The Memory Palace - Legacy of Mental Illness {Updated Post}

Learning to forgive yourself can be harder
than forgiving the ones who hurt you.

I have finished this book and was left with a tangle of emotions. I was relieved to find out that Bartok had reconciled with her estranged mother, but was left wondering if Bartok would ever stop feeling guilty for the 17 lost years. I understand why she chose to change her name and use distance to separate herself from the turmoil surrounding her family issues. Mental illness doesn't only effect the person, it has a ripple effect that touches and changes everyone involved. Though Bartok may have used time and miles to find safety, thoughts of her Mother seemed to hang suspended everyday. The terrible irony and battle of the mind. On one hand wanting to know that your loved-one is going to be okay, yet needing to pull away from the stress and anxiety caused from being their "problem solver". Always wondering where she was- if she had enough to eat, or shelter, or safety. But also harbouring fear of being found-looking over your shoulder and expecting to see her around every corner. The fear could be based on worrying about your own physical safety, but also fear of having people judge you for walking away.

Again, the end of the book has left me with the same sense of amazement. Bartok seems to hold no malice for the terrible things her mother had done. Instead she has painted a beautiful literary picture for her readers. A story beginning with a talented woman who loves her girls, but loses everything due to mental illness. The last years of her life are spent searching for her own way to survive a world with her tangled sense of reality. The memoir ends with reconciliation, but will the daughters' ever learn to forgive themselves?

courtesy of

I have always had a fabulous relationship with my own mother, but could relate to some parts of this memoir in other ways. A close relative, Shelly* has mental illness and is estranged from our family. The estrangement is by her choice, not ours. Shelly does not want treatment and is in complete denial about her illness. She "functions" well enough in society to own and maintain a small home, but is unable to cope with prolonged social interaction or keep up with normal relationship building activities. Shelly tells people that she doesn't have a family because it is easier to ignore us then to explain why we don't have a relationship. We haven't spoken to her on the phone or otherwise since our daughter was 5 months old (she will celebrate her second birthday soon), prior to that it had been 8 full years before we had spoken. This was the only time we overstepped her wishes to be alone.

Shelly has her own tangled reality that doesn't mesh with what is really happening in our lives and in the world. So it causes her terrible stress to sort out what the voices are telling her and what the person sitting across the table is saying. We have never feared for her physical safety, or ours. Our pain comes from the emotional void of abandonment. And the frustration of being accused of various wrongs, that occurred only in her own mind. "You know what you did wrong. I don't need to tell you." The voices become her voice, so her thoughts jump to paranoia without boundaries. A very sad and unresolved situation for everyone. I wonder how our memoir would end? Will I be able to hold such forgiveness, grace, and never-ending compassion as Bartok has offered to her Mother?

Thank you to the fabulous online community at Everything Mom for allowing me to be a part of their National Book Club & the fine folks at  Simon & Schuster Canada for their generosity in sending me a complimentary copy of this book.

Update: This post was originally posted Spring 2011.  Six months ago Shelly contacted us to say that she has cancer and has undergone three rounds of chemo. She has met our preschool daughter but continues to treat us like guests instead of long lost relatives. Our time to reconcile may be short, and I have yet to figure out how to reconcile with someone who simply doesn't understand the depth of hurt and abandonment she has inflicted over the years. I think the only way to change this family's legacy is to move forward, forgive Shelly and try to change the future by not rehashing the past.


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