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The Memory Palace

435 pages7 hours


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.

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The Memory Palace - Mira Bartok

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4.8 A striking, beautiful, disturbing memoir about growing up with a schizophrenic mother. Remarkably readable for that complexity of both the events and the emotions. Worth it for subtle repetitions.
Fascinating memoir, beautifully written, and surprisingly relatable.
A tough read due to the contents but beautifully written from a daughters perspective on a schizophrenic mother. What does a child do when their mother behaves in an erratic and threatening manner all the time. You and your sister deny she's your mother, bolt your bedroom door and run to someone else's house when she gets out of control?? And then for years you do not let her know where you live and your sister has not contact with her. But now she is old, living on the street and dying.
powerful and poignant, touching for souls who can reflect themselves in it.
Beautifully remembered story. The prose is as visual as the best paintings.
The first half of this book is luridly fascinating. Bartok indelibly conveys the distress and menace of growing up with a single parent, her mother, who is deeply, intractably, and terrifyingly, mentally ill. In the 2nd half of the book, after her mother has tried to cut Bartok's throat, and after Bartok has essentially placed herself in quasi-witness-protection-like status (new name, undisclosed location), to evade her mother, the book drifted away from me. Since her mother at this point becomes homeless and remains so for the last 17 years of her life, the focus switches to Bartok's adult life in Italy, Norway, Israel, New York, and elsewhere. Why she chooses these scattered and mostly troubled episodes is never clear, nor how each might relate back to her childhood, and I found her adaptation of the "memory palace" idea incoherent and confusing. During these years Bartok flirts with notions of guilt about not being more present in her mother's life, this in spite of the fact that the last person who had tried to help her mother, (her grandmother), had, in return for her efforts, been beaten, had her money stolen, lost her home, and ultimately was hospitalized with multiple stab wounds. That all interventions had failed, that some had failed with particularly gruesome outcomes, and that Bartok only actually returns when she knows that her mother is terminally ill, don't collectively make that guilt any less real, but they do make it harder to relate to.In the end the women in the story that intrigued me were not so much Bartok and her mother - they each get lots of air time - but rather her sister and her grandmother. Both are handled in such an opaque and incidental manner in the book that they cry out for a more substantial treatment. In the case of her sister, it is almost as if her presence has been redacted from Bartok's account. The memoir is prefaced with old photos, and in the family photo, it only shows Bartok and her mother: her sister's image has been snipped off the right side with only a few strands of her hair remaining in the frame. Bartok's The Memory Palace is very much her story and hers alone, and not so much theirs, even though all three women were similarly traumatized by her mother's madness.As for her grandmother, she especially seems to warrant some kind of special acknowledgement, having always had food and a bed ready for the girls when their mother was at her most negligent or abusive. Her grandmother is depicted as weak, but her entire, hellish family life consisted of living in fear: initially of a brutal husband and subsequently of a deluded and violent daughter. After the girls left home, the burden became hers entirely, and she was, albeit reluctantly and at great cost to herself, the only family who tried to intervene on her daughter's behalf.
so sad that i had trouble getting into it.
A gorgeously written memoir about a fractured family drawn back into orbit by the terminal illness of a mother -- a homeless, schizophrenic, musical prodigy -- a woman so volatile and frightening that both of her daughters had legally changed their names as young adults and "hidden" from their mother for decades. Both girls return to be by Norma Herr's side in her final days and discover, in a storage unit, her own written record of the intervening years. At turns lucid and fantastic, these writings allowed Mira Bartok (Norma Herr's younger daughter) to rediscover her mother and to better understand herself. Norma's journal entries that Mira includes in the memoir are hauntingly sad, and, yet, they show glimpses of a brilliantly talented woman surprisingly aware of how far from reality she lives. A thought-provoking look at the meaning of "family".
This is a very hard book to read. I applaud Mira Bartok for her honesty in writing about her mother's Schizophrenia and the way it affected her whole life. Although I am interested in reading about fictional characters who have a mental illness, this is not fiction and I had to put it aside several times to regroup. I went back to it because the bravery of Mira Bartok to write it demanded that I would. Her struggle to take care of herself while not completely abandoning her mother was a very fine line to navigate and it won't be easy for readers to understand how and why she had to separate herself from her mother even when the mother was aging and homeless. But the fair reader will not judge a situation they have never faced and will realize that Mira had no workable choice. I got thru this book by reading a light book during breaks I gave myself and I suggest that to others.
A very sad book! It was horrible to read that these women had to change their names and hide from their ill mother, but understandable. Loved the quotes and little stories throughout. Bartok's writing is wonderful to read and she sounds like someone I'd love to meet!
A heartbreaking account of the conflict between love and sense of duty to the insane schizophrenic mother and person's desire to live her own life.There is tremendous beauty, sadness and compassion in this book.
Wonderful, sad story that was beautifully written.
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.
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 paranoid and delusional, and even from childhood, she fills her daughter’s heads with otherworldly terrors and unimaginable and inappropriate things. Interspersed within Mira’s reflections on life with her mother are actual pages of Norma’s diaries and calendars, and what they reveal is a mind crumbling at its foundation. As Mira shares her perceptions of her mother, I could really understand how tiresome and scary it all was, the seemingly baseless paranoia and the interrogations that never ceased. When Norma is on her deathbed, the girls finally find a way to love their mother while still shunning the illness that consumes her, and it was here that the book took on heartrending urgency and emotional heft.The Memory Palace deals with one of the least understood mental illnesses in human physiology, and as such, it expounds on something that is frightening and alienating both to its sufferers and to those who love them. While Bartok shares her perceptions on what it’s like to live with a mentally ill mother, she also shares pieces of her life that are eclectic and beautiful, but the thrust of this book is difficult and painful. It is obvious, though, that Bartok seeks to pay homage to her mother in a respectful yet uncompromising way, and in this endeavor, she succeeds fully. A very introspective and emotional read. Recommended.
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.
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.
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.
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.