A disturbing, mesmerizing personal narrative about growing up with a brilliant but schizophrenic mother.
The book is comprised of two intertwining narratives. One concerns artist Bartók’s mother, Norma Herr, and her struggle with mental illness. The other examines the author’s midlife struggle with a traumatic brain injury. Norma was a gifted pianist whose musical career came to an unexpected end when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19. In the lucid intervals between the debilitating episodes of her illness, Norma—who married an equally gifted alcoholic—fostered a love of art in her two daughters. In so doing, she gave both girls the tools to survive her illness and their father’s abandonment. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, Bartók and her sister used art as a coping mechanism for dealing with their mother’s illness. As Norma’s condition worsened, escape from domestic turbulence became more difficult. In an act of radical self-preservation, the sisters changed their names and severed nearly all ties with Norma; letters sent via PO Box became the only way they communicated with her. As a young adult, Bartók forged a life as a peripatetic artist haunted by the fear that her mother would find her. At age 40, she was involved in a car accident that left her with a speech and memory-impairing brain injury. From that moment on, her greatest challenge became recollection, which manifested textually as a slightly exaggerated concern with descriptive detail. She and her sister then discovered that their now-homeless mother was dying of cancer, and both decided to see her, 17 years after their decision to disappear from Norma’s life. By chance, Bartók found a storage unit filled with her mother’s letters, journals and personal effects—a veritable palace of memories. The artifacts she uncovered helped her to better understand her mother, and herself, and find the beginnings of a physical and emotional healing that had eluded her for years.
Richly textured, compassionate and heartbreaking.