National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Rediscovering Family through Memories

By Doug Bradley, NAMI HelpLine Coordinator

The Memory Palace: A Memoir

Mira Bartók

Free Press (2011), $15

The Memory Palace is a tragic yet inspiring story of one family’s journey through the mire of mental illness. The author openly portrays how her mother’s treatment-resistant schizophrenia hurt their relationship. In fact, their interactions became so strained that the author changed her name so her mother couldn’t find her and only communicated with her through an out of state post office box. Bartók’s sister also changed her name and did not write or speak to their mother at all.

The book begins when a social worker at the mother’s shelter tracks down Mira to inform her that her mother is terminally ill with cancer. (Despite her attempts to stay hidden, the social worker manages to find her in about half an hour with two phone calls.) Mira and her sister join their mother in her final days and rediscover much of their past.

In 1999 the author’s car was hit by a tractor trailer and she sustained severe concussion. After the injury she had short and term memory problems. To help cope, she constructs a “memory palace” to reinforce both her memory and her identity.  The memory palace is an ancient method of remembering whereby someone imagines a building and puts a memory in each room. By linking a memory with a specific place, even it is only imaginary, the memory is reinforced an easier to recall. In sorting through her mother’s possessions, many of which are kept in a storage unit, she links items to her childhood and young adulthood. As these objects, including diaries kept by her mother, spark and strengthen her memories, the author is able to recount the progression of her mother’s illness.

Although parts of the book are heartbreaking, such as the numerous but generally ineffective electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and the failures of many “wonder drugs,” this story is mainly about reconciliation. While mental illness robbed the mother of much of her “self,” her essence was still there under the layers of symptoms. The author regrets that better services and kinder people were not available when her mother needed them and that she lived much of her life in fear both from delusions and from the dangers of living on the street. However, as her sister noted after the mother’s death, “in the end…we got the best of her back.”