If Memory serves

One of my favorite book groups to facilitate is the annual in-service of the Department of Clinical Social Work at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

A couple of years ago, the department supervisor thought it would be a good idea to have all the social workers and counselors read a book with ties to their profession that would stimulate conversation. To date the department has read The Condition by Jennifer Haigh and last year they read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I wrote about the Haigh discussion here.

This year they tackled The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok. This is a powerful, elegantly written memoir of a daughter’s love for her severely schizophrenic mother. This is not an easy book to read, many of the group attendees pointed out.

The book opens with Mira and her older sister, Rachel, returning to their hometown of Cleveland to be with their recently hospitalized mother, Norma. Norma had been living on the streets and in and out of homeless shelters for many years in many cities. Her stomach cancer diagnosis brings her daughters to her after a 17 year separation; a separation the daughters perpetuated by changing their names, unlisting phone numbers and addresses, and moving overseas.

When not visiting their mother, Mira and Rachel are sorting through their mother’s storage unit, marveling at the objects a mentally disturbed individual found compelling enough to keep and experiencing painful memories in which some of these objects play a part.

The Children’s Mercy readers remarked that Bartok’s descriptions of her mother’s mental illness were very accurate. They also discussed the reactions of Mira and Rachel to their mother’s episodes and understood why the girls stayed with their mother for as many years as they did. The staff also sympathized with the extreme measures the girls had to take to safely distance themselves from their mother.

The subject of memory, how we retrieve it, what we do with it, made for a lively conversation. The author admits that some of her memories of her childhood and her mother may be altered due to her own brain injury. Bartok also mentions scientific studies on memory that show long term memories can be changed when retrieved for various reasons.

There’s a reader’s guide included in the trade paperback version of The Memory Palace, but facilitators may want to use some of the following discussion topics:

  • Do you think Bartok is more or less prone to develop her mother’s ailment since her own accident?
  • How do you feel about Bartok and her sister avoiding contact with their mother for 17 years? Was this justified or selfish?
  • Is there a sense of hope at the end of this book?
  • How do you feel about Bartok’s response to the homeless since the death of her mother?

Here’s a short list of readalikes for The Memory Palace:

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About the Author:

Kaite Mediatore Stover refuses to give up her day job as director of readers' services for The Kansas City Public Library to read tarot cards professionally or be the merch girl/roadie for her husband's numerous bands. Follow her on Twitter at @MarianLiberryan.

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