The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace

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 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.

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)

About 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

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

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Memory Palace includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mira Bartók.The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

When piano prodigy Norma Herr was well, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After being violently attacked for demanding that Norma seek help, Mira Bartók and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years Mira’s only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living.

At the age of forty, artist Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that left her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira reaches out to the homeless shelter where her mother had been living. When she receives word that her mother is dying in a hospital, Mira and her sister travel to their mother’s deathbed to reconcile one last time. Norma gives them a key to a storage unit in which she has kept hundreds of diaries, photographs, and mementos from the past that Mira never imagined she would see again. These artifacts trigger a flood of memories, and give Mira access to a past that she believed had been lost forever.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The prologue describes a homeless woman standing on a window ledge, thinking about jumping. The author writes, “Let’s call her my mother for now, or yours” (p. xiii) How does imagining a loved one of your own in that position change the way you think about the book? Does it help you connect or make the situation more personal?

2. Early in the book, Mira sees her mother for the first time in seventeen years. What is your impression of this hospital visit? What impact does it have on Mira?

3. While their mother is dying at the hospital, Mira and her sister Natalia go through their mom’s storage facility. How did it make you feel to be with the two sisters as they rummaged through the collection? What discovered or rediscovered items touched you most and why.

4. On page 29, Mira says, “Memory, if it is anything at all, is unreliable.” How does Mira’s own unreliable memory—a lingering effect of her auto accident—underscore the schizophrenic mind of her mother? Do you think it helps her relate to her mother? Why or why not?

5. Mira turns to art as a way to express herself. On page 53, when she visits a Russian Orthodox Church with her grandfather, she sees the “Beautiful Gate” of painted icons and wonders: “Can a painting save a person’s life?” Describe ways in which art is therapeutic in this book.

6. As an illustration of how memory can be unreliable, Mira explains that she vividly remembers seeing the Cuyahoga River burning in Cleveland in 1969, and then admits that she’s almost certain she wasn’t really there, even though the memory of the event is so clear. Can you think of things that are imprinted in your own memory (perhaps from hearing family stories or seeing images onscreen) even though you were not there? Do you think anyone’s memory can be an accurate record of truth? Why or why not?

7. In Italy, Mira takes a job making reproductions of old paintings for tourists. She later learns that they are being sold as authentic antiquities. How does Mira react to this news? What deeper feeling does it evoke in Mira about her life in general? How does this discovery fit into the book’s questions about authenticity?

8. After visiting their father’s grave in the New Orleans area, Mira and Natalia decide to visit a state park. Their heads and hearts filled with emotion, they get lost along the way. But after they find the park and enjoy some peaceful time in nature, the road away from the park seems clear and simple. Describe the role that nature and meditation play in Mira’s life and in this book.

9. On page 238, when Mira’s husband William is in a fit of depression, Mira feels like “It’s January in 1990 all over again.” Compare and contrast Mira’s characterization of her husband and her mother. How do her experiences with her mother impact the way she responds to William’s depression?

10. At her mother’s memorial service, on page 295, the director of MHS (Mental Health Services, Inc.) says to Mira, “I know of children who have abandoned their parents for much less than you two have gone through,” but Mira wonders if she and her sister truly did enough. How does this book make you think about the obligations that children have to their parents? Are there limits to what family members owe each other?

11. Mira seems to regard the homeless people she sees on the streets a little differently—as though any one of them could be a mother or father. She wants people to understand the “thin line, the one between their worlds and ours” (p. 297). Has this book helped you see the homeless in a different light? Why or why not? How has it impacted the way you think about mental illness?

Enhance Your Bookclub

  1. One purpose of this memoir is to show first-hand what it’s like to live with (and apart from) a person who suffers from a mental illness. Do a little research to find out more about what it’s like to live with this disease. You can start with websites such as,, and You might also try typing in the search term “schizophrenia documentary” at in order to see a variety of homemade and televised documentaries about people who suffer from this debilitating mental illness.
  2. Mira Bartok is a writer, poet, musician and artist. She is also a strong advocate for other writers, poets, and artists. She blogs about grants, fellowships, and opportunities for both the established and aspiring. Visit her blog at Are there any opportunities there you may want to explore? Share them with the group—and encourage your fellow readers to pursue their own creative interests.
  3. The author wants you to understand how thin the line is between one world and another—between what you may consider a “normal” life and a life on the streets or plagued with a mind or mood-altering condition. After reading this book, take a closer look at people you may ordinarily ignore. Look a homeless person in the eye and greet him or her with a salutation as you might any other person. If possible, try volunteering at a local homeless shelter, or better yet, your book club could volunteer as a group. Be sure to share and discuss your experience with your fellow book club members.

A Conversation with Mira Bartók

You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing? Did your mother’s encouragement prompt you to combine words and art, or did you always think you’d be a writer?

I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability. As far as always thinking I would be a writer, I never thought about that and still don’t think of myself in that way. Although I always wrote—mostly poetry, essays, and short fiction, and also I made artists’ book with images and text—I am an artist first, and that means, for me, that I serve the idea. If the idea, which often starts out as an image, needs to be a story, then I will write a story. If it should be a painting or a film, then I have to follow that trajectory. My next project is an illustrated young adult novel/adult fiction crossover. I have also started to explore creating radio documentaries with my husband, musician and producer, Doug Plavin. Can you tell that I don’t like labels? :)

You are an accomplished artist, author, poet, and musician. Do you have a favorite medium?

My first love was music, and still is, although I am hardly an accomplished musician—more of an amateur. And due to some cognitive deficits from my brain injury, it will take a lot of focused practicing to regain much of my former ability to play music.

How do you choose which form to use when expressing an emotion, theme, or story?

I think it chooses me. I have no idea. See my answer to question one!

How did combining art forms using writing and painting help you construct your memoir?

Music informed my use of language, art informed the imagistic way I wrote. And when words failed me, I would draw. When I couldn’t draw, I would write. And sometimes, while typing, if words got stuck in my head, I’d bring up an image from my computer to help me along visually.

This book is a very personal and moving testimony to the turbulent and loving relationship between a mother and daughter. Were there certain aspects of your story you were reluctant to share?

Yes, definitely. I withheld certain things that might have appeared sensational, particularly violent episodes with our grandfather. I’m not a huge fan of misery memoirs, ones that relentlessly describe one terrible thing after another without any self-examination on the author’s part. I wanted to express beauty as well and I also did not want to contribute to the unfortunate stereotype of a violent schizophrenic; statistically, most schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves than others. I also decided against sharing a couple of very personal drawings, like the one I did of my mother when she was dying.

Though this is a story about the lasting bond of parental love, it’s also very much about the unreliability of memory. What message did you most want to convey to readers about these subjects?

I never intended to get across any kind of message when I wrote the book. I simply set out to explore the connections that I shared with my mother, nothing more, and I set out to do that through pictures, because I am a visual thinker. But yes, the story of mother-daughter love shines through and for me, I think I came to understand that it is a very primal thing, one that is still difficult for me to explain and understand. With memory, the more I researched the subject and explored my own relationship to memory, especially in the light of living with TBI, the more I found all these arguments about so-called “truth” in memory (and thus, memoir) to be silly. I’m not talking about making up some sensational story so that one can sell a fictional book as a memoir (and you know who I mean!) but rather, the idea that just because one remembers something “clearly,” it has to be true is simply false. Ask any neuroscientist, any forensic psychologist, criminal investigator, etc. Oh, if writers only read a little more science, I’d be so happy! Anyway, I personally think the strongest message in the book is about compassion, and the more times I rewrote the book, the more compassion I discovered within myself.

When you wrote your memoir, how did you feel about scenes that involve your sister or other featured characters who may read it? How does the unreliability of memory come into play in these scenes, given the different perspectives of people who may have experienced the same moments in different ways? What has it been like to share these memories with the people who lived through them with you?

I think that the only person I was worried about was my sister, Natalia Singer, because of her very private nature and her difficult personal choice not to write our mother during those seventeen years of separation. I was just worried about bringing to light, in a public way, a very painful part of our family history. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write the book and hoped that ultimately, her reading it would be a healing experience for both of us—and I really think it was. After she read it, she called to say that she loved it and that I was very brave to have written this book. And aside from that, she had written her own memoir a few years ago, called Scraping by in the Big Eighties, about how she tried to rise above our difficult past to make it as a struggling writer during that decadent era of big hair and junk bonds. She never, to my recollection (ah…memory again!) asked me to help her recall any events from that period while she was writing her book, nor do I think she should have.

Basically, I tried hard not to think of anyone reading the book until I was done. At one
point, while I was working on an early draft, my sister asked me if I was going to show her the book before I was finished so she could check my memories and make sure they were right. I thought that was pretty funny, given that my book was about how unreliable memory was. I thanked her but told her that I was more interested in what things we miss-remember and why. I was and still am very intrigued by how family members recall things differently. It’s the psychology behind what we choose to forget and the neuroscience that I am interested in, not some journalistic approach to memoir. Also, most people who read memoirs know that conversations and scenes are condensed and altered in the interest of time and telling a good story. But what we don’t often see in memoir is the exploration of memory itself, how it functions, and how in the retelling of an event, the telling transforms not only the memory but it changes our brain as well.

One thing almost everyone says after reading the book is: how could you write a book like that if you have such a problem with memory? What I think they don’t understand is that for many years, from the time I was fourteen, I have been keeping very detailed journals, dream diaries, and sketchbooks. Also, with TBI, much of our long-term memory returns. It’s the short-term memory that is most compromised with me (and still is). All that aside, the funny thing is that when certain family members or friends from childhood read the book, they all said how close their memories were to my own. I didn’t expect that at all.

There is a difference between the unreliability of memory and the conscious effort to stretch truth into fiction. There have been some high profile allegations in the memoir genre in recent years. Were you at all concerned about this sort of scandal?

Never. My book is hardly scandalous. If anything, it is a story about the transformative power of empathy.

Did you ever consider writing about your experiences in a fictional way?

Actually, before I wrote this book I was writing a novel but the mother character (a minor figure in the novel) kept getting in the way so I thought I would just write about my mother and be done with it! My next book has some bits and pieces of autobiographical material but more related to place since it is set in Northern Norway where I lived for a time.

Why do you think your mother requested that you contact Willard Gaylin? Have you had any additional contact with him besides the single message in the book?

I think that my mother really respected him and remembered him from her past as a kind, gentle and helpful man. In her journals and her letters to me, she often talked about her need to find an ‘advisor’ and I think he probably fit the bill in her mind for some reason. And no, I haven’t had any more contact, however, he’s on my goodreads ‘friend’ list and when the book comes out I will definitely send him a copy!

Your mother wrote, “Everyone is guaranteed the right to be deprived of the pursuit of happiness.” (p. 297) Do you think she believed that in the end?

I don’t know. Sometimes she made up these darkly funny phrases but I don’t know how much she believed in them. I would imagine she was commenting on this American belief that everyone has a right to the pursuit of happiness while for those who are poor and disenfranchised, it is extremely arduous for them to not only find happiness but to even pursue it, especially if they are living on the street.

Do you?

I think that unfortunately, many Americans think happiness means entitlement—being able to drive gas-guzzling cars, and consume as much as we want, usually at the expense of another human being’s suffering (i.e. working in sweatshops). Nothing is ever enough and therefore, they can never truly be happy. Personally, I think true happiness comes from trying to alleviate the suffering of others. I also think it comes from always remembering what you love—paying attention to and recreating that sense of wonderment that we experienced in childhood but often about as we grow older.

Part three of your memoir is aptly called “Palimpsest.” Do you feel as though writing this book was a new beginning for you?


Did the book’s publication create a transitory moment similar to or different from the feeling you had when you finished writing it?

It’s a different feeling. Finishing the book felt like a monumental thing for me, but monumental on a personal level. Publishing it makes the story public and creates this odd (and powerful) connection to a larger world, i.e. an audience. I found that after I finished the book I was incredibly relieved and felt like now I can go on and write fiction, make radio documentaries, make prints and paintings, etc. But the reality is that now that the book is out there, I have to go full-steam ahead and promote it—do events, engage with readers, etc. It’s a bit overwhelming and stressful, although incredibly exciting too.

As a practiced author and artist, can you briefly describe your creative process? Do you practice daily, or in fits of inspiration? Do you approach visual art differently than writing?

I often start writing when I am walking in the woods with my dog. I bring a hand-held voice recorder with me, and speak/write as I walk. I get some of my best writing ideas in the morning when I’m out in nature but if I don’t record them right away they probably will disappear from the memory bank by the time I get home. As far as practicing daily goes, I write every day when I am working on a literary project. However, because I live with a brain injury, if I have dinner with friends the night before, that means I don’t write the next day. Or if I speak at a conference and have to travel there and back, I am usually so mentally fatigued that I probably won’t write for a couple or few days. I have to measure everything I do very carefully. It goes the other way around too—if I write one day I might not be able to drive my car the next. As for making art though, I find it very hard to start something (starting projects is very difficult for people with TBI) but once I do, it takes less mental energy and can be quite meditative. I approach both art and writing in a similar way though—with strong images. I usually get inspired to write or draw by looking at an image or remembering one. I then write, or draw myself into the discovery of what that image means to me. I also get a lot of ideas from my very wild, mythic and adventurous dreams! I see images I have to write down or I hear the first line in a poem, right before I wake up.

Describe how you came to title this book The Memory Palace. Do you feel like writing this memoir was a memory palace in itself? How did you put together the bits and pieces until they made a more sensible whole for you?

I originally thought of structuring this book as a kind of cabinet of curiosities, given my background in museum collections and taxonomy, but then I remembered this ancient Renaissance system of memory recall and bingo—it was perfect. Also, I had been making these pictures for each memory so they all ended up on a giant canvas on my studio wall. And by using the Memory Palace motif as a way to architecturally contain the book, it provided the perfect background to weave in musings about memory itself and the brain. In order to make sense of the whole thing (and not lose my mind in the process!), I created an actual cabinet in my studio, with openings for each chapter. That way, if I wrote something one day or jotted down a note or sketched a picture, I could place it in its drawer (since I probably would forget about it the following day). So in this way, my own creative process was a building of a palace—on my wall, in this cabinet, in the book.

Your memoir is very intense and moving. What do you hope readers will take away from The Memory Palace?

I never have an agenda for anything I create. I didn’t write this book to teach anyone a lesson about brain injury or mental illness or the plight of the homeless population. I wrote it because I needed to, and also, I knew it was one hell of a good story. That said, if readers walk away from this book with more empathy for those less fortunate or if they gain a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and the other issues I bring up, then that is the icing on the cake. Like I say in the book, there is a thin line between the world of homelessness and “our” world. And each and every woman out there, trying to survive on the street is someone’s mother, daughter, sister or friend. I also hope my friends and family will understand my struggles with living with a brain injury a little bit better. Even after over ten years, most people still don’t get it when I tell them I need to not talk on the phone or see people for a while in order to rest my brain. I think it’s very hard to see someone who looks and sounds normal and accept that there is something seriously wrong. And I certainly hope that friends and family of others living with TBI, as well as those living with other invisible disabilities, such as Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, etc. will be more understanding toward their loved ones. And last but not least, I hope that, even though I revealed some very dark things about her, my mother’s memory is honored in some way, and that readers will go away with the feeling that she was a beautiful, gifted and extraordinary human being. And the best thing is, the shelter that she lived in the last three years of her life has recently been renamed in her honor. It is now a bright, shiny new facility called The Norma Herr Women’s Center! I am now working with the shelter to hopefully raise money to create a community garden near the shelter for the women there to grow their own food. How is that for a happy ending?

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The Memory Palace 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 229 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.
jewelknits on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although I didn't grow up here, I live in Cleveland now, and this book was set here. I also had a mother who suffered through a nervous breakdown, and what was likely undiagnosed chemical depression, so I was very interested in this book from the beginning.This is not an easy read. It is a tale of a daughter whose mother's mental illness caused her to only communicate with her mother through a social worker and a post office box. It is a story of her growing up, her worries and her guilt. If, like most of us, you can't imagine children leaving their mother to live homeless in the street while they continue on with their lives, reading this book will bring you a greater understanding of why it may sometimes be necessary to do so. For me, it also highlights the need for some type of reform of our broken mental health care system. When a mentally-ill mother holds a knife to her daughter's throat and is let out of the hospital and sent home on her own the same day, there's a problem. I don't pretend to know how to fix it (if I did, maybe I could run for office), but it definitely needs to be fixed somehow.The writing ... well, the writing is luminous. The Memory Palace is a house of memories in one's mind where you place pictures of things that will stir your memories, and as she takes us through her own memory palace, Ms. Bartok's words embed themselves in your heart. You feel her quiet sorrow and the embarrassment that she is caused by her mother's illness; her fears when her mother leaves her alone when they're out, saying that she'll be right back, and she never comes back. As she goes through her own battle with a brain injury, it helps her understand a bit more about what her mother must feel with the voices inside of her head battling for dominance.This is not an "I must finish this all in one sitting" type of book. It's a book that you read in parts and give yourself time to digest before going on to the next. There are excerpts from her mother's journals that give a deeper insight into the brilliant mind that was ruined by schizophrenia. I think that it's the type of book that could win literary awards, and I applaud the author for her strength in putting this story on paper.QUOTESThen, outside, beneath the marquee, I see a woman with dark curly hair, pacing, smoking in the thrumming rain. She is alone and muttering to herself. Something about her reminds me of the old lady downtown who wears three coats and asks people on the street for a dime. I run to my mother, even though she could be that lady with the coats, the lady who has no teeth and who talks to her hands. When my mother sees me, she hugs me close.This will be my purgatory: the knock at the door at midnight, my mother, hair wild as snakes, the sound of sirens and doors slamming shut, the violent rush or arms and hands, my mother placed in restraints and handed over to strangers. And me, sitting in a green room beneath cold fluorescent lights, tapping my foot to a song I played long ago.As my grandma's Alzheimer's worsened, my mother's surprise visits to my sister and me increased, as did her disappearances to shelters and cheap motels. It was as if she were in training to be homeless.
TooBusyReading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Norma Herr is dying and her two daughters, having hidden from her for years, come to her bedside to say goodbye. This memoir recounts how this dysfunctional family got to this point.A childhood with an alcoholic father who disappears and a violent, schizophrenic mother, calls for remarkable survival skills. Norma becomes homeless and her now-adult daughters both change their names so that she cannot find them. Natalie (formerly Rachel) disconnects more than Mira (formerly Myra), but Myra communicates using anonymous post office boxes so that her mother never knows where she lives. So sad.Most of us, thankfully, have a hard time even imagining having a homeless mother and doing nothing other than sending the occasional gift of warm clothing to her. But most of us can't imagine living with a mother who tries to kill us.The family, for all its dysfunction, is very artistic, and that comes through in the story and in the author's illustrations. Mira suffers two separate accidents that leave her with a debilitating brain injury, with symptoms that she likens to her mother's problems with sensory overload, that perhaps help her understand more what her mother feels. What I failed to understand is how Mira, knowing of her mother's illness and avoiding all contact with her, can allow herself to get into such an obviously dysfunctional relationship of her own choosing.It seems like there are so many memoirs about really messed up families, but I find them fascinating. Maybe because I am fortunate to have a boringly normal childhood. While some of the writing in this memoir didn't appeal to me, much was lyrical and beautiful. My favorite parts were journal/diary entries that Norma wrote, later found by Mira. Despite her mental illness, Norma was very intelligent and her writing almost poetic, even when deeply paranoid.As well as being a family history, this story is about the horrible lack of resources for the mentally ill, about how an elderly woman with Alzheimer's can be sent home from a hospital emergency room in a taxi only to be found by a neighbor, wandering and bleeding in the snow. How a delusional woman can be given drugs and sent home with no regard to whether she has actually has a home, about how the system failed again and again. The story is an eye-opener and well worth reading.I was given an advance reader's copy of this book by the publisher, for which I am grateful.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mira Bartok¿s real name is not Mira Bartok. Nor does her sister Natalia go by her real name. Both women changed their names so their mother could not track them down.Both women had to start new lives with new names and completely cut off contact with their mother in order to survive.Bartok¿s mother, Norma Herr, is the center of this memoir. Herr was a magnificent pianist who got blindsided by schizophrenia when she was in her early twenties. By then, she had married and had two daughters. Her life and the lives of her two young daughters became a downward spiral of hospitalizations and medications and homelessness. Bartok begins the story at the end, when Bartok reconnects with her mother in her mother¿s last days. In the process, Bartok discovers that her mother has kept a storage room for all these years, a room filled with the miscellany of their lives. It is by sifting through items from the storage room, her ¿memory palace¿, that Bartok tells the story of her mother¿s life and her own life.Very powerful story.
JessicaStalker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a true story told from the daughter¿s perspective of a schizophrenic woman named Norma. The author and her sister had a tumultuous childhood and as adults their relationship with Norma doesn¿t get any better. Eventually the sisters make the difficult decision to change their names and hide from their mother and the burden of schizophrenia on their lives. It isn¿t until Norma is dying that they are finally reunited and its then that they see the true beauty of their mother that hasn¿t appeared since they were small girls.
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I know I'm probably one of the only people on the planet who didn't like this book. It was honestly too bleak for me to finish. Additionally, I was a lot more interested in the writer's mother than in the life of the writer herself that every time she intruded with her own life story I got annoyed and disconnected. Just not the book for me.
zibilee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this haunting and penetrating memoir, author Mira Bartok shares her story of living life with a mother who suffers from schizophrenia, and the lengths to which she and her sister have gone to break away from the spreading violence and madness that so corrupt their lives. From Mira¿s earliest memories, there was something not right about her mother, Norma. She often held conversations with unseen voices and became dangerously agitated when confronted. Living with her two young girls after being abandoned by her husband, Norma finds herself unable to take care of the three of them properly, her instances of illness growing exponentially. Eventually Norma and the girls move back into the home of her parents, but this too is a fraught situation, as Norma¿s father is extremely abusive. As Mira and her sister grow older, Norma¿s mental illness reaches an all time high and she becomes a persistent interrogator, and at times can be violent with her girls. Eventually the girls decide they must move to far-off cities and leave no forwarding address, hoping their mother will not be able to locate them. But when they learn that Norma is homeless and physically ill, the emotional toll it takes on Mira is severe. Though the girls try to get their mother the help she needs, she is far too stubborn, and it¿s only when she¿s in the throes of her final battle with cancer that the girls reunite with her and are able to get past the mental illness that has so decimated their lives. Stark and unflinching in its intimations, The Memory Palace is a chronicling of a life lived in the shadow of severe mental illness and the corrosion it inflicts upon a family.Reading this book was difficult for many reasons. While the topic is one that interests me greatly, the realities of the story was the stuff of nightmares. It was extremely difficult to digest the ways in which this family was flawed, and the devastation was not only clear from Norma¿s viewpoint, but of her girls as well. At times the book was frightening, and imagining what it must have been like to be a little child coping with this type of illness in a parent was heartbreaking and at times overwhelming. What was most frightening was the fact that Norma was constantly oblivious to her medical condition, leaving her daughters to bear the brunt of taking care of her and themselves, even when they were only small children.As Mira reflects back on an atypical life and the consequences it had for her and her sister, she¿s also dealing with the difficulties of having a brain injury after a disastrous car accident. All of these situations coalesce and leave her reserve low when attempting to deal with her mentally ill and dying mother. Mira begins to build a memory palace in her mind where the memories of her life can find a permanent home, but most of these memories are vivid with her mother¿s madness and her inability to cope with the guilt this brings. Mira and Norma keep in contact through letters that Mira picks up from a post office box, and it is through these letters that the reader can see the psychosis and bizarre turns of Norma¿s mind. In Mira¿s reflections on life with her mother, Norma is at times horrifyingly emotionally spastic and occasionally ruthlessly dangerous, a woman pushed from the confines of sanity in electrifying relief. The memory palace Mira constructs also serves to highlight how both of the girls live in a world where it¿s easy to shut out the infirmity of their mother.Though most of the book is difficult and emotionally demanding reading, there are some spots of ethereal beauty in the story as well. One of the things that both Mira and her mother share is a love of art and music, and though both take very different paths in pursuing these interests, it¿s something that they both can converse freely about and share appreciation for. Through the medium of artistic creation and interpretation, they bridge the distance between them. But most often, Norma is portrayed as p
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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