The Memory Palace: Growing up as the child of a schizophrenic

Imagine you are 12 years old, on a crowded city bus with your mother and sister, and your mother cries out, “Is that sperm on your leg? Pull up your dress so I can see!”

Thus is life for Mira Bartok, as described in her memoir The Memory Palace. Bartok grew up as the daughter of a schizophrenic — a once beautiful and promising piano virtuoso whose mental illness left her at age 19 unable to discern truth from fiction, whose addled mind ricocheted through a complicated and preposterous maze of conspiracy theories, delusions, irrationality and paranoia.

Story of survival

Mira, subject to bizarre and embarrassing accusations by her mother on buses, the schoolyard and later, the workplace, as well as physical neglect and little parenting growing up, struggled to exist in a world that refused to take her mother’s mental illness seriously. As often as the ambulances came to take her mother away, just as quickly did they bring her back. With de-institutionalization a government mandate, the local mental institution kept sending her home.

Although Mira’s grandparents offered refuge from her mother’s neglect, taking in both she, her mother and her sister, life at her grandparents was hardly better. Her grandfather, a racist and a bully, subjected them all to a never-ending tirade of anger, condescension and profanity.

When not at her grandparents, Mira and her sister fended for themselves, alone with their mother in a decrepit basement apartment, listening to their mother’s irrational accusations and conversations, with little in the way of food, clothing or parental care.

As her mother became more violent and stalked her, Mira changed her name and went into hiding. She didn’t see her mother for 17 years. During this time her mother went homeless.

Gripping and thought provoking account

The Memory Palace sheds light on the failings of both our mental health system and children’s protective services. The reader learns what it’s like to grow up as the child of a schizophrenic, and why family members of the mentally ill — even those who are homeless — are forced to cut ties.

Bartok’s story of love, guilt, and compassion, sorrow and sweetness, is a gripping, multifaceted exploration of the lives of the mentally ill and their children, and the rules and regulations that — in the name of patient rights — can do more harm than good.

Esther Benenson

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