Tuesday, December 7, 2010: Maximum Shelf: The Memory Palace

Free Press: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Free Press: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Free Press: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Free Press: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: The Memory Palace


In this edition of Maximum Shelf, the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere, we present The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók. The review and interview are by Marilyn Dahl. Free Press has helped support the issue.

Free Press: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Books & Authors

Mira Bartók: Memory and Compassion


How difficult was it to write your memoir? When it ends, your memory is still a problem for you.

It was really hard. It was hard in a lot of ways. I think it was probably the hardest project I'll ever do, or will have done, but you never know. It was hard emotionally sometimes, but also in terms of memory. In some ways it was not as difficult as people might think, because I kept years of journals and so a lot events from the past or interactions with people I might have forgotten about, I had written down, and I also kept sketchbooks, so I kept track of things I saw. In that sense there were a lot of things that I could go to my little archives for, but as far as remembering what I wrote each day--that was a challenge because I'd write something, and if I let more than a day slip by without going back to it, I'd no memory of writing that thing. It's like every day was Groundhog Day. Until I got a system down I would basically start rewriting a chapter and not know I was doing it, even if it was only the next day. It was very frustrating and upsetting. I would misplace things, and for someone who likes (and needs) some semblance of order, it was not fun. So I ended up constructing a cabinet with slots for chapters and labeled every drawer, sort of like a cabinet of curiosities. I thought, what can I use from my past life in museums in ordering this book, so that's what I did, and every single time I wrote something I printed it out, or if I wrote notes by hand or came across an image I wanted to use, before the day was over I placed it all in the slot for that chapter. And the other thing I did--before I went to bed every single night, and I'm talking about every single night and I'm not kidding--I went over every chapter in my head, every quote that I started the chapter with, and tried to remember who wrote the quote, tried to remember how I began the chapter and how I ended the chapter and tried to remember what little snippet from my mother's diary that I used. That was after I had finished my first draft; I very rarely remembered all these things before I went to sleep, but I tried. I had to create systems in order to remember. And I was more interested in the mis-remembrance of things, so I checked a lot of things with my own past experiences in journals, but I didn't want to go around and interview everyone I knew. I already doubted myself enough, so I thought, why not push through that doubt and really examine events that I misremembered and dig deeper and ask myself why. I remembered the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, but I couldn't have been there. I'm not talking about making up huge experiences like some people have in the past in order to create some kind of sensationalist book, I'm talking about really writing something and questioning it. We all have selective memory. My sister and I used to say, "That's my memory." "No, that's my memory."

This is a harrowing story in many ways, and you are focused on your mother, but I found your grandfather to be almost equally frightening.

Yes. Actually there was a lot more in the book about him, but I ended up taking those scenes out because I felt they really distracted from the focus of the book, but, yes, he was a rather brute force in our family; however, that said, I loved him, and I knew that he loved me, I was his favorite. I also had a sense of where he came from. He grew up with a very very hard existence when he first came to this country, in a family of 14 kids, and a very, very tyrannical mother; I don't know anything about his father. But they were raised very old school, she beat the kids and he could barely read. So I had some compassion toward him, and much more than I actually show in the book. When I was writing the book I felt really angry about how he was toward members of my family, particularly my sister--he was really awful to her.

I was thinking, while reading the book, that even with your grandparents nearby, you had no safe place. Your mother hired a private detective to find you, an Israeli soldier hunted you, and your first husband managed you with his mood swings... you were never safe.

Well, I was safe in my mind, I have a pretty big imagination, and I've always have a certain sense of sanctuary in large institutions, like libraries, museums....

I wonder if the order there had something to do with that.

The order, the beauty, the sense of possibility. The idea that there was this endless, endless shelf of books, this endless hall of paintings.... I mean, there's something about that. And there's something about the natural world. Both my sister and I spend a lot of time outside--we were what you called outside girls growing up. We were outside constantly and we still are. We both have dogs and we spend a lot of time outdoors. We grew up in the city, but at my grandparents' we had this wonderful field and we were really close to the Rocky River Park--acres and acres of trails and creeks, and horses you could ride--it was pretty extraordinary. Kind of this other world I could be in rather than home. If I hadn't had that contact with the natural world, as well as the books and paintings, I'm not sure what would have happened.

You and your sister saved yourself, which took courage. You have something at your core, and your mother's toughness was a part of that, part of her legacy.

I think it's true. There's definitely something that was very driven with my mother, and she was very passionate about all the arts; that was much more important to her than any kind of financial security. She did want us to have financial security and she kept trying to work but, obviously, she was too ill to work. But I'm definitely a risk taker. I blew a lot of my car accident lawsuit money on writing this book and now it's gone. And I absolutely believed in what I was doing. I've always had a lot of confidence in myself and what I can do with certain projects, and am driven to do them. What my accident took away was my ability to have a job and do the projects I love on the side or after hours; it took away my ability to also do a lot of freelance work. My sister went the other route--she got an academic, secure job so she'd be able to feel safe enough to pursue her creative projects.

You are drawn to illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy. Is all of your art small and contained?

I have both sides to me. I created, on my studio wall, a huge palace façade, about seven or eight feet long, with images emerging from various archways and from behind pillars--it's pretty cool. Each image is very detailed, but I also have this side of me that is very loose and more expressive. I like to combine those two styles in a way that makes something cohesive but that creates some kind of tension. So sometimes I'll have something very, very detailed and around it more expressive lines, but it's hard to explain. I'm more a drawer than a painter, and I use brushes that have only three hairs, so I do like doing very detailed things, but since my accident I've lost some hand control--I'm sure that happens with age as well--so that's a little frustrating to realize I couldn't make things as anal retentively as I normally would, so I had to adjust.

In your memoir, you say, "Someday I will live in a quiet green place, off a winding country road. My house will be small, but warm...." Do you have that now?

Guess what? I do! It's a little house. When I won my lawsuit I got to put a down payment on the house. It's nothing extraordinary, probably the ugliest ranch house in the area, and I don't even like ranch houses, but it was what I could afford. My husband and I just made it really beautiful inside and I did a lot of the tilework, handpainted some of the tiles, made the knobs for the cabinets. I have a garden that is a perpetual project. We got married this summer, and I grew all my own flowers, and that was really fun. I'm very grateful.

You struggled to understand your mother's illness, and struggled with "the system" over her care. What have you learned?

One thing that surprises me is that--I don't know if this is the fault of my writing, or people's perception of mental illness or schizophrenia--whenever people describe this book, and I'm talking about some early reviews or things friends have said after reading it (one reviewer referred to my mother as cruel and mad), people focus on the violent tendencies or episodes that deal with my mother. I know that they're there. But I want people to know that they were not the only thing that she represented to me. She was a very loving person, she was just really ill, and I never saw her behavior as cruel; her obsession was the product of someone who was really ill. I even have a problem with the word "mad" or "madness." I use that word in the book, but it's a word that not everyone in the mental health community likes. I just tried to be careful not to perpetuate the idea that schizophrenics are really violent, because most of them are not, and most of the time my mother was not, she was just obsessed--she really believed she had to protect her daughters from the world, from imaginary enemies. It's not like she tried to keep us locked in the house because she was cruel--no, she was sick. I knew she was sick from very early on, I knew it wasn't intentional, like she was evil. But some people read the book and are amazed that I can forgive her for being so cruel. No, she was sick, I say over and over, this is an illness, we need to treat it, we need to take it seriously. But there's still that lingering thing in society that says mentally ill people are crazy and evil, and they're not. That's a pet peeve. That's something that surprised me. Is it the fault of my writing? I hope not; my hope is that people will see my mother and people who suffer from mental illness in a more compassionate way, and see people who live on the street more compassionately. I hope that at the heart of this book lies compassion, and that readers can find that in themselves. But you can't control how people read.


Dominick Anfuso: We Won't Be Denied

Dominick V. Anfuso is v-p and editor-in-chief of Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Over the course of his career, he has acquired and edited across a broad range of nonfiction genres and fiction as well. Some of the writers he has worked with include Robert Timberg, Mikal Gilmore, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Mark Mathabane, Chris Hedges, Annie Murphy Paul, James Kunstler, Peter Bergen, Harry Dent, Chris Matthews and Stephen Covey.


How did you find Mira's manuscript?

We had just bought a wonderful memoir from the Zachary Shuster Harmsworth agency, so when Mira's agent, Jennifer Gates, who is part of that group, called me and said, "I know how much you love that book you just bought. Do you think you want to see another one that we think is just as amazing and off the charts?" I thought, my God, can there be two from the same agency in what felt like less than a month? So I said, well, of course. I had the same associate editor for the first one--Leah Miller--help me out with the reading. I told her all about it; she's a voracious reader and she came in the next day and said, 'It actually can be as good, I can't stop reading it, it's amazing." And I started reading it and we just ate it up, and then I gave it to Martha Levin, our publisher, who thought it was the best memoir she'd read since Jeannette Walls. She's real tough, so we just couldn't stop. We thought it was actually a problem that we had two such great memoirs, but the momentum just never ended. Shortly after that, we got a great quote from Audrey Niffenegger and things just kept happening.

What drew you to the book?

Well, for me, the mother-daughter story. Parental stories are so fundamental to me; from my own relationship with my father and mother to being a dad, I've always been fascinated by the connection and wonder about it. It seems like it's unbreakable, no matter what happens. It's what the other book is about, too. And Mira's was different. Leaving your mom. Changing your name, and how difficult it must have been to be challenged by that, and the strength of the sisters--it was just an extraordinary story line. One of the readers said to me, oh God, it's not even about her accident. I said, well, that's tough, because the accident is fundamental, but it's a mother and her daughters.

How many people normally read a book for you? What's the  process you go through before you decide to take a book?

We have an editorial board, we have seven editors and assistants, a couple of people in the publishing offices and a couple in sub rights, but we didn't do that in this case. Our reaction was so strong, once the three of us loved it we just called the agent-- I don't remember if it went to auction--and she was very keen on having us acquire the book, too. It was a great match.

What was it like working with a writer who is also an artist? Did you collaborate on the book design?

Yes, we did, actually. We were very torn, because everybody was very cooperative, but I kept saying, guys, we have to focus on the story, we have to focus on the story. It isn't about paintings and drawings, it's about the story. The book was originally plotted by Mira to be a picture book with writing, and we flipped it around. And we all came to agree on this, so we have spot art and it's referenced in the text, but it's not overwhelming, it fits comfortably into the storytelling. It's beautiful.

Were there any challenges in editing the book, other than the design discussions?

Mira still has challenges with her brain process, and it's really amazing. She said, when I saw her at her place, "You're probably wondering why I have two beds in my barn [where she writes and paints]." It's because she gets exhausted a lot. She feels sometimes that her brain gets overwhelmed; sometimes she'd ask me to talk slower, she has to process things, and other times it all gets to be too much. She can't handle a lot, she has to stop. So that affected editorial conversations, that affected speed of writing, it just affected Leah and me all the time, and we didn't want to overwhelm her. We weren't used to it and we never know when she is going from fully functioning to slightly slower. But she's very good about telling us. And we read a lot about TBI [traumatic brain injury]--we wanted to know everything we could. I talked to doctors about it. They said every case is different. It led to another book, in fact.

The things she's accomplished are kind of unbelievable under the circumstances. We had a signing at NEIBA. I drove up so I could be with her in case she needed me. She was great, she was very tired but she was a real trouper and met with all the booksellers, and was met with a lot of enthusiasm, especially with the indies. She was really good, and delightful. She just attracts people to her.

I don't know, I'm an Italian, a superstitious Sicilian... I feel so much good will and it's all about the book, obviously, and we have such enthusiasm. We're trying to will this book, and we won't be denied.

We're challenging ourselves every day to come up with ideas, whatever we can do. We don't have unlimited money these days for book promotion but there's such a good feeling about it and, as always, it's all about the story--and this one is extraordinary.

Photo by David Jacobs

Book Brahmin: Mira Bartók


Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of 28 books for children. Her writing has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and has been noted in The Best American Essays series. She lives in western Massachusetts where she runs Mira's List, a blog that helps artists find funding and residencies all over the world, and North of Radio, a multimedia collaborative. The Memory Palace (Free Press, January 11, 2011) is Mira's first book for adults. You can find her at the book's website.


On your nightstand now:

Well, there are quite a few piled up right now: The Haunted House, a debut book by a young poet named Marisa Crawford; Voyages in English by poet Dara Wier; a collection of W.B. Yeats; A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia by David M. Crowe; A Secret Gift by Ted Gup; Making Comics by Scott McCloud; I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson; In the Wake by Per Petterson; and a giant book on Scandinavian mythology.

Favorite book when you were a child:

A collection of Russian fairytales my father sent me and The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett

Your top five authors:

I chose living authors, not dead ones: Nick Flynn, Per Petterson, graphic novelist Chris Ware (why someone hasn't nominated him for a MacArthur Fellowship is beyond me), Annie Dillard, Kathryn Davis.

Book you've faked reading:

I can't remember ever having faked reading anything. But I'm sure I have!

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Arrival by Shaun Tan--an exquisitely drawn fantasy graphic novel about immigration that has absolutely no words.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Author/illustrator Peter Sis's The Tree of Life.

Book that changed your life:

Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet that my sister handed to me when I was hiding in an apple tree in my grandparents' backyard.

Favorite line from a book:

From Dante's Inferno: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita (in English: When I had journeyed half of our life's way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Secret Garden of course!


A Taste of Mira's Favorite Music


Mira Bartók grew up with music, and says that music is probably more important to her than any other art form:

"I play piano, fiddle, baroque double harp and a small Celtic/medieval harp. I never pursued music personally--I always had a hard time playing in front of people unless I was in an orchestra or singing in a large choir. And it has been the hardest thing to return to cognitively. It is my next thing to overcome as soon as I have a little more time (if I have a little more time!) when things settle down after my book has been out for a while.

My husband has been a professional musician and music producer his whole life, and the sound track for my book trailer was our first real musical collaboration. We hope to do many more!

Thinking of music, here are some favorites, but know that I have a rather vast collection of music from all over the world, so this list has only the first things that pop into my head:

I listen to a lot of opera, particularly Renée Fleming (my favorite is her version of "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka--it blows me away).

Sufjan Stevens, particularly his song "For the Widows in Paradise." The video has cheesy video landscapes, but you can hear the song well.

I love some of the last Johnny Cash albums, I love Breton music, Roma (gypsy) music and most of what is coming out of Scandinavia these days, particularly music by Sámi singer Mari Boine and Nordic groups Triakel and Swåp among others. I love tUnE-yArDs (singer-songwriter Merrill Garbus).

I love, love, love early music; in particular, anything by Hesperion XX (Jordi Savall and his wife, Montserrat Figueras) and The Theater of Voices (Paul Hillier).

Other things I listen to a lot: Mali singer Habib Koité, local arch-guitarist Peter Blanchette, the Bach Suites performed by Pablo Casals, any and all Glenn Gould, Tom Petty (yes, I'm a huge fan!).

But lately, the things I have been listening to the most are:

Dolly Parton singing "The Silver Dagger" from her Grass Is Blue album.

The soundtrack to the movie Les Choristes by Bruno Coulais.

"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen.

Richard Shindell's "Cold Missouri Waters" from the Cry, Cry, Cry album which my husband, Doug Plavin, is on.

And finally, I love to listen to my stepdaughter's voice, especially the song "Red Mud" that my husband produced and played on. It's the first song on Doug's myspace song list.

I have lists and lists. I left out all my favorite Italian music, Brazilian jazz, Scottish fiddle and so much more....


Book Review

Mandahla: The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (Free Press, $25.00 Hardcover, 9781439183311, January 2011)


Mira Bartók's compelling memoir opens with this epigraph: "Child, knowledge is a treasury and your heart its strongbox." Bartók has gathered knowledge her entire life, and kept it in her heart as talisman and anchor; in The Memory Palace, she opens her heart and shares the story of her schizophrenic mother, Norma, and what she and her sister, Natalia, had to do to survive life with, and without, a severely sick woman.

"A 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."

Mira and Natalia grew up in Cleveland with their divorced mother and her parents, who lived a few blocks away. Norma Herr, who was a piano prodigy with a glittering future, began to fall apart early in her marriage, and her husband left when the girls were young. The girls--then named Myra and Rachel--had a difficult and frightening life, made worse by a brutal grandfather and ineffectual grandmother; in their 30s, in order to escape their mother's relentless pursuit, they changed their first and last names. They were terrified--"She was the cry of madness in the dark, the howling of wind outside our doors...."--and it was necessary, because their mother was extremely resourceful, at one point even hiring a detective to find them.

For 17 years, Mira did not see her mother, but communicated through a PO box address. When she at last found the strength and the desire to see her, Norma was dying.

When Mira went to see her mother, it was a journey filled with more than reunion anxiety: in 1999, Mira sustained a major brain injury in an automobile accident, and still has trouble with her memory and the bombardment of stimuli, like a car radio, or bright lights, or many voices. On a good day, she can act like normal and sound articulate, but she keeps an on-going inventory of what she's afraid she'll forget, her computer is covered with Post-its, and her "life has become a palimpsest--a piece of parchment from which someone had rubbed off the words, leaving only a ghost image behind."

Mira wonders what to take to Cleveland--what would she bring to show her mother the last 17 years of her life? Reindeer boots from when she lived in the Arctic? A petfrified bat or mouse skeleton from her studio? Star charts, bird charts, paintings, maps? She dreams about bringing her mother back to her home, where Norma could die surrounded by plants and books and music, but she knows that won't happen. She asks, "How will I remember her, after she is gone?" If this were the entire story, told in narrative, it would be gripping enough. What sets it apart is Mira Bartók's journey into the chaos of deep memory, her honesty and compassion, and her artist's soul.

At the hospital, Mira finds, among other things, a sock filled with 17 keys and a diary--her mother kept diaries all her life. She had been studying geology; before that, Edgar Allen Poe; before that, the stars: "Recently, I had a dream of a cataclysm. Was not prepared for study of the planets, which has fevered my imagination once again."

Mira had also been studying geology, reading a book about Nicolaus Steno, the 17th-century Danish father of geology. "My mother would have loved [him]. She'd marvel at the way his mind flew from one thought to another, uncovering the truth about ancient seas, how he learned to read the memory of a landscape, one layer at a time.... If my mother were well enough, I would tell her this. She'd light up a cigarette, pour herself a cup of black coffee, and get out her colored pens. The she'd draw a giant chart with a detailed geological timeline, revealing the stratifications of the earth."

Her sister, Natalia, joins her in Cleveland, where, for one last time, for Norma, they'd be Myra and Rachel. There, they find her storage locker, and unlock the door to the past decades--furniture, trash, cans of soup, a butcher knife. Natalia wonders if that was the one Norma had when the police caught her at Logan Airport. "I'm sure she was on her way to find me." Newspaper articles, children's books, 13 pairs of scissors (Norma had tried to slit her wrists with cutting shears after her divorce), stacks of drawings and a huge box of notebooks devoted to her eclectic research: geometry, poetry, chemistry, the Bible, medicine, botany, fairy tales. For each subject she made vocabulary lists, something Mira would have done before her brain injury. "Her files could have been my files; her notes, mine."

"There was danger imparted to me at birth." Norma writes about her father threatening to kill her with a lamp. Some years later, at the dining table in front of the girls, he yells: "Eat the lamb! I cook all day for you whores. Now eat!" Norma says in a small voice that she's not hungry. He gets a gun, holds it to Norma's head and says, "Nobody leaves this room until you eat that lamb." Hours later, he falls asleep and Norma is still sitting at the table, fork in one hand, cigarette in the other. She stares at Myra and says, "There are those who wish us dead."

As Mira remembers her life, she asks, "Who am I, then, if my memory is impaired?" Old memories feel trapped in amber, and yet the part of her brain that stores museum artifacts--fossils, masks, bones--and everything else she loves to look at and draw is, for the most part, intact. If she can find the right pictures, perhaps they will lead her to the core. Memory is associative. Her mother built a memory cabinet at the storage unit; could Mira build one too? A memory palace? She starts with a photo, a close-up of her mother taken in 1959. Her face looks soft in the photograph. What can't be told from the picture is that Norma tried to fly out a second-floor wind soon after it was taken. The next picture, which Mira "hangs" across from Norma, is of Caravaggio's Medusa. Myra is in her bedroom one day when she hears a low guttural sound, followed by strange chattering and laughter. She follows the sound and sees her mother, stumbling in her underwear, spinning around with a knife in her hand, obscenities rolling off her tongue. "My sweet beautiful mother merges with Medusa."

"Sign of Mars. Dreamless nights. Sunshine, continued cool.... Must think of something to control rage. Birth flower, May, lily of the valley.... Think of something cheerful: a sweet pea. Draw a picture of it."

After Medusa arrived, she never left for good. On days of agitated pacing, Myra and Rachel stayed out of her way or went to their grandparents' and played in the gardens among the fruit trees. If things got worse, she told herself, she and Rachel could live in a wolf den in the middle of the woods. Her mother continued to be admitted into hospitals for short stays, diagnosed as catatonic, dissociative, delusional, hysterical, mad.

"Sometimes in my dreams I am taken out of the city to a place where they monitor the hearts of Jews and other marginalized citizens. Recently, I discovered I was given a pacemaker without consent."

Their mother's change from neglect to unremitting intrusion was gradual, and seemed to begin when Rachel started fussing with her hair and flirting with boys at school. In public she shouted out questions: "Who are you sleeping with? Are you menstruating yet? Is that sperm on your leg? Pull up your skirt and let me see." Or she would ride a bicycle to the girls' school, circle the grounds, ring the bike bell, and call their names over and over. "Where are my children? Someone has kidnapped my children!" Is that when Rachel and Myra started heaving the dresser against the bedroom door at night?

"Baron: an air-cooled gas operated machine gun that uses 303 caliber ammo, fired from the shoulder. I can think of a few men I'd like to use that baby on. B is for babies: where did my little girls go?"

When Rachel leaves for college (after thwarting her mother's attempts to destroy her acceptance letters), Myra wonders how heavy a dresser is when only one is pushing it against a door? When she leaves a year later for art school in Chicago, she's constantly afraid that her mother will show up at her apartment, at school, at work. Her sense of stability comes from making art and working in museums; in particular, the Field Museum is her "salvation and sanctuary." When her mother's calls get to be too much, she chants lists of birds and plants. But one day her mother comes to the museum, saying everywhere she looks they have a gun pointed at her head.

It wasn't until 1990 that Myra finally sent her a letter with a PO box number, lying and saying she had moved to another neighborhood. Her mother wrote back immediately--she would track her down and save her from the kidnappers. Myra and Rachel tried to get a court to declare her incompetent, but no--she could still cash her disability checks and manage a checking account; ergo, she was competent. In late January of that year, Myra and Rachel went to their mother's to try to convince her to sign guardianship papers. Norma smashed a bottle against the table and came after them. Struggling with Myra, Norma cut her daughter's neck with the broken bottle. Myra and Rachel managed to get away as Norma ran after them, shouting, "I'm your mother! Come back!"

Later that year, Myra moved to Italy. "Without my sister and family around to remind me that she is the writer and I am the artist, I start writing stories and poems. I don't want to be the person who gasps in fear whenever she hears the sound of a doorbell or a phone. I just want to lose myself in these hills, in the river winding west to the city of bridges." When she goes back to Chicago, she changes her name to Mira Bartók after signing a contract for a children's book series and realizing her mother could track her that way. She was as safe as she could be, and yet, safety still eluded her, from her time in Israel when a soldier stalked her to her life with her first husband, who was a moody, manipulative poet. She longed to be far away, in a place no one knew, and dreams, "Someday I will live in a quiet green place, off a winding country road. My house will be small but warm, and the rooms awash with light. The floor will be terra-cotta red.... Outside, I will have a small, enclosed garden, dense with vegetables and flowers.... And if I look out the window at just the right moment, the garden will be illuminated in the golding hour of the day."

In Mira's quest for safety and wellbeing, she and her sister mirror Norma's determination and strength to choose freedom and a creative life. If they had stayed in Norma's orbit, they would have had to give up their lives for her, "and our art, the two things she taught us to hold most sacred and dear." There was great love and sweetness in their mother, but schizophrenia devoured it every day.

A memoir about living with a schizophrenic mother could have turned out to be "just" a horrifying story, and yet, in telling it, Bartók--even through narrow escapes and traumatic occurrences--has told a story of the deep, mystical bond between a daughter and a mother, and their quest for freedom and autonomy. Bartók has great compassion for the beautiful, brilliant, obsessed mother who lived with the voices in her head but was still determined to live.

"If I had another life as the person I was supposed to become, I'd go to France and sit at a red table and look out the window at blue and green waves. Someone who wasn't in hiding would serve me cheese Danishes and coffee without arsenic."

Bartók says our brains are built not to fix memories in stone but rather to transform them; our recollections change in the retelling of them. How often do we think about this when reading memoirs? How often do we realize this in ourselves? With memoirs, we hope to get a larger, universal truth, the kind we often encounter in fiction, because facts are mutable. And part of that truth will hold mystery, like Norma's madness and intelligence. Centuries ago, Nicolaus Steno said, "Beautiful is what we see. More beautiful what we understand. Most beautiful what we do not comprehend." Within the mystery of love and bond and fear--"When I think of my mother beating her cold white fists against our flimsy door.... I don't know whether to kill her or to take her in my arms and sing her to sleep."--Mira Bartók has found beauty and peace. --Marilyn Dahl



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