When author Mira Bartok began writing her memoir, “The Memory Palace”, she had no idea that she would end up winning a prestigious national award and traveling to book signings across the country. The memoir, which just won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, details Bartok’s experiences prior to and following a traumatic brain injury she sustained a decade ago when an 18-wheeler smashed into her car while she was parked by a construction site on New York Thruway.
Describing the injury, Bartok said, “My head was down because I was looking for music. I didn’t see what was coming. I wasn’t knocked out for long, but I sustained a traumatic brain injury that involved microscopic bleeding in the brain.”
Bartok felt inspired to write her memoir following her mother’s death. Bartok had been estranged from her mother, who suffered from schizophrenia, for 17 years. However, Bartok connected with her mother during the last stages of her battle with cancer.
Following her mother’s death in 2007, Mira Bartok felt inspired to write her story, but was unsure whether she was up to the task due to her traumatic brain injury. She wasn’t sure if her memory would suffice to complete the memoir. In fact, she was having difficulty remembering what she wrote from one day to the next.
In order to finish her memoir, Mira Bartok was able to utilize a technique she had read about called “Method of Loci.” The technique, which was developed and taught to the Chinese by Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, teaches one to build a memory palace in which to store memories. The technique is frequently used by memory contest winners to recall number sequences, lists and faces. It teaches you to use regions of the brain that have to do with special learning.
Bartok used the technique to imagine an arrangement of shops on a street and place memories in specific imaginary rooms or “loci” to be later retrieved. When she wanted to retrieve the memory, she would go on a mental “walk”. In this way, remembering information is akin to recalling where one left one’s keys.
According to Bartok, “The book itself became a palace. An entire chapter would circle around an event. By the end, I put all of the images together and had a giant palace.”
Bartok was grateful and humbled that her book received the prestigious honor. Reflecting on the book’s popularity, Bartok guesses that it’s success is linked to the fact that it touches on so many issues including homelessness, memory, brain surgery, grief, death and coming of age.
The book offers hope for those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. There are techniques that can improve memory and help to restore cognitive function. Mira Bartok’s struggles and triumph can be seen as nothing short of inspiring.
“The Memory Palace: A Memoir” was released Jan. 11, 2011 and published by Simon and Schuster.