Mother Love and Pain in Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace

From the Baochi Book Collection

The Memory Palace is author Mira Bartok’s memoir about growing up with a schizophrenic mother. The book is reminiscent of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, also about a childhood with unstable parents. While Bartok isn’t quite the brilliant writer that Walls is, The Memory Palace is still a fascinating and sensitive story filled with experiences that nobody would wish on a child.

The book’s complexity derives from Bartok’s persistent love and longing for her mother despite the pain and abuse she suffers from her mentally ill mother. It may be cliche to say the memoir is about the unbreakable tie between a child and mother, but there is no denying this universal truth. Most abused children still feel a bond with their abusive parents. 

While Bartok shares her troubled childhood with an older sister, with whom she is close, it’s hardly a consolation given the two sisters must dodge one crisis after another with their highly unstable, unpredictable mother. There are terrifying public scenes of Bartok’s mother in full paranoid episodes, with the sisters springing into defense tactics that are heartbreaking but validating of the human (even child) instinct to survive.

There are tender moments, as well, with Bartok’s mother, a gifted and artistic woman who influences and inspires the intellectual pursuits of her daughters. As a reader, these are the moments one most recognizes the semblance of a loving mother buried beneath the mental illness. Insanity is hardly controllable.

Indeed, this is no feel-good story with a happy ending. The book begins in the final days of the mother’s life, when the author and her sister —  as adults — reunite with their mother after many years of estrangement. But there is underlying optimism in the fact that despite her childhood, Bartok chooses to hang onto the good and bad memories of her mother; she has built a more stable life as an adult, but she wouldn’t be the person she is without her mother’s lessons of love and pain.

Here’s a lovely excerpt from The Memory Palace:

If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in that place between sleep and morning. Without her long nights waiting in the rain, without the weight of guilt I bear when I buy a new pair of shoes. Let me dream a palace in the clear night sky, somewhere between Perseus, the Hero, the Cygnus, the Swan — a dark comforting place. A place lit by stars and a winter moon.

Watch the book trailer video below.

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