Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Memory Palace

In her memoir The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok recalls a comment from Nicolaus Steno, the “grandfather of geology,” who once wrote the following: “Beautiful is what we see. More beautiful is what we understand. Most beautiful is what we do not comprehend.”

In light of her mother's schizophrenia and the havoc it wreaked on her life, it's an optimistic conclusion for her to come to not only about her mother, but also about herself and the life that she had because of her mother's illness.

Born in 1959, the youngest of two daughters, Mira Bartok's life turned for the worse when her writer father took off for parts unknown and left her and her sister to be raised by a gifted but mental ill mother. From chaotic event to chaotic event, Bartok recalls in lurid but eloquent detail the episodes of her mother, Norma Herr, as she battled the demons that surrounded her. Whether it be the Nazis, the police, her own parents, or the mysterious and elusive “they” who were out to kill, kidnap, or rape them, the paranoid Norma saw danger everywhere.

The sisters escaped into their own world of survival: Mira's sister to her book readings and creative writings and Mira to her art work, two skills that they perfected and eventually became their livings.

When they were of age and means to live away from their mother, each girl did, but it didn't stop Norma from harassing and worrying each of them from afar.

What Bartok chronicles in this memoir is both fascinating and horrifying – a dissecting look at a life shared with a loved one so frightening ill.

For many reasons, this memoir stands out from others. Perhaps it is Bartok's use of mnemonic paintings to separate her chapters and highlight her memories or it's the intelligent and disturbing excerpts from Norma's journals that Bartok shares, but this book is courageous, compassionate, and tragic.

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