Talented artist and children’s book author, Mira Bartok, was a passenger in a stopped car when a tractor trailer ran into her vehicle. That collision caused microscopic bleeding in her brain, leading to the traumatic brain injury (TBI) that left her with memory loss (amnesia).
The National Institutes of Health explains that memory loss can prevent individuals from recalling new events, one or more past memories, or both. The health resource explains that memory loss can be present “only for specific events or for all events” and may also be partial, which means patients fail to remember only selected groups of items.
For Bartok, her memory loss includes the struggle to recall past details from her life. She also found it difficult to remember what she worked on from day to day. These were major obstacles that left her unable to work, financially limited, and fearful that her identity was slipping away from her.
Despite that injury and memory loss, Bartok fought back and wrote a book that chronicles her rocky relationship with her schizophrenic mother, called “The Memory Palace: A Memoir.” Even more astounding, this book, written by a woman who had to overcome major physical, psychological, and emotional obstacles, won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category.
An article by the Associated Press (AP) reports that in addition to telling the story of her and her sister’s relationship with their mother, this book also addresses the “neuroscience of memory.” Due to her brain injury, Bartok had to overcome these memory limitations by utilizing memorization techniques which actually ended up shaping the structure of her book.
The AP article explains that Bartok used the methods taught by Matteo Ricci, a 15th and 16th-century Italian Jesuit priest, to keep track of what she had written each day. Using the mental enhancement technique called the “methods of loci” or the “mental walk,” Bartok used visualization to recall and organize her thoughts.
The AP article explains that Bartok and other practitioners of this technique imagine the layout of a building, objects in a home, or other familiar location and assign a memory to each room or object. Then, Bartok simply had to take a mental stroll through the place she had created, browsing through memory-linked rooms or objects to jog her memory.
“For instance, the kitchen might remind her of an event or the living room might remind her of a person,” the AP explains.
Bartok says that by the end of her memoir, she had assembled a “giant palace” where chapters circled around events and moved in a way that reflected her memorization technique. A New York Times review of her memoir explains this technique often elicited striking memories which no doubt helped earn her this award. In fact, she essentially dedicates her book to this memorization technique with its title, “Memory Palace,” which is another name for the methods of loci.
In parts, the Times explains she addresses memory itself, “asserting, for example, that according to neuroscience, while the core meaning of a long-term memory endures, every time we retrieve a memory we alter it.” However, her book does not dig into the science behind memory.
Though Bartok admits she struggled with finding the confidence in herself to take on the task of writing this memoir, the story of how she overcame her limitations and doubts serves as an inspiration in itself. While Bartok speculates that the appeal of her book to most readers may lie in its variety of themes like “homelessness, mental illness, brain surgery, grief, mother-daughter relationships, death and dying, coming of age, the transcendence of art, and so on,” it is the story of its creation that may resound most with TBI patients.