Family Memories: A Review of The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

The memory palace of Mira Bartók’s eponymous memoir is a place that she visualizes: “[T]wisted hallways . . . improbable stairs, like an Escher print, leading to doors that do not open, rooms too dark to see. This is how the memory of trauma works, how we glimpse forgotten years trapped inside the amygdala, that almond-shaped center of fear in our brain. Years are erased or condensed into hazy snapshots.’’

Bartók’s mother, Norma Herr, was a schizophrenic who felt both haunted and hunted. But Norma was also a musical prodigy whose concert career was abruptly halted after her first breakdown at the age of 19. By the time she divorced Paul Herr in 1963 she had two young daughters whom she shuttled between her parents’ home shadowed with memories of abuse to a dump of an apartment on the other side of Cleveland.

The ineffable functioning of memory and the brain itself is integral to Bartók’s complex story. She brilliantly teases out the emotional and physical fallout of her mother’s brain, damaged by illness. Within the memoir is also an autobiography of her own brain, traumatized in childhood and then injured in a car accident a decade ago. Cognitive function or lack thereof in her life is represented by “a palimpsest — a piece of parchment from which someone had rubbed off the words, leaving only a ghost image behind.’’

Bartók’s childhood is a continuous maelstrom powered by Norma’s violent rages and hallucinations. The will to survive the storm leads to the desperate moment when Bartók and her sister legally change their names as young adults so that their mother cannot track them down. Thus begins 17 years of homelessness for Norma and 17 years of wandering for Mira Bartók, who was born Myra Herr.

The Herr sisters’ name change is the foundation of the memoir — an action and reaction that calls to mind the Jewish superstition of changing a dying person’s name to hide her from the angel of death. For that was what Norma Herr was for her daughters — messenger of death who in one of their last encounters in 1990 chased Bartók with the jagged end of a bottle as her nearly hysterical sister Natalia, formerly Rachel, called the police for help.

Over the years Bartók lived in Italy, Israel, and Norway. Along the way she penned a series of children’s books on ancient and living cultures. She became an accomplished artist who taught herself the art of illumination. She remembers being transfixed by Queen Isabella’s Book of Hours — a devotional on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art. She also remembers wandering among ancient art, searching for the mother who forgot to come back for her.

From 1990 to 2007, Bartók set up post office boxes to both evade Norma and stay in touch with her. Their correspondence is a paradoxical record of a tragic yet fierce, loving relationship. Norma wrote to her daughter on the backs of greasy fast food bags about subjects as eclectic as art, religion, and geology. Her formidable intellect mingled with her insanity. She kept detailed notebooks on her peripatetic studies that at the brink of Norma’s death Bartók and her sister excavated from a storage locker.

Bartók eventually learns from a friend who maintains her post office box that her mother is dying. She and Natalia rush to Cleveland from their respective homes in Western Massachusetts and upstate New York to keep vigil by their mother’s bedside. During those intense three weeks Bartók utters the most wrenching yet bravest words in this memoir: “You know, I always loved you, Mommy.’’ The fact that Bartók can convey how and why she still loves her mother is perhaps the book’s greatest triumph.

A version of this review first appeared in a January 2011 of the Boston Globe

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