January 2011

Mira Bartok

Memoir highlights the challenge of dealing with mental illness
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Artist, writer and musician Mira Bartok charts her talented mother’s battle with schizophrenia in her new memoir, The Memory Palace [read our review]. She spoke to BookPage about the challenge of dealing with a parent with a mental illness.


You write early in your book that children of schizophrenics are great secret-keepers. What inspired you to reveal your secret and write the book?
Truth be told, people did know about my mother—my close friends knew that I had a mentally ill mother—they just didn’t know much more than vague information about my distant past or how much I kept inside about it, and how much I obsessed about my mother’s wellbeing on a daily basis after she became homeless. I thought about her constantly—Was she hungry? Was she dead or alive? Was she sleeping on a park bench in the snow? Those were the big secrets, those little everyday sorrows I kept inside, hidden from friends and from family. I’m not a fan of most survivor memoirs, especially the blaming kinds, so I was always hesitant to even write about our relationship for fear of sounding like some kind of victim, which I didn’t feel I was. It was when I was in the middle of writing a novel with a minor character—a dead ringer for my mother and who, in the book, eventually took over the story and the other characters’ lives—that I thought: I better deal with this material or I’ll never be able to write fiction at all.
I also felt that, if I devoted a chunk of time to writing about her, I might come to some decision as to whether or not to see her again. Or at least come to some state of grace or peace about it all. What I never anticipated was finding out that she was dying and then being able to be at her side, with my sister, for the last few weeks of her life. Gratefully, I got the end of my story and the beginning of a new one.


You lived in fear of your mother to the point of changing your name and concealing where you lived. What was it like to lead a double life?
Well, I didn’t really feel like I was leading a double life as much as I felt like I was in hiding from one single person, a person I loved deeply but who could ruin my life if she found out where I was. At one point, from around late 1990 to 1992, when my mother and I were both living in Chicago at the same time I felt like I was always looking over my shoulder. And not really because I lived in fear of her—more that I lived in fear of having to take care of her for the rest of my life. Eventually, the stress of her living in the same town got too much and I moved to the east coast.


While trying to conceal your identity, you became an accomplished artist and author. How did this make hiding more difficult, and were there any close calls?
By the time I broke ties with my mother in 1990, I had already been exhibiting my art in the U.S. and abroad for over 10 years and had already finished my BFA and MFA in fine arts. When I came back from living in Italy in 1991, I began to focus on writing more and I also began my children’s book series for HarperCollins. I had had a one-person show in Italy when I lived there but was afraid to pursue any shows returned to Chicago because I knew my mother could show up at an opening. All of this didn’t make my hiding more difficult, but rather, it seriously compromised my art career. I was afraid to show again until 1994 and by then I had changed my name to Mira Bartók and the show was in another state. But while my name change negatively affected my art career, it actually helped me reinvent myself as a writer.

As far as close calls, yes, there were several. I would go to an exhibit (not my own but one at a museum or gallery), and then find out later in a letter from my mother (or from someone at the art venue) that she had also attended, sometimes on the same day! It was nerve-wracking to say the least, and very sad as well. On the one hand, I wanted her to know about my successes—she was my mother, after all. And yet, I knew the terrible price I would have to pay if she knew about what I had accomplished.


Though your mother’s mental illness made your childhood difficult, she also was clearly creative and a piano prodigy. Do you feel you inherited her creativity? Were there other positive things that your mother passed on to you despite her problems?

Yes, I definitely inherited her creativity, and my father’s as well. My mother was a brilliant musician who had a vast imagination and who also wrote lyrical (albeit delusional) prose in her journals. My father was a great writer and a fine painter. Fortunately I inherited their talents, not their psychological afflictions.

Despite her illness, when my mother was at her best, she was an extremely kind and loving person. If she never had been struck down by schizophrenia, she would have probably been an amazing mother as well as a brilliant pianist. She also cared deeply about human rights and was the kind of person who would take off her coat and give it to a stranger in need. She really instilled in me the importance of helping others less fortunate and to not focus on material wealth as a measure of success but on one’s capacity for love, creativity and kindness.


A car accident when you were 40 left you with memory loss. Did your struggles allow you to related more to your mother’s challenges?
To clarify a bit more, I never had total memory loss but rather very bad short-term memory loss and some impairment to my long-term memory. Long-term memory loss is actually quite rare with brain trauma but I think my problem with it was complicated by the fact that I had a history of PTSD. This is also the issue with many vets returning now from Iraq and Afganistan. Their PTSD complicates their recovery from TBI.

Fortunately, working on this book for about four years straight really helped my long-term memory recall. And my short-term memory isn’t great now but it certainly isn’t as bad as it was in those early days.

In regards to relating to my mother’s challenges, it wasn’t my problem with memory that allowed me to empathize so much with her but rather my difficulties with external stimulation. I had (and still have) a problem with filtering out sounds and other kinds of stimuli. I often feel bombarded by the world and from reading my mother’s letters, I now understand a tiny fraction of what she felt like on an ongoing basis. The problem with her though was not only did she feel overwhelmed by lights and sound and people but she couldn’t tell if they were real or not. That is a problem I fortunately never had to deal with, thank god!

Your mother’s obsession with keeping diaries and collecting photographs and obscure mementos—constructing a memory palace—helped you recapture some of your lost memories. While in some ways this obsession was disturbing, were you grateful she did this?

I actually saw her storage unit more as a cabinet of curiosities—she stored both the bizarre as well as the mundane, and often cataloged the items. While many of the things were items that I used as mnemonic devices for the memory palace I created in this book, there were just as many things in that room that were oddities she kept because she was so ill—like 1950s Geiger counters to measure radiation or dozens of scissors (why dozens?), or hundreds of articles on serial killers, aliens and the like. I was grateful for it all, even the disturbing things, for that is the stuff that art is made from if you are brave enough to face it—and it also gave me yet another glimpse into my mother’s tortured yet beautiful mind. My only regret is that I never photographed her cold little storage room. I just never thought about it until after my sister and I finally cleared it all out.

Having established a successful professional and personal life, were people surprised when they found out about your past? How did they react?

Like I said, many friends knew, just not to the extent of how rough it was growing up. And even so, I kept some of the worst things out of the book, just to avoid sounding sensationalist. I really wanted the focus to always come back to the two most important things: my mother’s and my loving yet complicated relationship and the enduring and redemptive power of art and the imagination. But back to your question, yes, some people who didn’t know me that well were really shocked because I am such an upbeat person and very balanced emotionally and they couldn’t imagine that I had had a childhood like that. One childhood friend said, after reading a review copy, “If I had known what life was really like for you, I would have begged my family to adopt you.” I actually feel like some people feel closer to me now, and visa versa. While my book obviously deals with some very dark things, most people who read it also find it uplifting and hopeful. A couple friends have begun to reach out to their local homeless shelters since they read my book and others have, for the first time, begun to either meditate or to attempt to rebuild their own broken relationships with a parent or sibling. It’s all been extremely positive. The best thing so far has been a handful of friends who called to say that they never understood what my life was like with a brain injury until they read the book. My sister said the same thing recently.


I hope my book has a positive effect on my readers and that it inspires them to either reach out to someone in need whom they might have ignored or that it empowers them to be more proactive and brave about their own difficult family situation. And I hope it helps family members who deal with various issues—not only mental illness but brain injury and other invisible disabilities such as Lupus, Lyme Disease, Fibromayalgia, and others.

You run a website that helps authors, artists, writers and composers find grants, fellowships and other opportunities. With the publication of The Memory Palace, do you see yourself offering advice and support to others raised by parents with mental illness?

Actually, I feel like I dealt with mental illness for so, so many years that for me, the best venue to help others will be doing public appearances with a speaker’s bureau, which I will start doing in 2011. As far as a blog, I am launching a blog on my Memory Palace website this winter. It will deal with subjects like memory loss, new research in neuroscience, issues concerning veterans with TBI, as well as quirky things that interest me, such as ancient memory systems, and art and literary projects that deal with memory and neuroscience.

Because of my TBI, I have so little energy and endurance that if I spend all my time giving advice and helping others I’ll have no time or brain juice to make art and frankly, that would kill me. I already devote hours and hours to helping artists with my other blog and I don’t want to let all those people down by spending a million hours doing another one. I’ll have to find a balance somehow between my two blogs, my creative projects and my speaking appearances. It’s called a luxury problem and I’m sure I’ll figure it out.


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