Lucid memoirs offer hope for mental illness

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Half in Love

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/02/2011 (4294 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Half in Love

Surviving the Legacy of a Suicide

By Linda Gray Sexton

Sexton and Bartok (below) write about responsibility and forgiveness.

Counterpoint Press, 320 pages, $29

 

The Memory Palace

By Mira Bartok

Free Press/Simon & Shuster, 302 pages, $29

 

These two lucid memoirs, both by American women, are ultimately about responsibility, forgiveness and redemption as they pertain to mental illness.

As Mira Bartok relates in The Memory Palace, she and her sister did not take responsibility for their mother, Norma Herr, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 19. They change their names and vanish, abandoning her to a life on the streets for 17 years. Ultimately, they came to her bedside to be forgiven before she died in 2007 in her 80s.

Linda Sexton’s mother, Anne, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who used her life, her depression and her suicide attempts to make achingly beautiful poems. She succeeded at suicide in 1974 at age 45.

In 1994, Sexton published an acclaimed memoir, Mercy Street, of surviving her own childhood. In Half in Love, she suggests that her mother left a legacy beyond mental illness — the actual desire to commit suicide.

She argues that suicide is an attempt to end the overwhelming pain of depression. Now 57, Sexton eventually overcomes the impulse to kill herself, and her own children forgive her.

Sexton criticizes the psychological health community because of the difficulty she had in finding a doctor who could heal her.

Bartok’s mother, on the other hand, had trouble getting any help at all, either from her daughters or from the medical profession. Herr’s success is staying alive until she was past 80, maintaining a storage locker and surviving on the streets of Cleveland aided by women’s shelters.

The difference in care received by Norma and Linda (and Anne, for that matter) are startling. It’s not clear if it’s a question of class, of compassion, or of a generational shift with children less ashamed of their mentally ill parents. Likely a combination of all three.

Bartok, 52, has written and illustrated 28 children’s books. Her memoir is a beautiful object, with a great dust jacket and her own lovely internal sketches.

Most interesting are the stunning excerpts from her mother’s journal; they say so much more than the quotations used at the front of each chapter. But a distraction in Memory Palace is the flurry of question marks with too many “what if” rhetorical questions.

Metaphors in both books often break under the weight the authors want them to carry. Memory Palace is freighted with the conceit that our mind stores our memories in different rooms, which may make some memories easier to recall than others.

The metaphor is pretty tiresome by the end when Bartok opens her mother’s storage locker and winnows the detritus for objects that open up more memories. These are either poignant or sentimental, depending on the reader’s point of view.

Half in Love is littered with strained, melodramatic metaphors. For instance: “I was once again left shivering in the draft of everyone’s disapproval, dancing like a marionette to the rhythm of the old black tune that had haunted my life.”

One or two of these might be effective, but there are too many dressed in purple robes.

Memoirs have become, arguably, the publishing equivalent of reality television. But these books, offering hope, are welcome additions to the literature of mental illness, suicide and the relationship of mothers and daughters.

Victor Enns is a Winnipeg writer.

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