Many rooms, many moth­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - book­world@wash­ Reeve Lind­bergh has writ­ten a num­ber of books for chil­dren and adults, in­clud­ing “For­ward From Here: Leav­ing Mid­dle Age and Other Un­ex­pected Ad­ven­tures.”

THE ME­MORY PALACE By Mira Bar­tok Free Press. 305 pp. $25

Mira Bar­tok’s dis­turb­ing, beau­ti­ful book about her mother’s schizophre­nia takes its ti­tle from the teach­ings of a 16th-cen­tury Je­suit priest, Mat­teo Ricci, who helped Chi­nese schol­ars safe­guard their mem­o­ries by as­so­ci­at­ing a spe­cific im­age with each me­mory, then as­sign­ing each im­age a place in a room in the mind. In this way one could build, room by room, an imag­i­nary palace filled with real mem­o­ries. “ The Me­mory Palace” is not so much a palace of mem­o­ries as a com­plex web of be­witch­ing ver­bal and vis­ual im­ages, mem­o­ries, dreams, true sto­ries and ram­bling ex­cerpts from the author’s men­tally ill mother’s note­books. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary mix.

Myra and Rachel Herr grew up in Cleve­land with their di­vorcee mother, Norma, a bril­liant pi­anist who loved all the arts and took her chil­dren to con­certs and mu­se­ums dur­ing her lu­cid mo­ments. Yet the early parts of Bar­tok’s book read like a good child’s night­mare. It did not mat­ter how hard she tried, how many hours she prac­ticed the pi­ano, how im­pres­sive her grades were. Her mother might show up on a bi­cy­cle at school and cir­cle the build­ing, ring­ing the bi­cy­cle bell and call­ing out “Where are my chil­dren? Some­one has kid­napped my chil­dren!” She might hear voices and have con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple who were not there, or spin in cir­cles in the liv­ing room, hold­ing a butcher’s knife.

Myra and Rachel’s grand­mother called the hos­pi­tal when Norma’s schizophrenic episodes be­came ex­treme but felt deeply ashamed when­ever the am­bu­lance ar­rived. (“What will the neigh­bors say now?”) Af­ter the girls grew up and their grand­fa­ther died, Norma lived with the grand­mother, though Norma’s ill­ness con­tin­ued and at 80 the older woman be­gan to show signs of Alzheimer’s. When Norma stabbed their grand­mother six times with a knife, Myra and Rachel legally re­moved the grand­mother to a pri­vate elder-care fa­cil­ity, but the daugh­ters were un­able to have their mother placed where she, too, would re­ceive ap­pro­pri­ate treat­ment; Norma was not con­sid­ered “in­com­pe­tent.” Nonethe­less, she at­tacked Myra with a bro­ken bot­tle, slic­ing her throat. She tried to choke Rachel on the street.

Fi­nally both girls changed their names (to Mira and Natalia, re­spec­tively) and fled, leav­ing their mother with just the mail­ing ad­dress of a friend. They were es­tranged from Norma for 17 years, un­til

“In my mind she was still the mad­woman on the street ... who fol­lows you down al­ley­ways, light­ing matches in your hair.”

Mira Bar­tok,

“The Me­mory Palace”

they were called to her deathbed.

Mira Bar­tok, a pro­lific author of books for chil­dren, lived with an­guish­ing guilt dur­ing the years of sep­a­ra­tion, al­ways yearn­ing to help her mother, who was home­less and alone. The dan­ger of con­tact seemed too great right up to the end of Norma’s life: “Even though she was now el­derly,” Bar­tok writes of her mother, dy­ing of can­cer in the hos­pi­tal at 81, “in my mind she was still the mad­woman on the street, bran­dish­ing a knife; the woman who shouts ob­scen­i­ties at you in the park, who fol­lows you down al­ley­ways, light­ing matches in your hair.”

Some of the im­ages in the book are ter­ri­fy­ing, but the writ­ing is in­ti­mate and ex­quis­ite, with sen­tences and para­graphs worth read­ing and re-read­ing just to sa­vor the words. The author de­scribes a child­hood marked by trauma — the schizophrenic mother, the fa­ther who aban­doned the fam­ily, the grand­fa­ther who hit them with his belt and threat­ened them with his gun— and adult­hood as an artist and a writer whose life con­tin­ued to be over­shad­owed by her mother’s ill­ness.

Bar­tok of­ten writes of her mother’s schizophre­nia in the lan­guage of myth and magic, as if to cloak the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble in some form of un­der­stand­ing: “In her story there are leop­ards on ev­ery corner, men with wild teeth and cat bod­ies, tails as long as rivers. If she opens her arms into wings she must cross a bridge of fire, bat­tle four horses and rid­ers. I am a swan, a spin­dle, a fal­con, a


This ef­fort is deeply touch­ing, as is Mira and Natalia’s be­lief that, at the end with their weak and dy­ing mother, they have re­trieved “ her sweet essence that not even schizophre­nia could take away.” How­ever ag­o­niz­ing the re­la­tion­ship with their mother was, and surely would have con­tin­ued to be had she lived, at her death her daugh­ters sal­vaged a stub­born, abid­ing love for Norma in spite of ev­ery­thing. It is hard to imag­ine a more poignant trib­ute.


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