Friday, 28 September 2012

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

When piano prodigy Norma Herr was healthy, 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 Norma attacked her, 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, Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that left her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira learned Norma was dying in a hospital, and she and her sister traveled to their mother’s deathbed to reconcile one last time.
Through stunning prose and gorgeous original art, The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists—or is lost—between them.
About the Author

  New York Times bestselling author and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Mira Bartók is an artist, NPR commentator and author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has appeared in literary journals, magazines and anthologies and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and noted in The Best American Essays series. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she mentors other writers and runs Mira’s List, a blog that helps artists find funding and residencies all over the world. Along with her drummer and music producer Doug Plavin, she is also co-founder of North of Radio, a multi-media collaborative.


New York Times
National Book Critics Circle


  1. This book is, overall, a sympathetic story of the tragic impact of serious mental illness on a family. I liked that the author gives a good description of her mothers mental illness without going into any type of clinical explanation making it a very personal story.

    What I did not like, however, was the writing style. I found it scattered and cluttered and it was hard to keep track of time and events. Perhaps this was due to the authors' brain injury. However, the book could have been improved with some good editing.

    At the end of the book, in an interview with the author, she is quoted as saying she dislikes "misery memories ...without any self examination on the authors part". I could not find that she shared any self examination although she alluded to guilt. It would have been useful if she had offered reflections that could help others.

    She was also quoted as saying that the strongest message in the book is compassion. I found it rather disturbing that two college educated women abandoned their elderly and seriously ill mother without any direct contact for 17 years. Certainly they had their reasons, but, to me, that does not speak of compassion.

  2. The Memory Palace is an exceptional book club selection - there are so many issues to discuss - the nature of schizophrenia and the cause(s) of the disease, health care for the mentally ill, the harm that can come to those who live with people with mental disorders, and the girls’ choice to abandon their mother - all that in addition to the artistry of the author.
    Fireside Readers were fortunate in that some members had first-hand experience with schizophrenia or with bipolar disorder. We were grateful for their generosity in sharing their knowledge and experience with us. In both diseases there is the distortion of thinking and the firm belief of the person in the rightness of that thinking. Was the portrayal of Norma accurate? There is no arguing with the truth of the portrayal. Schizophrenia most often appears in adolescence or early adulthood. Was the behavior of Norma’s parent s an underlying reason for her illness? Did early trauma cause her to be ill? Currently scientists believe schizophrenia is caused by a chemical imbalance, although there is also a strong genetic component. Was Norma’s violent behavior believable? Those with first-hand knowledge say that families of the mentally ill go through difficult, destructive times and often close family members are the ones who are turned against when the patient is in a delusional state.
    When Mira and her sister tried to get help for Norma, there was not much knowledge about the disease or help to be had. Her stays in the hospitals were really incarcerations where electroshock therapy brought the desired results - passivity. We were appalled at the tests that proved Norma capable of managing her own affairs which left her daughters with no way to protect her from herself or protect themselves from her. Had they been granted guardianship, perhaps the right treatment and medication could have been found.
    Our members said that once the right medication is administered, it can make a huge difference to the patient’s perception and behavior. (Often patients are reluctant to take medication because they want to prove that they can do it on their own. They believe that they don’t need medication; they are suspicious of the motivation of others or the side-effects of the drugs make them feel terrible. )

  3. ...
    In order to protect themselves from Norma, Rachel and Myra virtually disappeared. They moved and changed their names. Mira did maintain postal contact with her mother through circuitous arrangements designed to mask her true location. For seventeen years, Norma lived on the streets and in shelters. Her letters revealed the extent of her illness and her longing to be with her daughters. To the young women, Norma was a monster set to swallow up their lives as she had their childhood.
    Was the daughters’ behavior acceptable? The consensus at our meeting was that in order to save their own lives, Mira and Rachel had to get away from their mother. Conventionally, the children would have stayed, but the downward path of Norma’s life was predictable- the girls had the possibility of positive, productive lives away from Norma. All felt their lives should not be sacrificed on the altar of their mother’s mental illness.
    We had a long discussion about how the book was written. Was the “jumpy” writing intentional or a by-product of the author’s brain injury? Many felt the repetitive writing was deliberate in order to simulate the conditions of the ordeal. The non-linear order works like memory does with flashes here and there in no way chronological. The book is written in the order that the memory palace was built. She wrote the book like an artist, stroke by stroke, painting vivid modernist pictures.
    Out of the cauldron of their family life, Mira and Rachel emerged as successful artists - their writing and art sustained them in childhood and in adult life. Norma’s journals revealed her own creativity and wide-ranging knowledge and curiousity. The journals gave the reader clear images of what Norma was thinking when she was delusional and when she was lucid. Mira’s writing is very much like Norma’s. Both are poetic.
    Was the ending plausible? After all that had gone before, did the daughters really want to spend time with their mother? Mira felt a great deal of guilt regarding her mother. If Norma was capable of having supportive relationships with the women of the shelter, perhaps she could have had the same with her daughters…

  4. It was...hmm..ok.

  5. I did like the overall concepts, and ideas of this novel. This true story holds a power that is capable of moving most any reader. However I absolutely disliked the writing style. I found myself getting lost among the pages, and found it hard to stay interested in what was happening, which sucked because I really hoped this book would leave more of an impact on me.