Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Memory Palace - a memoir by Mira Bartok ~ Book Review

From the Reading Group Guide Introduction (back of book):

"When piano progidy 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 Bartok 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 leaves her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed.  Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where her mother was living.  When she received word that her mother is dying in a hospital, Mira and her sister traveled to their mother's deathbed to reconcile one last time.  Norma gave them a key to the storage unit in which she has kept hundreds old diaries, photographs and momentos from the past that Mira never imagined she would see again.  These artifacts trigger a flood of memories and give Mira access to the past that she believed had been lost forever."

This book has been on my radar for quite awhile now and I finally got around to reading it.  With the recent releasing of a schizophrenic man here in Canada who committed a horrible, unimaginable  crime on a greyhound bus a few years back that shocked our nation, changed the lives of all those on the bus and was the direct cause of one of the first responders taking their own lives, I really felt the need to read this.   I can pretty much say people here are totally dumbfounded and angry as he was  given total freedom without conditions and let back into society because it was deemed the crime was committed during an episode and he's now "likely to stay on medication".  This made me dig into my TBR pile and pull this book out hoping maybe it would bring some kind of understanding into the life of a person suffering from schizophrenia and how it affects those around them and to somehow justify or explain in my mind the reasoning behind the release of this man here in Canada.

Mira Bartok was told at her mother's funeral that "people have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you've been through".  And even though for their own safety, Mira and her sister had no contact with their mother for many, many years and in fact, changed their names so she couldn't find them, Mira wrote a touching, heartbreaking account of their lives growing up with their mother.  The book really let the reader into a glimpse of the harrowing struggle for both the schizophrenic sufferer and their families.  And it also brought out how the loved ones can feel hostage to the illness and, in Mira's mother's case anyway, the  system that was incapable of bringing help to their family in crisis.  In order to protect themselves, they literally had to let their mother become homeless and living on the streets and in shelters.  No family should have to make that choice.  Mira's story also pointed out to me how memory can be affected by different things and even the one remembering as her and her sister sometimes had different recollections of the same event.  There were also beautiful moments throughout the book where Mira makes the mother/daughter connections while caring for her mom.  The moment when she was helping her mom in the hospital to walk from the bathroom back to bed and as they stood, her holding her mom up as her mom rested a moment leaning against her and the nurse came and asked if she was okay, and Mira realized she hadn't hugged her mom in 17 years was especially touching.  Though at times the writing style bogged me down just a little bit as I tried to make connections in the points the author was trying to convey,  this memoir was well worth the read just to gain some understanding of the struggles of those suffering severe mental health issues, to develop some compassion for them and their families and for those who are homeless, and an understanding of how the "system" works and lacks in actually being helpful and beneficial for those in this situation.  And most especially to read about that mother/daughter connection in spite of the illness.

9/10 rating

Linked to Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books


Barbara H. said...

Such a tragic situation.

Faith said...

Schizophrenia is a horrible mental illness. I was friends with someone who has it. It is very difficult but when we pause to remember it is a MENTAL ISSUE that needs treatment from a psychiatrist or a psychiatrict hospital, it helps to have empathy. It is a horrible disease and one that requires medication for life. But many of these people do end up homeless or commit crimes to get attention because sadly, our nation and possibly yours, just do not take mental illness all that seriously Until this changes, the situations like you describe about the man on the bus will just keep happening although not all mentally ill people commit crimes.
Is Mira Bartok related to Bela Bartok the famous composer?? when I was a piano major for my undergrad days I studied some of the pieces.