Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
In her debut memoir, Heart Berries (Counterpoint, February 2018), Terese Marie Mailhot reflects on the challenges of negotiating the gap between the ugly truth and the art she hopes to make out of it. “The truth of this story,” she writes, “is a detailed thing, when I’d prefer it be a symbol or a poem — fewer words, and more striking images to imbue all our things. I can’t turn it into Salish art.” Yet Mailhot, a member of the Seabird Island Band and the daughter of a poet-activist and a Salish artist, has written one of the most simply beautiful memoirs of inherited trauma, mental illness, motherhood, and love that I’ve read in recent memory. In these pages, the harrowing truth of her young life is balanced by a voice as even and precisely controlled as poetry. All the tensions Mailhot manages here — between what she has lived and what she makes of it, between the ugliness of experience and the graceful, spare prose she uses to convey it, and between how people are with how they might have been — make Heart Berries a standout in the genre.
In keeping with a kind of poetic efficiency that marks Mailhot’s work, the book opens right into a rupture. She has already endured a childhood of poverty, neglect, and abuse; now ending is a teenage marriage of which she says simply, “Despair isn’t a conduit for love. We ruined each other.” When her mother dies and Mailhot loses custody of her first child, Isadore, just as she is delivering her second child, she leaves her reservation in grief and hunger. “I left my home,” she writes, “because welfare made me choose between necessities. I used a check and some cash I saved for a ticket away—and knew I would arrive with a deficit. That’s when I started to illustrate my story and when it became a means of survival.” With her baby, Mailhot moves from the familiarity of her mountains to what she describes as “an infinite and flat brown” — one that nevertheless holds possibility; there, she seeks education, writing classes, college, tries to soothe her hunger with the gifts of men. Then she falls hard for a fellow writer, Casey; the other men fade, and it seems as though things are improving.
But, Mailhot writes, “I knew I was not well”: she harms herself repeatedly, acts impulsively, lashes out violently, is too thin. She commits herself to a psychiatric hospital and receives diagnoses of PTSD and bipolar II, but inside she begins to work on much of what comprises Heart Berries, writing down memories, observations, and intimate epistolary chapters addressed to Casey. She describes this work as “a means of survival,” but survival here seems to be a messy, disorienting, deeply experimental reckoning with life, history, and intergenerational trauma. Here, her writing moves fluidly from her own experience into her grandmother’s childhood in a residential school, or her memories of her father, or her mother’s exploitation. Immersed in treatment built for someone else that seeks to place all the blame on the mother, Mailhot delves back into memory and history, examining the tension points in her life that got her there.
Indeed, her writing on mothering, abuse, and mental illness is some of the most nuanced work in this slim and powerful book. Mailhot’s own mother, a healer, activist, and a poet, is rendered with clarity, warmth, and raw honesty. Where her therapists would like her to label her mother’s narcissism, she does better: “I have fond and bitter memories of her,” she writes. “She believed in subversion and turning things upside down. She mocked everything. My desire to be normal or sincere made her laugh.” Mailhot scratches through layers of neglect, observing that while her mother’s own creative output was exploited, she recognized Mailhot’s gift of storytelling early and encouraged her to embrace that power. Interestingly, when Mailhot writes about being a mother herself, she’s no less revealing. She speaks openly about her own abusive patterns, her postpartum depression, and the doubt she had in herself when she became a mother, which were nurtured in part by case workers in the foster system.
Mailhot describes her storytelling as something “sacred and beyond me”; as such, it’s difficult to categorize, but its drama and lyricism reminded me most of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. In any case, following her storytelling has lately led her to finding a much wider audience. Heart Berries deserves all the attention it’s getting, and my surprise that it was her first book soon gave way to hope that we may have a lot more to read from her in years to come.