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The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace

3.3 223
by Mira Bartok

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In the tradition of The Glass Castle, two sisters confront schizophrenia in this poignant literary memoir about family and mental illness. Through stunning prose and original art, The Memory Palace captures the love between mother and daughter, the complex meaning of truth, and family’s capacity for forgiveness

“People have abandoned


In the tradition of The Glass Castle, two sisters confront schizophrenia in this poignant literary memoir about family and mental illness. Through stunning prose and original art, The Memory Palace captures the love between mother and daughter, the complex meaning of truth, and family’s capacity for forgiveness

“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, a debilitating car accident changes Mira’s life forever. Struggling 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.

Editorial Reviews

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
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.)
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
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.

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Free Press
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Read an Excerpt


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


What People are Saying About This

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

Meet the Author

Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and has been noted in The Best American Essays series. She lives in Western Massachusetts, where she runs Mira’s List, a blog that helps artists find funding and residencies all over the world. The Memory Palace is Mira’s first book for adults. You can find her at TheMemoryPalace.com.

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The Memory Palace 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 223 reviews.
notquitered More than 1 year ago
I have been reading books of this genre, perhaps searching for a way to reconcile my own feeling towards my own mother and her mental illness. I have read Glass Castles, Hopes Boy and now The Memory Palace. Well written, I literally "felt" this book. In the end Ms. Bartok gave me a gift, the ability to accept, understand and let go. Thank you.
PoetryDoc More than 1 year ago
There have been a number of reviews that discuss the content of The Memory Palace, which is indeed rich with the story of struggle, of survival, and of finding one's way out of a quandary that is as difficult as any brought to Solomon. How does a person navigate a life away from, yet intertwined with, a damaged, gifted, brilliant mother who surely loves you? Bartok shows us her navigation through murky nightmares of living with a profoundly mentally ill loved one. She shows her heart rending decision to let her mother go; those of us who have experienced similar decisions marvel at her courage. The way in which Bartok manages to keep a loose tether to her mother, while creating a full artistic life for herself is one the strongest aspects of this book. The other thing that makes this an outstanding book is its structure, one that requires the reader to look beyond the surface of the book. Bartok's illustrations, and chapters beginning with her mother's letters are deftly juxtaposed with the narrative of her own travails and travels. There are points at which the narrative abruptly changes, and for a moment you think that that you might have missed something. I find this one of the book's strengths. One of the brilliant parts of the book, the occasional abrupt change of scene where people and places seem to disappear from the narrative, is clearly one of the books strengths, marking it as a work of literature. I see this occasional disjointedness as a literary technique, a brilliant one. I love this aspect of the narrative, for the few missing pieces seem to mimic the disjointed nature of the writer's life and the literal dislocations described in the book. Also, it seems to me that the style of writing perhaps mirrors Bartok's cognitive processes while recovering from her traumatic brain injury. Now, I could be reading a bit into this, but there is something of the abruptness of the change, of scene, of work, of lovers, of lands, that in technique, mimics what is happening in the writer's life. This is an important book. This is a brilliant book, and while completely different in terms of genre, it reminds me of some of the best contemporary long poems wherein the occasional gap and juxtaposition makes the work enjoyable and memorable. Read the book; savor it; ruminate over it after you are done. A wonderful read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is inexcusable how the author and her sister abandoned their mentally ill mother to pursue their own interests. Norma, their mother, pleaded for help, but they changed their names and kept their addresses a secret. They had no contact with their mother for 17 years. Mira questioned her mother's whereabouts, what she was wearing in the cold, where she was living, what she was eating - but she never came in contact with her, even the day she went incognito to the home Norma was living. She wanted to see the home, but not her mother. It was not until her mother was dying in hospice that the author and her sister finally came to spend time during their mother's last days. This book, although very well written, was more like a novel. I did not need a history lesson of the different places Mira went to live. The book brought tears to my eyes of how selfish and self-centered two daughters can be and how they can toss their mother aside when she so desperately needed moral and physical support.
BookHounds More than 1 year ago
I had never heard of a Memory Palace before and found that the title for this book fits perfectly. A Memory Palace is created by creating an Escher like space in your brain to link memories to pictures. Mira Bartok uses her mentally ill mother's belongings and journals to create a Palace and takes you through her childhood based on the objects of her mother that are found in a storage container. This memoir is probably one of the best I have ever read and I am amazed that the author keeps a sense of humor, honor and dignity while relating this tale. Bartok's mother has suffered with schizophrenia for all of her life and after the author and her sister move out and her home is sold, she spirals downward into homelessness. No matter how much Mira and her sister try to get their mother help, it never works. This becomes so heartbreaking and the grief is evident and yet, Mira tries again and again. When that fails, the girls move away, leave no forwarding address and change their names to escape the nightmare their mother has become. They do reunite when her mother is on her death bed. I really recommend this one and while it is a difficult read at times, it is worth the effort. I received this book from the publisher at no charge for my honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mira Bartok uses her lyrical prose, keen sense of wonder and detail, and gorgeous artwork to describe her heartbreaking story of life with a beautiful, brilliant, but deeply mentally ill mother. The achingly delicate balance she strikes between fear, love, and compassion will stay with you as you savor every word of her story. This is a complicated told in a loving and understanding way. Beautiful!!
missbeverlyann More than 1 year ago
This book is a tough one. If you cannot tolerate reading the in depth story of abuse, then move on. I read these not so much for what happened as to how they survived. To get thru to the other side and survive it all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To those lamenting Bartok "abandoning" her mother and passing judgement, you obviously read this book for entertainment purposes. It must have been nice to come home after school and find cookies and milk waiting for you. After being beat up and ruthlessly tormented by classmates, I came home to a mother crushing her head between her hands screaming for the brainwashing waves to stop. The only safe place I had was a shelf in a linen closet. You may call it abandonment, I call it survival and commend Bartok for her resiliency.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book beautifully explains what it's like to live with a severely mentally ill family member. Each person copes differently in order to survive. I feel less alone after reading it and am thankful to the author for writing it. I've recommended this book to every person that has asked what schizophrenia is really like.
BETKAT More than 1 year ago
This is a disturbing story of the wreckage mental illness has on the lives involved. The emotional toll that this family experiences is frightening. There is no help or hope for those exposed and the emotional damages are permanent. A mother and two little girls walk through a nightmare called life.
thewanderingjew More than 1 year ago
It is a story of enduring love and devotion, which although sometimes brought into question, was always evident. Mira begins this memoir in her voice as the child, Myra, her real name. The prose is lyrical, almost poetic at times, and it makes you feel comfortable. There were moments when you could almost feel as if you were a witness to the events, as in the final scene of her mother Norma's dying days, which had a great emotional impact. There were other times, however, when there was an absence of the emotional tug that would make you feel completely captivated. With the help of her mother's diaries and other memorabilia that she has found in a UHaul storage facility, Mira has reconstructed the shattered remnants of the many lives that influenced her growing up. Using fragments of her own memories and recollections that stem from paintings and drawings she once presented to her mom, plus sentences from letters she and/or her mom wrote to each other long ago, during the long period of their separation (17 years), Mira opens a window onto the world of neglect and abuse that was her childhood and allows us to glimpse the sadness and chaos that surrounded her life. Always ready to protect herself from her mother's voyages into her fantasies, she is constantly on guard, but also, she is ever mindful of her mother's needs and the "absence of her actual presence", in her life. Abandoned by their father, raised by a schizophrenic mother forgotten by society, surrounded by superstitious and abusive relatives ashamed of Norma's mental illness, Mira and her sister (Natalia, aka Rachel) muddled through their lives until their mother's violence forced them to abandon her, move away and assume new identities. After a catastrophic car accident leaves Mira with her own brain injury involving memory loss and confusion, Mira begins her own journey back to "normal". In trying to reconstruct her life and its memories which have been lost, admitting that some memories may or may not be parts of her real memory, she tries to create a palace in her mind of rooms filled with memories that will trigger others and make her past life more complete. Like her mother, now she has difficulties remembering, but she is strongly attached to the real world and her mother is not. The bonds between herself and her mom were never severed completely, but they were distant and charged with fear and resentment because of her mom's erratic and dangerous stalking behavior. Perhaps she had to run away.perhaps her sister did too, but perhaps they could have done more, while they were gone, to guarantee their mother's safety, rather than simply think it was the responsibility of the state to take care of her and, therefore, justify their own escape. We can not really know the answer having not walked in those shoes, and surely it would be better if there were services available to help people in such devastating circumstances. The one thing that was completely obvious, throughout the telling of the memoir, was the deep bond between Norma, the mother, and Myra, the child, and even Norma the daughter and her own mother as well, who cared for her, albeit resentfully sometimes, until she was no longer physically or mentally able. That bond between mother and child was never broken.
Sara Sorci More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. As someone in the field of mental health I loved how Mira Bartok illustrated the complexities of how mental illness can impact the family system and an individual's life. Beautifully told.
grumpydan More than 1 year ago
Mira has spent most of her adult life hiding from her schizophrenic homeless mother when she gets a call through a friend that her mother is in the hospital dying of stomach cancer. When she finds a key to a storage locker that her mother rents, she finds artifacts from her childhood and memories start flooding back. With this memoir Mira has written a captivating story of a childhood filled with hope and fear. She reads from her mother's journals and opens the reader's eyes to what it is like to live in such a world. This is a book of love and forgiveness and finding truth. I recommend you keep a box of tissues close by.
NightLilly More than 1 year ago
The Memory Palace is brilliant and also an amazing piece of writing. Spiritual, inspirational, beautiful, and heart-wrenching, I can only say what an incredible book it is. Mira is one of two sisters challenged by their schizophrenic, yet brilliant mother, Norma. Mira and her sister are resourceful, thoughtful, angry at times and forgiving. They are fabulously resilient. Mira does her best to portray her mother's brilliant, intense side and makes it clear that that coincided with her mental illness. This is a remarkable, provocative, stimulating book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A truly honestly heartfelt story, i loved reading this and have recommended it to several friends.
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