The Memory Palace

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Simon and Schuster, Jan 11, 2011 - Biography & Autobiography - 320 pages
4 Reviews
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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I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was hooked by the first chapter. I found Mira Bartok's writing to be elequent. This story is so heart felt, I was completely engrossed in the authors love & fear of her mother. I was perfectly beautiful and tragic at the same time. I really admire her bravery in writing something so personal, I feel like the author really put herself out there when she wrote this book. One of the best memoirs I've read.  

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This is the touching story of a child who grew up in the shadow of mental illness until finally she felt forced to run away and assume a new identity to escape her mother’s madness, the madness of Schizophrenia. It is also 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.
At times I found the story a bit confusing, especially as random memories popped up and I wasn’t sure to whom they belonged, Norma or Myra. Perhaps this was intentional by the author since both she and her mom were living in that kind of an unsettled world, living with the confusion and chaos of malfunctioning brains, mental disorders. Although the magnitude of Norma’s disorder was far greater than Mira’s, the parallel of her crisis to her mom’s, was stark.
As she recreates her life and works her way through the memory of her mother’s madness, she describes her feelings of shame and inadequacy, when she, as a mere child of nine or ten, is forced to devise ways to survive her mother’s psychotic episodes. Sometimes I questioned the memories in their time or place since if Mira’s memory was really so damaged and so unstable from the accident, I thought how was she able to piece together so wonderful a manuscript and describe so many early memories so well?
Her idea of a memory palace did not work for me as well as it did in the novel "The Madonnas of Leningrad”, which also used memory as a tool. In addition, I found her description of her time in Israel to be a bit one-sided. I wondered if she was aware of the fact that her memories of Israel and Israelis were colored with far less compassion than those of her interaction with the Arabs. I found them tinged with greater negativism and wondered if it had to do with any kind of resentment toward her mother’s Judaic background.
Mira seems to be searching

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Death the Rider
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About the author (2011)

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

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