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Memory Palaces

Three of the five memoirs up for a National Book Critics Circle award are by Jewish women, who somehow leave out the juiciest introspection

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Joetta Maue, she danced …, 2011. (Joetta Maue)

Growing up around my repressed Yiddish-speaking relatives, I was never allowed to say anything bad about my family, my people, or myself in public. No wonder my idol was Philip Roth.

Luckily for me the trio of wise and witty memoirs by Jewish women named finalists for the National Book Critic Circle’s best autobiography award this year—to be announced at a New York event tonight—are suffused with secret agonies and ax-grinding. All three female authors are originally from the Midwest, dark-haired and lovely, acclaimed, and between the ages of 45 and 65—seasoned women of letters. Yet thematically, one could argue they fall prey to the common female affliction of defining yourself through someone else. Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love and Went to Join the War (Holt) chronicles a 1987 college romance gone wrong, when she freaked out her middle-class Jewish parents by running away at 18 to Nicaragua with her Christian boyfriend George to join the Sandinistas. Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (Norton) shows a romance gone right—until her longtime husband Paul West, a prolific British novelist, is felled by a horrible illness that steals his speech. In The Memory Palace (Free Press), by Mira Bartók, the middle-aged author says goodbye to her long-estranged, mentally ill mother, Norma, on her death bed.


Bartók’s book is the most gut-wrenching. “A homeless woman, let’s call her my mother for now, or yours, sits on a window ledge in late afternoon in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland. … She is five stories up, and below the ambulance is waiting, red lights flashing in the rain …” is how she begins her poetic, harrowing epic of rage and forgiveness. The homeless woman vividly portrayed is the author’s mother, an 81-year-old paranoid schizophrenic with cancer at a Cleveland women’s shelter.

After a destructive childhood that culminated with Norma acquiring a gun and attacking the author with a broken bottle, Bartók changed her name and cut off her mother in 1990 to save herself. She didn’t see her again for almost two decades. While Bartók traveled the world, taking lovers, painting in Italy, teaching in Israel, and publishing children’s books, guilt and confusion followed her. When an Ohio social worker tracked her down to warn her that Norma was dying, Bartók returned to their hometown of Cleveland to say goodbye.

Given a key to her mother’s storage unit near their old neighborhood, Bartók sifts through her mother’s tattered belongings, trying to make sense of the disturbing maternal figure that haunted her past. Each worn postcard, scarf, and stuffed animal flashes her back to a beginning of a life that held great promise. Norma Kurap was a pretty, smart, Jewish musical prodigy expected to land at Carnegie Hall. The author’s father was a talented novelist whose 1961 debut, Journey Not to End, was compared to the work of Albert Camus. Yet by the time Bartók was 5, her father had abandoned the family (to eventually die a penniless alcoholic) and her mother had descended into madness.

Adding to her torment is a car accident that Bartók suffered in 1999 that left the 40-year-old author with brain damage. “On good days, I acted normal, sounded articulate. I still do. … We children of schizophrenics are the great secret keepers, the ones who don’t want you to think that anything is wrong.” For therapeutic reasons, she makes a memory palace for herself, writing this book and crafting paintings that punctuate each chapter, incorporating the leftover diaries and rags from her mother’s ravaged life.

In Bartók’s early world everything was wrong, amiss, crooked, distorted by her mother’s sickness. Yet the disjointedness and desperation are what make the book so devastating. Bartók doesn’t scrimp on her damaged parentage or psychological limitations, but she does get cryptic when it comes to her partners. On page 5 we meet her fiancé: “I almost always travel with Doug now: he is my compass, my driver, my word-finder and guide. How would I fare in this place without him?” But she doesn’t disclose much more. Other men are mentioned, then disappear. Her acknowledgment of “Doug Plavin” led me to an online update that Bartók co-runs a collaborative with “her husband, drummer and music producer Doug Plavin.” Ah, he’s a musician and they’re married. Mazel tov! Facebook shows a cute, slender bald man who lists Memory Palace as a favorite.


A loved one’s illness also inspired One Hundred Names For Love, which starts with a trauma at an upstate New York hospital in 2004. Ackerman’s 75-year-old husband, the prolific British novelist Paul West, is being treated for a kidney infection when he has a massive stroke. “In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, with one of the largest working English vocabularies on earth, he had suffered immense damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form,” she writes. He can’t even say his beloved wife’s name. He can only utter “MEM, MEM, MEM.”

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Susan Shapiro’s review of the three Jewish women’s memoirs up for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award is enthralling. I have read many book reviews but this is the first in perhaps a decade to suck me in, involve me with the books evoked, and intrigue me to buy and read them. Thank you.

Wow, what an incredible article. The three women and their books sound fascinating. Amazing reviews.


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Memory Palaces

Three of the five memoirs up for a National Book Critics Circle award are by Jewish women, who somehow leave out the juiciest introspection