Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Memory Palace includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mira Bartók.The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When piano prodigy Norma Herr was well, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After being violently attacked for demanding that Norma seek help, Mira Bartók and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years Mira’s only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living.
At the age of forty, artist Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that left her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira reaches out to the homeless shelter where her mother had been living. When she receives word that her mother is dying in a hospital, Mira and her sister travel to their mother’s deathbed to reconcile one last time. Norma gives them a key to a storage unit in which she has kept hundreds of diaries, photographs, and mementos from the past that Mira never imagined she would see again. These artifacts trigger a flood of memories, and give Mira access to a past that she believed had been lost forever.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The prologue describes a homeless woman standing on a window ledge, thinking about jumping. The author writes, “Let’s call her my mother for now, or yours” (p. xiii) How does imagining a loved one of your own in that position change the way you think about the book? Does it help you connect or make the situation more personal?
2. Early in the book, Mira sees her mother for the first time in seventeen years. What is your impression of this hospital visit? What impact does it have on Mira?
3. While their mother is dying at the hospital, Mira and her sister Natalia go through their mom’s storage facility. How did it make you feel to be with the two sisters as they rummaged through the collection? What discovered or rediscovered items touched you most and why.
4. On page 29, Mira says, “Memory, if it is anything at all, is unreliable.” How does Mira’s own unreliable memory—a lingering effect of her auto accident—underscore the schizophrenic mind of her mother? Do you think it helps her relate to her mother? Why or why not?
5. Mira turns to art as a way to express herself. On page 53, when she visits a Russian Orthodox Church with her grandfather, she sees the “Beautiful Gate” of painted icons and wonders: “Can a painting save a person’s life?” Describe ways in which art is therapeutic in this book.
6. As an illustration of how memory can be unreliable, Mira explains that she vividly remembers seeing the Cuyahoga River burning in Cleveland in 1969, and then admits that she’s almost certain she wasn’t really there, even though the memory of the event is so clear. Can you think of things that are imprinted in your own memory (perhaps from hearing family stories or seeing images onscreen) even though you were not there? Do you think anyone’s memory can be an accurate record of truth? Why or why not?
7. In Italy, Mira takes a job making reproductions of old paintings for tourists. She later learns that they are being sold as authentic antiquities. How does Mira react to this news? What deeper feeling does it evoke in Mira about her life in general? How does this discovery fit into the book’s questions about authenticity?
8. After visiting their father’s grave in the New Orleans area, Mira and Natalia decide to visit a state park. Their heads and hearts filled with emotion, they get lost along the way. But after they find the park and enjoy some peaceful time in nature, the road away from the park seems clear and simple. Describe the role that nature and meditation play in Mira’s life and in this book.
9. On page 238, when Mira’s husband William is in a fit of depression, Mira feels like “It’s January in 1990 all over again.” Compare and contrast Mira’s characterization of her husband and her mother. How do her experiences with her mother impact the way she responds to William’s depression?
10. At her mother’s memorial service, on page 295, the director of MHS (Mental Health Services, Inc.) says to Mira, “I know of children who have abandoned their parents for much less than you two have gone through,” but Mira wonders if she and her sister truly did enough. How does this book make you think about the obligations that children have to their parents? Are there limits to what family members owe each other?
11. Mira seems to regard the homeless people she sees on the streets a little differently—as though any one of them could be a mother or father. She wants people to understand the “thin line, the one between their worlds and ours” (p. 297). Has this book helped you see the homeless in a different light? Why or why not? How has it impacted the way you think about mental illness?
Enhance Your Bookclub
- One purpose of this memoir is to show first-hand what it’s like to live with (and apart from) a person who suffers from a mental illness. Do a little research to find out more about what it’s like to live with this disease. You can start with websites such as www.schizophrenia.com, http://nami.org/, and http://www.healthyplace.com/thought-disorders/nimh/world-of-people-with-schizophrenia/menu-id-1154. You might also try typing in the search term “schizophrenia documentary” at YouTube.com in order to see a variety of homemade and televised documentaries about people who suffer from this debilitating mental illness.
- Mira Bartok is a writer, poet, musician and artist. She is also a strong advocate for other writers, poets, and artists. She blogs about grants, fellowships, and opportunities for both the established and aspiring. Visit her blog at www.miraslist.blogspot.com. Are there any opportunities there you may want to explore? Share them with the group—and encourage your fellow readers to pursue their own creative interests.
- The author wants you to understand how thin the line is between one world and another—between what you may consider a “normal” life and a life on the streets or plagued with a mind or mood-altering condition. After reading this book, take a closer look at people you may ordinarily ignore. Look a homeless person in the eye and greet him or her with a salutation as you might any other person. If possible, try volunteering at a local homeless shelter, or better yet, your book club could volunteer as a group. Be sure to share and discuss your experience with your fellow book club members.
A Conversation with Mira Bartók
You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing? Did your mother’s encouragement prompt you to combine words and art, or did you always think you’d be a writer?
I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability. As far as always thinking I would be a writer, I never thought about that and still don’t think of myself in that way. Although I always wrote—mostly poetry, essays, and short fiction, and also I made artists’ book with images and text—I am an artist first, and that means, for me, that I serve the idea. If the idea, which often starts out as an image, needs to be a story, then I will write a story. If it should be a painting or a film, then I have to follow that trajectory. My next project is an illustrated young adult novel/adult fiction crossover. I have also started to explore creating radio documentaries with my husband, musician and producer, Doug Plavin. Can you tell that I don’t like labels? :)
You are an accomplished artist, author, poet, and musician. Do you have a favorite medium?
My first love was music, and still is, although I am hardly an accomplished musician—more of an amateur. And due to some cognitive deficits from my brain injury, it will take a lot of focused practicing to regain much of my former ability to play music.
How do you choose which form to use when expressing an emotion, theme, or story?
I think it chooses me. I have no idea. See my answer to question one!
How did combining art forms using writing and painting help you construct your memoir?
Music informed my use of language, art informed the imagistic way I wrote. And when words failed me, I would draw. When I couldn’t draw, I would write. And sometimes, while typing, if words got stuck in my head, I’d bring up an image from my computer to help me along visually.
This book is a very personal and moving testimony to the turbulent and loving relationship between a mother and daughter. Were there certain aspects of your story you were reluctant to share?
Yes, definitely. I withheld certain things that might have appeared sensational, particularly violent episodes with our grandfather. I’m not a huge fan of misery memoirs, ones that relentlessly describe one terrible thing after another without any self-examination on the author’s part. I wanted to express beauty as well and I also did not want to contribute to the unfortunate stereotype of a violent schizophrenic; statistically, most schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves than others. I also decided against sharing a couple of very personal drawings, like the one I did of my mother when she was dying.
Though this is a story about the lasting bond of parental love, it’s also very much about the unreliability of memory. What message did you most want to convey to readers about these subjects?
I never intended to get across any kind of message when I wrote the book. I simply set out to explore the connections that I shared with my mother, nothing more, and I set out to do that through pictures, because I am a visual thinker. But yes, the story of mother-daughter love shines through and for me, I think I came to understand that it is a very primal thing, one that is still difficult for me to explain and understand. With memory, the more I researched the subject and explored my own relationship to memory, especially in the light of living with TBI, the more I found all these arguments about so-called “truth” in memory (and thus, memoir) to be silly. I’m not talking about making up some sensational story so that one can sell a fictional book as a memoir (and you know who I mean!) but rather, the idea that just because one remembers something “clearly,” it has to be true is simply false. Ask any neuroscientist, any forensic psychologist, criminal investigator, etc. Oh, if writers only read a little more science, I’d be so happy! Anyway, I personally think the strongest message in the book is about compassion, and the more times I rewrote the book, the more compassion I discovered within myself.
When you wrote your memoir, how did you feel about scenes that involve your sister or other featured characters who may read it? How does the unreliability of memory come into play in these scenes, given the different perspectives of people who may have experienced the same moments in different ways? What has it been like to share these memories with the people who lived through them with you?
I think that the only person I was worried about was my sister, Natalia Singer, because of her very private nature and her difficult personal choice not to write our mother during those seventeen years of separation. I was just worried about bringing to light, in a public way, a very painful part of our family history. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write the book and hoped that ultimately, her reading it would be a healing experience for both of us—and I really think it was. After she read it, she called to say that she loved it and that I was very brave to have written this book. And aside from that, she had written her own memoir a few years ago, called Scraping by in the Big Eighties, about how she tried to rise above our difficult past to make it as a struggling writer during that decadent era of big hair and junk bonds. She never, to my recollection (ah…memory again!) asked me to help her recall any events from that period while she was writing her book, nor do I think she should have.
Basically, I tried hard not to think of anyone reading the book until I was done. At one
point, while I was working on an early draft, my sister asked me if I was going to show her the book before I was finished so she could check my memories and make sure they were right. I thought that was pretty funny, given that my book was about how unreliable memory was. I thanked her but told her that I was more interested in what things we miss-remember and why. I was and still am very intrigued by how family members recall things differently. It’s the psychology behind what we choose to forget and the neuroscience that I am interested in, not some journalistic approach to memoir. Also, most people who read memoirs know that conversations and scenes are condensed and altered in the interest of time and telling a good story. But what we don’t often see in memoir is the exploration of memory itself, how it functions, and how in the retelling of an event, the telling transforms not only the memory but it changes our brain as well.
One thing almost everyone says after reading the book is: how could you write a book like that if you have such a problem with memory? What I think they don’t understand is that for many years, from the time I was fourteen, I have been keeping very detailed journals, dream diaries, and sketchbooks. Also, with TBI, much of our long-term memory returns. It’s the short-term memory that is most compromised with me (and still is). All that aside, the funny thing is that when certain family members or friends from childhood read the book, they all said how close their memories were to my own. I didn’t expect that at all.
There is a difference between the unreliability of memory and the conscious effort to stretch truth into fiction. There have been some high profile allegations in the memoir genre in recent years. Were you at all concerned about this sort of scandal?
Never. My book is hardly scandalous. If anything, it is a story about the transformative power of empathy.
Did you ever consider writing about your experiences in a fictional way?
Actually, before I wrote this book I was writing a novel but the mother character (a minor figure in the novel) kept getting in the way so I thought I would just write about my mother and be done with it! My next book has some bits and pieces of autobiographical material but more related to place since it is set in Northern Norway where I lived for a time.
Why do you think your mother requested that you contact Willard Gaylin? Have you had any additional contact with him besides the single message in the book?
I think that my mother really respected him and remembered him from her past as a kind, gentle and helpful man. In her journals and her letters to me, she often talked about her need to find an ‘advisor’ and I think he probably fit the bill in her mind for some reason. And no, I haven’t had any more contact, however, he’s on my goodreads ‘friend’ list and when the book comes out I will definitely send him a copy!
Your mother wrote, “Everyone is guaranteed the right to be deprived of the pursuit of happiness.” (p. 297) Do you think she believed that in the end?
I don’t know. Sometimes she made up these darkly funny phrases but I don’t know how much she believed in them. I would imagine she was commenting on this American belief that everyone has a right to the pursuit of happiness while for those who are poor and disenfranchised, it is extremely arduous for them to not only find happiness but to even pursue it, especially if they are living on the street.
I think that unfortunately, many Americans think happiness means entitlement—being able to drive gas-guzzling cars, and consume as much as we want, usually at the expense of another human being’s suffering (i.e. working in sweatshops). Nothing is ever enough and therefore, they can never truly be happy. Personally, I think true happiness comes from trying to alleviate the suffering of others. I also think it comes from always remembering what you love—paying attention to and recreating that sense of wonderment that we experienced in childhood but often about as we grow older.
Part three of your memoir is aptly called “Palimpsest.” Do you feel as though writing this book was a new beginning for you?
Did the book’s publication create a transitory moment similar to or different from the feeling you had when you finished writing it?
It’s a different feeling. Finishing the book felt like a monumental thing for me, but monumental on a personal level. Publishing it makes the story public and creates this odd (and powerful) connection to a larger world, i.e. an audience. I found that after I finished the book I was incredibly relieved and felt like now I can go on and write fiction, make radio documentaries, make prints and paintings, etc. But the reality is that now that the book is out there, I have to go full-steam ahead and promote it—do events, engage with readers, etc. It’s a bit overwhelming and stressful, although incredibly exciting too.
As a practiced author and artist, can you briefly describe your creative process? Do you practice daily, or in fits of inspiration? Do you approach visual art differently than writing?
I often start writing when I am walking in the woods with my dog. I bring a hand-held voice recorder with me, and speak/write as I walk. I get some of my best writing ideas in the morning when I’m out in nature but if I don’t record them right away they probably will disappear from the memory bank by the time I get home. As far as practicing daily goes, I write every day when I am working on a literary project. However, because I live with a brain injury, if I have dinner with friends the night before, that means I don’t write the next day. Or if I speak at a conference and have to travel there and back, I am usually so mentally fatigued that I probably won’t write for a couple or few days. I have to measure everything I do very carefully. It goes the other way around too—if I write one day I might not be able to drive my car the next. As for making art though, I find it very hard to start something (starting projects is very difficult for people with TBI) but once I do, it takes less mental energy and can be quite meditative. I approach both art and writing in a similar way though—with strong images. I usually get inspired to write or draw by looking at an image or remembering one. I then write, or draw myself into the discovery of what that image means to me. I also get a lot of ideas from my very wild, mythic and adventurous dreams! I see images I have to write down or I hear the first line in a poem, right before I wake up.
Describe how you came to title this book The Memory Palace. Do you feel like writing this memoir was a memory palace in itself? How did you put together the bits and pieces until they made a more sensible whole for you?
I originally thought of structuring this book as a kind of cabinet of curiosities, given my background in museum collections and taxonomy, but then I remembered this ancient Renaissance system of memory recall and bingo—it was perfect. Also, I had been making these pictures for each memory so they all ended up on a giant canvas on my studio wall. And by using the Memory Palace motif as a way to architecturally contain the book, it provided the perfect background to weave in musings about memory itself and the brain. In order to make sense of the whole thing (and not lose my mind in the process!), I created an actual cabinet in my studio, with openings for each chapter. That way, if I wrote something one day or jotted down a note or sketched a picture, I could place it in its drawer (since I probably would forget about it the following day). So in this way, my own creative process was a building of a palace—on my wall, in this cabinet, in the book.
Your memoir is very intense and moving. What do you hope readers will take away from The Memory Palace?
I never have an agenda for anything I create. I didn’t write this book to teach anyone a lesson about brain injury or mental illness or the plight of the homeless population. I wrote it because I needed to, and also, I knew it was one hell of a good story. That said, if readers walk away from this book with more empathy for those less fortunate or if they gain a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and the other issues I bring up, then that is the icing on the cake. Like I say in the book, there is a thin line between the world of homelessness and “our” world. And each and every woman out there, trying to survive on the street is someone’s mother, daughter, sister or friend. I also hope my friends and family will understand my struggles with living with a brain injury a little bit better. Even after over ten years, most people still don’t get it when I tell them I need to not talk on the phone or see people for a while in order to rest my brain. I think it’s very hard to see someone who looks and sounds normal and accept that there is something seriously wrong. And I certainly hope that friends and family of others living with TBI, as well as those living with other invisible disabilities, such as Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, etc. will be more understanding toward their loved ones. And last but not least, I hope that, even though I revealed some very dark things about her, my mother’s memory is honored in some way, and that readers will go away with the feeling that she was a beautiful, gifted and extraordinary human being. And the best thing is, the shelter that she lived in the last three years of her life has recently been renamed in her honor. It is now a bright, shiny new facility called The Norma Herr Women’s Center! I am now working with the shelter to hopefully raise money to create a community garden near the shelter for the women there to grow their own food. How is that for a happy ending?