A New York Times Bestseller, Now in Paperback.
An official selection by actress and activist Emma Watson's Book Club, Our Shared Shelf
"A sledgehammer . . . a new model for the memoir." Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman's coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries , a memorial for Mailhot's mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her fatheran abusive drunk and a brilliant artistwho was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.
Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn't exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My story was maltreated. The words were too wrong and ugly to speak. I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle. He marked it as solicitation. The man took me shopping with his pity. I was silenced by charitylike so many Indians. I kept my hand out. My story became the hustle.
Women asked me what my endgame was. I hadn't thought about it. I considered marrying one of the men and sitting with my winnings, but I was too smart to sit. I took their money and went to school. I was hungry and took more. When I gained the faculty to speak my story, I realized I had given men too much.
The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless. We sometimes outrun ourselves. I stopped answering men's questions or their calls.
Women asked me for my story.
My grandmother told me about Jesus. We knelt to pray. She told me to close my eyes. It was the only thing she asked me to do properly. She had conviction, but she also taught me to be mindless. We started recipes and lost track. We forgot ingredients. Our cakes never rose. We ate ramen every day and often left boiling pots of water on the burner.
When she died nobody noticed me. Indian girls can be forgotten so well they forget themselves.
My mother brought healers to our home and I thought she was trying to exorcise mea little ghost. Psychics came. Our house was still ruptured. I started to craft ideas. I wrapped myself in a Pendleton blanket and picked blueberries. I pretended I was ancient. A healer looked at me. He was tall and his jeans were dirty.
He knelt down. I thought I was in trouble, so I told him that I had been good. He said, "You don't need to be nice."
My mother said that was when I became trouble.
That's when my nightmares came. A spinning wheel, a white porcelain tooth, a snarling mouth, and lightning haunted me. My mother told me they were visions.
"Turn your shirt backwards to confuse the ghosts," she said, and sent me to bed.
My mother insisted that I embrace my power. On my first day of school I bound myself a small book. The teacher complimented my vocabulary and my mother told me school was a choice.
She fed me traditional food. I went to bed early every night, but I never slept well.
I fell ill with tuberculosis. Mother brought back the healers. I told them my grandmother was speaking to me. I made stories of our cooking mistakes and told them I couldn't eat anymore. I missed her food too much.
"Does that happen to you," I said.
"What?" Zohar, a tarot reader, asked.
"Did you ever want to stop eating?"
"No," she said.
She asked my mother if she could sleep next to my bed, on the floor. She listened to me all night. Storytelling. What potential there was in being awful. My mindlessness became a gift. I didn't feel compelled to tell any moral tales or ancient ones. I learned how story was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.
My story was maltreated. I was a teenager when I got married. I wanted a safe home. Despair isn't a conduit for love. We ruined each other and then my mother died. I had to leave the reservation. I had to get my GED. I left my home because welfare was making me choose between my baby's formula or oatmeal for myself. I chose neither, and used one check for a ticket away. That's when I started to illustrate my story and exactly when it became a means of survival. The ugly truth is that I lost my son Isadore in court. The Hague Convention. The ugly of that truth is that I gave birth to my second son as I was losing my first. My court date and my delivery aligned. In the hospital, they told me that my first son would go with his father.
"What about this boy," I said, with Isaiah in my arms.
"They don't seem interested yet," my lawyer said.
I brought Isaiah home from the hospital, and then packed Isadore's bag. My ex-husband Vito took him, along with police escorts. Before they left, I asked Vito if he wanted to hold his new baby. I don't know why I offered, but he didn't kiss our baby or tell him goodbye. He didn't say he was sorry, or that it was unfortunate. Who wants one boy and not another?
It's too uglyto speak this story. It sounds like a beggar. How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?
I learned how to make a honey reduction of the ugly sentences. Still, my voice cracks.
I packed my baby and left my reservation. I came from the mountains to an infinite and flat brown to bury my grief. I left because I was hungry.
In my first writing classes, my professor told me that the human condition was misery. I'm a river widened by misery, and the potency of my language is more than human. It's an Indian condition to be proud of survival, but reluctant to call it resilience. Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.
The Indian condition is my grandmother. She was a nursery teacher. There are stories that she brought children to our kitchen, gave them laxatives, and then put newspaper on the ground. She squatted before them, and made faces to illustrate how hard they should push. She dewormed children this way, and she learned that in residential schoolwhere parasites and nuns and priests contaminated generations of our people. Indians froze trying to run away, and many starved. Nuns and Priests ran out of places for our bones, so they built us into the walls of new boarding schools.
I can see Grandmother's face in front of those children. Her hands felt like rose petals and her eyes were soft and round like buttons. She liked carnations and canned milk. She had a big heart for us kids. She transcended resilience, and actualized what Indians weren't taught to know: we are unmovable. Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief, but I don't think she even measured time.
You had a hard on for my oratory. Some of my stories were fabricated. I had authoritya thing that people like you haven't witnessed. It comes from a traditional upbringing, and regarding my work as something more sacred than generations of effort or study. It's something on a continuum, so far reaching you know it came from an inhuman place. Story is inhuman and beyond me, and I'm not sure you ever recognized that. You knew to be excited in proximity to my power.
We started the affair in a small booth at Village Inn. I didn't sleep the night before. You were my teacher, and we discussed my fiction. My work was skeletal, before you. I waited for the right silence, and then said flatly that I liked you.
"Do we get a hotel?" you said.
Your hands were shaking. I reached out and touched themthey were double mine and whiter.
I knew, before I was close to you, that your cotton, blue hoodie smelled like smoke, and I could put my entire body beneath it. I knew that your skin wasn't rough. I knew that I was not going to be the same person for loving you.
We went back to our respective lives. We agreed to talk about it sometime soon. It was winter. I wore a brown corduroy jacket most days, and I remember waiting to be with youputting my fingers in the jacket pockets until the pockets couldn't contain my incessant want. My fingers felt swollen with focus and desire. I remember pulling threads, looking in the mirror, and seeing myself how you might see me. New.
While I waited, I went on a trip with a man I barely liked. You didn't call for two days. He insisted on sleeping in the same bed in our cabin. Our room had a skylight. I couldn't enjoy anything without acknowledging he was in the room. I tried to bathe alone and he played a guitar on the other side of the door. I was bored and asked for horses.
"What?" he said.
"I want to be on a horse," I said.
We were somewhere mountainous and it was snowing. He spent the morning calling stalls and asking for rates. He seemed offended when I told him I needed a warmer sweater, matching gloves, and that the breakfast we had wasn't right. And that I might need wool socks as well. He seemed surprised that I was not fun loving. I was rude and gratuitous. I went horseback riding with the man. He was almost jaundicedhe was so sick in love with me. I wanted as much of the world as I could take, and I didn't have the conscience to be ashamed.
You messaged me when I was playing slots with the man. You messaged that you had left your girlfriend, for me. You asked me how soon we could meet. I told the man I was ready to go home. It was urgent. He planned to go ice-skating, but I said no. He planned a tour of a haunted house, but I said no.
The man I had been conditioning was not happy with me. He knew something was wrong, and that's when I wondered if maybe falling in love looked like a crisis to an observer.
You had a jawline and I wanted to crawl under your gazeunder your chin. I was desirous to be beneath you.
The first few nights you tell me things.
"I'd burn my life down for you," you said.
There was still so much to tell youthings too ugly to know or say.
I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said.
You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut. You were hairy and large. Falling in love felt fluid. It snowed when we fell in love. Everything reminded me of warm milk. Everything seemed less real. I thought my cup was overflowing. I found myself caressing my own face.
My son and I let you visit. I told him my friend was coming. He put on a Batman costume and hid behind the couch until you came.
"When is he coming?" Isaiah said.
"Any minute," I said.
When you arrived, Isaiah sprung out and stood quietly. You received him so well. You let him be weird. He was seven, and his fingers were perpetually sticky. My son was a smaller bolt of lightninguncontained and sweeter than me. You were patient with him, and I watched you both put together a Lego set.
Safety wasn't familiarnot with men. Our life felt brighter together.
We started to argue about autonomy, and the agency I lacked with you. Neither one of us could pull away, so things erupted. Both of us had jobs and commitments. Our lives became less productive when productivity was pivotal.
Table of Contents1 INDIAN CONDITION
2 HEART BERRIES
3 INDIAN SICK
4 IN A PECAN FIELD
5 YOUR BLACK EYE AND MY BIRTH
6 I KNOW I'LL GO
7 LITTLE MOUNTAIN WOMAN
8 THE LEAVING DEFICIT
9 THUNDER BEING HONEY BEAR
10 INDIAN CONDITION
11 BETTER PARTS
Terese Marie Mailhot arrived in my life via vision. Well, she was due to give birth at any moment, and couldn't attend the writing workshop in person, so she was beamed into the classroom via Skype or iChat or FaceBook streaming on somebody's laptop. She became the cyborg writer in the room. It was hilarious at first. It never stopped being hilarious. But as the week went on, I realized that Terese's lack of physical presence gave her voice more power. When she spoke, we all had to lean toward the computer to better hear. And then we'd sometimes forget she was in the room. It's easy to forget about a computer. But then Terese would speakwould politely seek our attentionand we'd turn toward that laptop as if it were a shrine. Hilarious. It all seemed like a contradiction. But that 21st century technology turned Terese into an ancient. Well, it made her feel like she was powered by something ancient.
So, in reading Heart Berries , I was not surprised to learn that Terese, as a child in search of answers, in search of protection, pretended to be ancient.
I didn't say any of this at the time. I didn't want to single her out. Or praise her too much. I was the professor and I needed to be fair, objective, and critical. But what I really wanted to say was, "Terese, when I sat down with your manuscript, and began to read your words, I was aware within maybe three sentences that I was in the presence of a generational talent. I was in the presence of something new."
To be glib, Terese is putting the "original" in aboriginal.
So, yeah, I didn't say it then. But I am saying it now. Terese Marie Mailhot has arrived in all of our lives now and she is ancient. She is pretending to be ancient. She is speaking from an ancient place. She is smart and smart-ass. She is wounded and seeking to wound. She is forgiving and vengeful. She is mentally ill and smarter than all of us. She is cynical and deeply, deeply romantic.
She is the metaphorical love child of Emily Dickinson and Crazy Horse. She is the biological child of a broken healer and a lonely artist.
Terese is a healer and an artist. She is broken and she is lonely.
Just read a few of her out-of-context sentences:
"Observation isn't easy, and the right eyes can make me feel like a deer, while the wrong ones make me feel like a monster."
'The distinctness of my bed and its corners are fucked by my fucking you.'
"I don't think I can forgive myself for my compassion."
"I am not too ugly for this world."
"I walk backwards up the steps, knowing my feet like I never did."
This book is not only memoir. It is poetry. It is meditation. It is mystical, but not in the kind of old-time Indian way that Terese wants to avoid. It is a hard-earned mysticism. A blue collar mysticism. The mysticism of callused hands and blistered feet. It is the mysticism of resilience. Or something larger than resilience.
As you will discover in reading this book, Terese is suspicious of the word, "resilience." She is suspicious of all words. Because she is acutely aware of their ability to heal and harm, often at the same time.
But, as a writer, as a storyteller, Terese returns to the words, to the stories, because she must. She doesn't have a choice. She was given this extraordinary gift. And this gift of vision, of words, has sent her screaming into the night. It has left her weeping naked in the shower. It has pushed her into a mental hospital. It has fractured her family and her own soul.
But, here she is, still standing, and she is interrogating the world. She is the judge and jury. But she is a powerful indigenous woman who interrogates herself.
Yes, I think, in the end, this is perhaps why I believe Terese is a spectacular talent. She is willing to look deep into the mirror and tell us what she sees. And, in doing so, Terese herself becomes a mirror and we, her readers, can see our reflections.
Terese is unafraid now. Does that mean she is calling on us, her readers, her reflections, to be unafraid, too? Or maybe Terese just accepts her fear. Does that mean we readers should accept our fear, too? I don't know the answer to that question. Terese wants to be "torn apart by everything." So does that mean I should want to be torn apart, too? I don't know. I don't know. But I am certainly aware that Heart Berries has torn me apart. And I fully expect, as I read it again, as I keep rereading it over the years, that Terese and her stories will put me back together.
July 27, 2017