In The Memory Palace, we are cloistered in the multichambered prism that artist and author Mira Bartók creates as both sanctuary and tribute. It is here that she can both memorialize and escape a dangerous, psychotic and much-loved mother, a mother she would essentially abandon to the streets and to others for 17 years. Bartok will use it another way: She herself later suffers a car accident and brain injury that impairs her memory. The wunderkammer becomes a mnemonic device.
"The first picture in my memory palace is from the baby book my sister and I found in our mother's storage room. It's a close-up of her, taken shortly after she gave birth to me in 1959. Her face is soft and demure in the photograph. … What you can't tell from the photo is that not long after it was taken, my mother tried to fly out of a second-storey window."
This memoir is a portrait of a unsparing journey through an essentially horrific experience of severe paranoid schizophrenia. One of its many assets, though, is the writings of Bartók's mother, Norma Herr, which, while disjointed and hallucinatory, show the same brilliance Bartok possesses.
Norma Herr was a musical prodigy bound for stardom. But early on, she spiralled down. After decades of repeated, harrowing intrusions (100 phone calls a day, inappropriate sex talk, showing up at work), after the several vain court-custody attempts in which Norma is (shockingly) found competent, after emergency visits by Mira, this is not the first time it boils down to: "If you don't get help, you'll never see us again."
Unfortunately, such impasses beset thousands of families of the mentally ill. The daughters depart when they are around 30 and their mother just over 60. They change their names, their addresses - Mira uses Bartók, as in Bela. But Mira always writes Norma if she has a post office box address for her mother. Norma writes back to a post office box in another state. These letters, which sometimes take months to exchange, are their most revelatory connection. Here's Norma: "Thank you for the package containing hosiery, warm gloves and the red flower. A ray of sunshine on a storm-ridden day."
And from her diary: "Where has everybody gone? I write this in a motel room, looking over garbage cans."
Norma can't parent her little girls. Her husband deserts her. Her own father is foul and abusive, at one point holding a gun to his daughter's head if she won't stop hallucinating, or shooting a pistol at the family dog. The young Mira can't even trust school: She holds the body of a sparrow in her hand for show and tell; the teacher is revolted.
But who can abide the following? In their last interaction, Mira's boyfriend physically struggles with Norma over a painting Mira made for her mother.
"Agostino is pulling my horse drawing down from the wall. I am disappearing into the stairs; I'm just a shadow, an invisible cat.
" 'You don't deserve this, Norma,' he tells her, yanking it off the nails. 'I took care of your daughter better than you ever did.'
" 'That's mine,' she screams.
" 'Not anymore.'
"I want to tell him, Please stop, she is so sick. You're breaking what's left of my heart."
But she doesn't. The adult children peel away in a car as the mother raves in the street. Does it come down to a question of her or me? Yes, sometimes. But it shouldn't have to, nor do I understand after reading this why the separation went on for so long, other than that Bartók has one more ghost: stigma.
She writes: "We children of schizophrenics are the great secret-keepers, the ones who don't want you to think anything is wrong."
Children of severe mental illness are battlefield casualties. My own mother was (incorrectly) diagnosed as schizophrenic for 25 years, and treated with the same awful drugs. Some secrets I kept, some I didn't. In later life, a parade of therapists, support groups, social workers and doctors is still our daily menu.
But severe mental illness, as the recent tragedy in Arizona shows, cries out for intervention. I don't understand why there is no mention in The Memory Palace of supportive guided therapy, for anyone. Norma was raped as a young woman by her treating psychiatrist. Hostile resistance to treatment is typical of many people who suffer from schizophrenia. But what of the daughters. Did therapy never occur?
Against frustratingly unexplained odds, Mira and Rachel (later Natalie Rachel Singer) succeed, not without trials. (At one point, Mira, too, after her car accident, has to live on disability.) They are beloved by their husbands. And Norma is also cherished as, of all things, a mother figure by younger women in her Cleveland shelter in her last years. (It is refurbished and named for her today.)
The centre's women often sat with Norma when the voices raged in her head. "I live in pain on Payne Avenue," she writes to Bartók. She also never stops telling her daughters that she misses them, thinks of them, wishes they could be together.
In her last days, Norma Herr allows her daughters to be located; they are alerted to her fatal cancer. Bartók, who has always obsessed over where her mother sleeps, and how she lives, asks, as she is about to be reunited with her mother: "My friend wonders aloud if I can ever forgive her. I wonder, will she ever forgive me?" Norma's in a hospital bed by then. The sisters take her keys and explore the memory trove of Norma's astonishing storage locker. At the hospital, they comb her hair, they rub her feet, they play her music and she passes away. And here at least is one truth: Norma Herr did not die alone, and her story is indelible.
Jacki Lyden is the author of the memoir Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, and a contributing host and correspondent at National Public Radio. Her memoir has been adapted for a forthcoming film, and she is at work on a second memoir.