, mesmerizing personal narrative about growing up with a brilliant but schizophrenic mother.

The book is comprised of two intertwining narratives. One concerns artist Bartók's mother, Norma Herr, and her struggle with mental illness. The other examines the author's midlife struggle with a traumatic brain injury. Norma was a gifted pianist whose musical career came to an unexpected end when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19. In the lucid intervals between the debilitating episodes of her illness, Norma—who married an equally gifted alcoholic—fostered a love of art in her two daughters. In so doing, she gave both girls the tools to survive her illness and their father's abandonment. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, Bartók and her sister used art as a coping mechanism for dealing with their mother's illness. As Norma's condition worsened, escape from domestic turbulence became more difficult. In an act of radical self-preservation, the sisters changed their names and severed nearly all ties with Norma; letters sent via PO Box became the only way they communicated with her. As a young adult, Bartók forged a life as a peripatetic artist haunted by the fear that her mother would find her. At age 40, she was involved in a car accident that left her with a speech and memory-impairing brain injury. From that moment on, her greatest challenge became recollection, which manifested textually as a slightly exaggerated concern with descriptive detail. She and her sister then discovered that their now-homeless mother was dying of cancer, and both decided to see her, 17 years after their decision to disappear from Norma's life. By chance, Bartók found a storage unit filled with her mother's letters, journals and personal effects—a veritable palace of memories. The artifacts she uncovered helped her to better understand her mother, and herself, and find the beginnings of a physical and emotional healing that had eluded her for years.

Richly textured, compassionate and heartbreaking.

Melanie Thernstrom
…like the cabinet of wonders that is a frequent motif here, Bartok's memory palace contains some rare, distinctive and genuinely imaginative treasures.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
"A disturbing, mesmerizing personal narrative about growing up with a brilliant but schizophrenic mother.... Richly textured, compassionate and heartbreaking." —Kirkus Starred Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439183311
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
01/11/2011
Pages:
305
Product dimensions:
9.26(w) x 6.60(h) x 1.11(d)

Read an Excerpt

Homeless

A homeless woman, let’s call her my mother for now, or yours, sits on a window ledge in late afternoon in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland, or it could be Baltimore or Detroit. She is five stories up, and below the ambulance is waiting, red lights flashing in the rain. The woman thinks they’re the red eyes of a leopard from her dream last night. The voices below tell her not to jump, but the ones in her head are winning. In her story there are leopards on every corner, men with wild teeth and cat bodies, tails as long as rivers. If she opens her arms into wings she must cross a bridge of fire, battle four horses and riders. I am a swan, a spindle, a falcon, a bear. The men below call up to save her, cast their nets to lure her down, but she knows she cannot reach the garden without the distant journey. She opens her arms to enter the land of birds and fire. I will become wind, bone, blood, and memory. And the red eyes below are amazed to see just how perilously she balances on the ledge—like a leaf or a delicate lock of hair.

Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector

on the chaos of memory.

© 2011 Mira BartÓk

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From the Publisher
"A disturbing, mesmerizing personal narrative about growing up with a brilliant but schizophrenic mother.... Richly textured, compassionate and heartbreaking." —-Kirkus Starred Review

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