In 1999, Valley author Mira Bartok suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash, and the injury primarily affected her short-term memory. Her take on writing a memoir: "It's not a picnic."
In a recent interview, I asked Bartok about the details of her difficulties with the writing process for that memoir, The Memory Palace. "My memory issues are mostly short-term. It depends on how fatigued I am. I definitely can't write and recall what I wrote or read the next day if I'm having a conversation on the phone or I've gone out with people," she says. "When I'm in a writing mode, I have to sequester myself. If I write something, unless I look at it the next day—if I look at it two or three days later—I won't remember that I wrote it. I'd almost finish a chapter, then start it again."
In order to avoid restarts like that, she tried something interesting: "I built a cabinet with glass in it for each chapter. Any time I did anything, I made a note on paper, I printed it out and had it in physical form, put it in the slot for that day," says Bartok. "I used a voice recorder—a lot was written by voice. I'd 'write' it, then type it.
"The whole process of writing my book involved pictures. When I was stuck or couldn't remember, I would look at a picture—a painting or an image from the past. Even if I had no intention of keeping it in the book, I would put it in, because I'm such a visual thinker. I was also making this huge palace image on the wall.
"The last thing was, every night before I went to bed for the last two years—when I had gotten a really good draft and was writing—I went through each chapter, the snippet of a poem I used, and tried to remember what image I used, and how it began and ended. To this day, I can't do it perfectly—except for recently. Every night instead of, say, praying, I went through my book."
Bartok created, basically, a literal memory palace for her Memory Palace. That physical echo in turn seems to have influenced the structure of her memoir, which includes her images (Bartok is also a visual artist and a prolific author of children's books) before chapters bearing unusual titles like "The Museum of Indelible Things," "The Eye of Goya," and "Into the Land of Birds and Fire." Before most chapters, diary entries by her mentally ill mother appear.
How Bartok has navigated her challenging relationship with memory would probably make for good reading on its own, but the story of her life was dramatic even before her injury. The Memory Palace recounts a childhood complicated by Bartok's schizophrenic mother, whose illness made for such bewildering and frightening episodes that Bartok and her sister eventually ceased all contact with her, moving away, even changing their names. Years later, Bartok reunited with her mother, who, Bartok discovered, had been living in a shelter in Cleveland and was dying of cancer. She also discovered that her mother had kept a storage locker, and it held a treasure trove of artifacts from the past with which Bartok had had such a difficult relationship.
The knowledge Bartok gained from research about her own condition led to an interesting freedom in writing a book that relied so heavily on memory. "It freed me up to write about memory and the fallibity I felt in the beginning—how can I write a memoir, when so many things are lost or I don't trust them?" she says. "I became more interested in how siblings have the same memory, or disagree about family narrative or have misremembrance of things."
Her research also led her to a startling conclusion that calls into question even the memories of those who suffer no injury: "Our brains structurally, physically change when we recall something."
Bartok says that in addition to the issues of memory's accuracy, even whose a memory is came into play: "My sister and I each remember seeing something alone—we end up disagreeing. That's my memory! No, that's my memory!"
Soon after the release of Memory Palace, Bartok found herself getting national attention, speaking to Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh Air and arriving at number 16 on the New York Times bestseller list.
"There was buzz about my book that was prety crazy before it came out," says Bartok. "I don't know why, really. I mean, it's a good book! It could just be that there's so much talk about brain trauma right now, and also it's an unusual book because it's not a graphic novel, but it's illustrated. I don't know why, but it's striking a chord with a lot of people."
This even led quickly to fan mail. "My first two fan letters came from totally different people—one was an elderly white lady in a trailer park in Florida, and the other one was from a Vietnamese vegan lesbian art student in California."
Sudden prominence also brought Bartok into the world of media perception and portrayal of mental illness. Her Terry Gross interview (which Bartok says, was a great experience) got recast by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.
"All the ads went from a promo thing about this woman with a brain injury having this reunion with her mother, and because of her injury, she got to understand schizophrenia better. It went from that, with nice music, to dissonant music and discussion about my mentally ill, violent mother," says Bartok. "Stereotype has taken hold—most killers are portrayed as mentally ill, and they're not necessarily. The positive side of it is that my book is bringing up a lot of discussion about these issues. Plus traumatic brain injury has been the signature injury of the war in Iraq."
For Bartok, the central elements of her story are not fear and violence: "I think the story really has to do with compassion, empathy. I am not a fan of the whiny memoir. I don't read that many. 'This happened, poor me,' or, 'I found salvation in Jesus,' or something else. I guess my book is about compassion for ourselves—can we suffer well? Suffering exists. I don't feel like anyone's going to save me. How can I live well and make art to transform these tragedies into something beautiful?"
Bartok came to the Valley in search of living well not long after returning from Norway, where she'd been studying on a Fulbright scholarship. She planned to live in Boston, but found that, after living on the tundra, she couldn't bear the noise. The search for more idyllic environs brought her to the Valley, where she's lived since the late '90s.
Bartok has also made art, in the form of a large number of children's books. "All the other books have to do with art and folklore of different cultures," she explains. "My interest in fairy tales and folklore filtered into my memoir... The next kids' book is a young adult novel that's illustrated. [Writing the memoir] gave me the confidence to take on something this big—it's a trilogy. I never thought I could do anything like that. I can do it—I'll just create another system."
The events in Mira Bartok's memoir are poignant, harrowing, remarkable. But in an era when memoirs in general, and particularly memoirs about mental illness, are not uncommon, the unusual is not enough to make a book stand out. The Memory Palace, however, is remarkable not only for the events it portrays, but for the power of the prose in which Bartok recounts and examines them. It's easy to get a sense of how she experiences things when the writing is this deft: "Some of my old memories feel trapped in amber in my brain, lucid and burning, while others are like the wing beat of a hummingbird, an intangible, ephemeral blur. But neuroscientists say that is how memory works—it is complex and mercurial, a subterranean world that changes each time we drag something up from below."
Bartok's language often works that way, combining plain statement and evocative imagery. Her words work subtly, but when one arrives at the frequent short passages written by her mother, Bartok's words seem to have confidently prepared the way for that disconnected, yet often beautiful, even charming language. "My mother, in her illness and her writings, she had a real dark, wicked sense of humor. She was a great wit," says Bartok.
Just so: "Things I intend to do in the not too distant future—study Braille, leave Chicago, read poetry, continue vocabulary study, talk to a dentist, wear a wig. I would be glad to 'let my smile be my umbrella on a rainy day' but to date have not found a dentist with a realistic price. I need new scarves and paint. Should I or should I not enter Goldblatt's?"
The metaphor of the memory palace is exactly right for the book: Bartok's words seem an enshrinement of elusive memories and of a life of unusual contours. For her, the shape-shifting of memory itself becomes a subject, an acknowledgement of the complexities of capturing what is most elusive."
Mira Bartok reads from The Memory Palace:
March 5, 3 p.m., New Salem Public Library, 23 South Main St., New Salem
March 17, 7 p.m., Pelham Public Library, 2 South Valley Road, Pelham.