The Memory Palace: A Memoir

Paperback | August 9, 2011

byMira Bartok

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In the tradition of The Glass Castle, two sisters confront schizophrenia in this poignant literary memoir about family and mental illness. Through stunning prose and original art, The Memory Palace captures the love between mother and daughter, the complex meaning of truth, and family’s capacity for forgiveness.

“People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through,” Mira Bartók is told at her mother’s memorial service. It is a poignant observation about the relationship between Mira, her sister, and their mentally ill mother. Before she was struck with schizophrenia at the age of nineteen, beautiful piano protégé Norma Herr had been the most vibrant personality in the room. She loved her daughters and did her best to raise them well, but as her mental state deteriorated, Norma spoke less about Chopin and more about Nazis and her fear that her daughters would be kidnapped, murdered, or raped.

When the girls left for college, the harassment escalated—Norma called them obsessively, appeared at their apartments or jobs, threatened to kill herself if they did not return home. After a traumatic encounter, Mira and her sister were left with no choice but to change their names and sever all contact with Norma in order to stay safe. But while Mira pursued her career as an artist—exploring the ancient romance of Florence, the eerie mysticism of northern Norway, and the raw desert of Israel—the haunting memories of her mother were never far away.

Then one day, a debilitating car accident changes Mira’s life forever. Struggling to recover from a traumatic brain injury, she was confronted with a need to recontextualize her life—she had to relearn how to paint, read, and interact with the outside world. In her search for a way back to her lost self, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where she believed her mother was living and discovered that Norma was dying.

Mira and her sister traveled to Cleveland, where they shared an extraordinary reconciliation with their mother that none of them had thought possible. At the hospital, Mira discovered a set of keys that opened a storage unit Norma had been keeping for seventeen years. Filled with family photos, childhood toys, and ephemera from Norma’s life, the storage unit brought back a flood of previous memories that Mira had thought were lost to her forever.

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From Our Editors

INDIGO RECOMMENDS: Remember the first time you read The Glass Castle? The family was colourful and unusual, the spirit of the story magical and forgiving and the author’s voice so convincing you couldn’t wait to share your discovery with a friend. Books that have this impact appear infrequently. With the publication of her family histo...

From the Publisher

In the tradition of The Glass Castle, two sisters confront schizophrenia in this poignant literary memoir about family and mental illness. Through stunning prose and original art, The Memory Palace captures the love between mother and daughter, the complex meaning of truth, and family’s capacity for forgiveness.“People have abandoned t...

Mira Bartok is a Chicago-born artist and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Mira's writing has appeared in several anthologies and has been noted in The Best American Essays series. Bartok lives in Western Massachusetts.

other books by Mira Bartok

Format:PaperbackDimensions:336 pages, 8.44 × 5.5 × 0.8 inPublished:August 9, 2011Publisher:Free PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1439183325

ISBN - 13:9781439183328

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Read from the Book

HomelessA homeless woman, let’s call her my mother for now, or yours, sits on a window ledge in late afternoon in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland, or it could be Baltimore or Detroit. She is five stories up, and below the ambulance is waiting, red lights flashing in the rain. The woman thinks they’re the red eyes of a leopard from her dream last night. The voices below tell her not to jump, but the ones in her head are winning. 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 bear. The men below call up to save her, cast their nets to lure her down, but she knows she cannot reach the garden without the distant journey. She opens her arms to enter the land of birds and fire. I will become wind, bone, blood, and memory. And the red eyes below are amazed to see just how perilously she balances on the ledge—like a leaf or a delicate lock of hair.Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collectoron the chaos of memory.© 2011 Mira Bartók

From Our Editors

INDIGO RECOMMENDS: Remember the first time you read The Glass Castle? The family was colourful and unusual, the spirit of the story magical and forgiving and the author’s voice so convincing you couldn’t wait to share your discovery with a friend. Books that have this impact appear infrequently. With the publication of her family history in Memory Palace, Mira Bartók makes a welcome addition to such unforgettable life stories. This is a family memoir about the indelible bonds between a mother suffering from mental illness and the daughters that never stop caring for her. It is a remarkable and heartbreaking study of artistic expression, inheritance, responsibility and how we create and rely upon memories. And, it is beautifully written.

Editorial Reviews

The National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Best Autobiography of 2011