“The Memory Palace: A Memoir” by Mira Bartok falls into the category of “memoirs by women with mentally ill mothers.” Others in this category include “Liars’ Club” by Mary Karr and “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. I picked it up because it’s on this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. And–I’m a sucker for a memoir.
Here are the basics–Mira Bartok and her sister ended up changing their names and moving to cities away from Cleveland to separate themselves from their mother, who was seriously mentally ill. Bartok became an artist and writer. After a serious car accident and traumatic brain injury as an adult, she decided to take a few steps toward reconnection with her mother who by then was homeless as well.
This book stands out from the others because Bartok includes excerpts from letters that her mother wrote, and she includes pictures of her own art. These deepen her story. Her telling isn’t chronological, but it does make sense somehow, as she describes the reconciliation, and then backs up to tell what came before.
Bartok employs the image of the memory palace partly because she had to reconstruct her own ability to remember. She suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1999 at age 40, and lost much of her short term memory. She describes the memory palace as a way of remembering by creating an imaginary space where each item within the space represents something one wishes to remember, an apt description of her writing here.
As I look back on the reading and reflect on what images I will keep of this book, I will recall Bartok’s description of when she first saw her mother behaving oddly in a way that was seriously wrong, and her immediate understanding that it was something to hide. The saddest to me was that Bartok seemed to show great talent at the piano; her mother had been a prodigy. But the disorganization of the entire household kept Bartok from continuing with lessons just as she was progressing to serious music.
Bartok struggles with guilt and shame. Yet there is also a sense in which she and her sister keep their eye on the light at the end of a tunnel, knowing that their only hope is that light. Nothing here is easy, but much of it is richly focused on life and hope.
I confess that as I read this, I often silently thanked my parents for being so by-the-book in getting me to bed on time, feeding me three square meals each and every day, and insisting on a sense of order. I chafed at that, but “The Memory Palace” reminded me that there’s nothing lovely about the kind of mental chaos that puts children in true danger. I’ll recommend this to readers who love memoirs, who seek stories of resilient children, and who want to know more about families without bedtimes.