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The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace - Mira Bartok This is the touching story of a child who grew up in the shadow of mental illness until finally she felt forced to run away and assume a new identity to escape her mother’s madness, the madness of Schizophrenia. It is also a story of enduring love and devotion, which although sometimes brought into question, was always evident.
Mira begins this memoir in her voice as the child, Myra, her real name. The prose is lyrical, almost poetic at times, and it makes you feel comfortable. There were moments when you could almost feel as if you were a witness to the events, as in the final scene of her mother Norma’s dying days, which had a great emotional impact. There were other times, however, when there was an absence of the emotional tug that would make you feel completely captivated.
With the help of her mother’s diaries and other memorabilia that she has found in a UHaul storage facility, Mira has reconstructed the shattered remnants of the many lives that influenced her growing up. Using fragments of her own memories and recollections that stem from paintings and drawings she once presented to her mom, plus sentences from letters she and/or her mom wrote to each other long ago, during the long period of their separation (17 years), Mira opens a window onto the world of neglect and abuse that was her childhood and allows us to glimpse the sadness and chaos that surrounded her life. Always ready to protect herself from her mother’s voyages into her fantasies, she is constantly on guard, but also, she is ever mindful of her mother’s needs and the "absence of her actual presence", in her life.
Abandoned by their father, raised by a schizophrenic mother forgotten by society, surrounded by superstitious and abusive relatives ashamed of Norma's mental illness, Mira and her sister (Natalia, aka Rachel) muddled through their lives until their mother’s violence forced them to abandon her, move away and assume new identities.
After a catastrophic car accident leaves Mira with her own brain injury involving memory loss and confusion, Mira begins her own journey back to "normal". In trying to reconstruct her life and its memories which have been lost, admitting that some memories may or may not be parts of her real memory, she tries to create a palace in her mind of rooms filled with memories that will trigger others and make her past life more complete. Like her mother, now she has difficulties remembering, but she is strongly attached to the real world and her mother is not.
At times I found the story a bit confusing, especially as random memories popped up and I wasn’t sure to whom they belonged, Norma or Myra. Perhaps this was intentional by the author since both she and her mom were living in that kind of an unsettled world, living with the confusion and chaos of malfunctioning brains, mental disorders. Although the magnitude of Norma’s disorder was far greater than Mira’s, the parallel of her crisis to her mom’s, was stark.
As she recreates her life and works her way through the memory of her mother’s madness, she describes her feelings of shame and inadequacy, when she, as a mere child of nine or ten, is forced to devise ways to survive her mother’s psychotic episodes. Sometimes I questioned the memories in their time or place since if Mira’s memory was really so damaged and so unstable from the accident, I thought how was she able to piece together so wonderful a manuscript and describe so many early memories so well?
Her idea of a memory palace did not work for me as well as it did in the novel "The Madonnas of Leningrad”, which also used memory as a tool. In addition, I found her description of her time in Israel to be a bit one-sided. I wondered if she was aware of the fact that her memories of Israel and Israelis were colored with far less compassion than those of her interaction with the Arabs. I found them tinged with greater negativism and wondered if it had to do with any kind of resentment toward her mother’s Judaic background.
Mira seems to be searching for redemption in her memoir, or perhaps she is searching for forgiveness for having abandoned her mom all the years prior to her death. The bonds between herself and her mom were never severed completely, but they were distant and charged with fear and resentment because of her mom’s erratic and dangerous stalking behavior. Perhaps she had to run away…perhaps her sister did too, but perhaps they could have done more, while they were gone, to guarantee their mother’s safety, rather than simply think it was the responsibility of the state to take care of her and, therefore, justify their own escape. I must admit that it was that aspect of the book that took me by surprise and disturbed me most.
Yes, social services failed the family; the courts and the laws did not provide for any avenue of help and they were, indeed, youngsters carrying that burden, but nevertheless, that did not preclude the only choice being to abandon Norma, as soon as they were old enough to run. Perhaps they could have tried over and over again to get some help, until they were successful and able to place their mother in a safe place, perhaps they could have documented more of her aberrant behavior over the years, instead of always trying to hide her from public view, because of their shame. We can not really know the answer having not walked in those shoes, and surely it would be better if there were services available to help people in such devastating circumstances.
The one thing that was completely obvious, throughout the telling of the memoir, was the deep bond between Norma, the mother, and Myra, the child, and even Norma the daughter and her own mother as well, who cared for her, albeit resentfully sometimes, until she was no longer physically or mentally able. That bond between mother and child was never broken.
Mira seems to have made a very strong recovery by the end of the memoir. Hopefully, she will continue to recover completely.