Mira Bartok's memoir "The Memory Palace"

January 28, 2011

Mira Bartok's disturbing, beautiful book about her mother's schizophrenia takes its title from the teachings of a 16th-century Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, who helped Chinese scholars safeguard their memories by associating a specific image with each memory, then assigning each image a place in a room in the mind. In this way one could build, room by room, an imaginary palace filled with real memories. "The Memory Palace" is not so much a palace of memories as a complex web of bewitching verbal and visual images, memories, dreams, true stories and rambling excerpts from the author's mentally ill mother's notebooks. It is an extraordinary mix.

Myra and Rachel Herr grew up in Cleveland with their divorcee mother, Norma, a brilliant pianist who loved all the arts and took her children to concerts and museums during her lucid moments. Yet the early parts of Bartok's book read like a good child's nightmare. It did not matter how hard she tried, how many hours she practiced the piano, how impressive her grades were. Her mother might show up on a bicycle at school and circle the building, ringing the bicycle bell and calling out "Where are my children? Someone has kidnapped my children!" She might hear voices and have conversations with people who were not there, or spin in circles in the living room, holding a butcher's knife.

Myra and Rachel's grandmother called the hospital when Norma's schizophrenic episodes became extreme, but felt deeply ashamed whenever the ambulance arrived. ("What will the neighbors say now?") After the girls grew up and their grandfather died, Norma lived with the grandmother, though Norma's illness continued and at 80 the older woman began to show signs of Alzheimer's. When Norma stabbed their grandmother six times with a knife, Myra and Rachel legally removed the grandmother to a private elder-care facility, but the daughters were unable to have their mother placed where she, too, would receive appropriate treatment; Norma was not considered "incompetent." Nonetheless, she attacked Myra with a broken bottle, slicing her throat. She tried to choke Rachel on the street. Finally both girls changed their names (to Mira and Natalia, respectively) and fled, leaving their mother with just the mailing address of a friend. They were estranged from Norma for 17 years, until they were called to her deathbed.

Mira Bartok, a prolific author of books for children, lived with anguishing guilt during the years of separation, always yearning to help her mother, who was homeless and alone. The danger of contact seemed too great right up to the end of Norma's life: "Even though she was now elderly," Bartok writes of her mother, dying of cancer in the hospital at 81, "in my mind she was still the madwoman on the street, brandishing a knife; the woman who shouts obscenities at you in the park, who follows you down alleyways, lighting matches in your hair."

Some of the images in the book are terrifying, but the writing is intimate and exquisite, with sentences and paragraphs worth reading and re-reading just to savor the words. The author describes a childhood marked by trauma - the schizophrenic mother, the father who abandoned the family, the grandfather who hit them with his belt and threatened them with his gun - and adulthood as an artist and a writer whose life continued to be overshadowed by her mother's illness.

Bartok often writes of her mother's schizophrenia in the language of myth and magic, as if to cloak the incomprehensible in some form of understanding: "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."

This effort is deeply touching, as is Mira and Natalia's belief that, at the end with their weak and dying mother, they have retrieved "her sweet essence that not even schizophrenia could take away." However agonizing the relationship with their mother was, and surely would have continued to be had she lived, at her death her daughters salvaged a stubborn, abiding love for Norma in spite of everything. It is hard to imagine a more poignant tribute.

Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, including "Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures."

THE MEMORY PALACE

By Mira Bartok

Free Press. 305 pp. $25

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