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A Memoir Of Memory, Mental Illness And Trauma
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
For people with family members who are schizophrenic, paranoid and
violent, there are often no good options. My guest, Mira Bartok, ran out
of options with her schizophrenic mother in spite of the social workers,
the brief institutionalizations, and the attempts to become or appoint a
legal guardian for her mother.
In order to have a life and live in safety, she changed her name to
Bartok so that her mother couldn't find her. Her mother was homeless for
about 17 years, but for the last three years of her life she lived in a
women's shelter that is now named after her.
In the new book "The Memory Palace," Mira Bartok describes what it's
like to have a mother who is disconnected from reality. The memoir is
also about Bartok's own traumatic brain injury from a car accident,
which left her with memory loss and difficulty retaining new memories.
Bartok has written many children's book. "The Memory Palace" is her
first book for adults.
Mira Bartok, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from
the book, and this is a reading about the car accident and the
neurological impact it had on you and how it relates to your mother. So
if you would read that excerpt for us.
Ms. MIRA BARTOK (Author, "The Memory Palace"): Yes, I will.
When the truck hit, I was in the passenger seat, leaning over, looking
for a cassette. The man driving my car, who suffered whiplash in the
accident, was a guy I was dating at the time. We were on our way home
from my sister's house in northern New York.
The truck driver, who must have fallen asleep, swerved toward the right
and tried to put on his brakes. The next thing I recall was a pair of
white gloved hands reaching in to pull me out of the car. I remember a
blur of blinking lights and the feeling of hot lava dripping down the
back of my head.
When I eventually told my mother about the accident, I said that I
suffered from memory loss, mostly short-term but some long-term memory
as well, which isn't that common with traumatic brain injury. I didn't
tell her about the strange sensations of lost time that one doctor
thought might be temporal lobe seizures, or that I no longer could
follow directions, that I didn't know how to leave a tip and had trouble
reading, writing and doing just about anything that required over 10
minutes of concentration, why I tell a homeless woman who slept at the
airport that it felt like it was raining inside my body and ants were
crawling up and down my legs. My mother thought there were rats living
inside her body, aliens in her head.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Mira Bartok, reading an excerpt
of her hew memoir, "The Memory Palace."
Did it help you understand your mother at all to have neurological
issues of your own after the accident?
Ms. BARTOK: Oh, absolutely, especially in the way that it was very hard
to - and it still is hard to filter out sound coming in from other
places, for instance going to a restaurant and hearing a lot of noise or
sitting at a dinner table with a lot of people having different
And I know for my mother, you know, it would be 10 million times, it
would have been 10 million times worse. But things like that really made
me understand her a little bit better.
GROSS: And with your mother, she always had voices in her head that she
couldn't filter out.
Ms. BARTOK: Right. I don't - you know, I think at the end of her life
the doctors told me that she was probably about 90 - 90 to 95 percent
delusional. So she was just constantly hearing voices.
GROSS: Let's - before we talk more about your mother and her
schizophrenia, let's start with the medical issue that you've been
dealing with. What are some of the long and short-term memory problems
that you have now?
Ms. BARTOK: Oh, I forget - no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BARTOK: I - sometimes I think the most - the largest impact is the
short-term memory problems that affect me as a writer, because I'll
write something one day and I have no memory of writing it the next. So
I have to create rather elaborate systems of recall in order to actually
know what I wrote and where I put whatever I wrote.
And things like if I have a lot of distractions in the day or I listen
to people talk too much, or I get really tired, then I might get lost on
the way home from a place that I've always gone to that's not too far
away. I forget, you know, how to get home.
So the long-term - as far as long-term memory, that has really come back
a lot, and that's actually - long-term memory loss is rather rare with
the kind of accident I have. However, some of the problems with my
accident were probably compounded by the fact that I had some level of
PTSD and had had a previous head injury several months before. So my
brain was more vulnerable because of the second injury.
GROSS: Do you feel like you became a different person after the
accident? When your memory was impaired, and you had to recreate ways of
remembering, there were probably things that never came back to you.
Ms. BARTOK: Absolutely. In some ways, yes. But I think the thing that
changed the most wasn't necessarily memory, even though obviously I had
some memory impairment and still do.
It was more identity-related in that I always thought of myself as some
kind of person who can endure just about anything and had boundless
energy and could do several things at the same time - you know, draw
while I'm listening to some language tape and learning a new language at
the same time. I was very good at multitasking and was also very
sociable and enjoyed spending time with a lot of people.
And so it's - I think what's been the largest change is that I just
don't have that kind of endurance. I can't - I have to be pretty
reclusive sometimes, which is kind of a - it's difficult for friends to
understand, and family too.
GROSS: Let's talk about your mother. You describe her as: She was the
mad woman on the street brandishing a knife, the woman who shouts
obscenities at you in the park, who follows you down alleyways, lighting
matches in your hair. Did your mother really do all those things?
Ms. BARTOK: That's the worst. That would be a description of the worst
of her, of her behavior, not her.
GROSS: Including lighting matches in your hair?
Ms. BARTOK: No, that just happened to me once on a train. I was on a
subway, and someone, some mentally - old woman did that me. My mother
did set chairs on fire though. But I don't think she ever set anyone's
hair on fire.
But when she was at her worst, she was extremely delusional and could
turn toward - to violence, mostly to, in her mind, to protect me or my
sister from enemies that she perceived were standing there in the room
or outside the door. She would maybe threaten us in some way because she
didn't want us to go outside or - you know, because Nazis might be there
waiting for us.
But she was also incredibly loving. People say that a schizophrenic's
nature is still there, that the nature they were born with before the
illness sort of stampedes into their life. And I think, I really believe
my mother, you know, had a very kind and loving soul. It's just that the
illness hijacked her brain.
GROSS: She was also a piano prodigy.
Ms. BARTOK: Yeah, she was pretty - a pretty incredible pianist.
GROSS: When was the first time you realized that your mother could be
violent and dangerous?
Ms. BARTOK: My first memory is in the book, and it's - I'm about five
years old. And of course maybe I saw this side of her before, but I
don't remember it.
It's very vague, as most memories are from early childhood, but I heard
some kind of sound and laughter and just strange cackling in the living
room, and my memory is really looking, peering into the living room at
this woman who was my mother but not my mother sort of moving in
circles, holding a knife and saying just - babbling and laughing saying
- and swearing, and it was just very disturbing, obviously talking to
someone who wasn't there.
GROSS: What's the closest your mother came to harming you?
Ms. BARTOK: Probably - it was probably the last - if you called a family
visit. My sister and I came to Cleveland in 1990 to try to convince our
mother to voluntarily agree to sign guardianship papers so that we could
get a legal guardian for her and thereby, you know, therefore place her
in supervised housing.
And she was so furious about this. We had already taken it to court a
couple times and lost. And she came after me with a broken bottle and
got very, she - I have a scar on my neck from it. She got very close to
- she cut my neck, but it was a superficial cut, fortunately, because it
was right in a very precarious place. But I got the bottle away from
GROSS: My guest is Mira Bartok. Her new memoir about having a
schizophrenic, paranoid, violent mother is called "The Memory Palace."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mira Bartok, and she's
written a new memoir called "The Memory Palace." It's in part about her
own traumatic brain injury after she was in a car accident. But it's
largely about being the daughter of a schizophrenic mother, a mother who
was usually delusional and often threatening violence.
When your mother started hearing voices, becoming delusional, acting
violently, there was nobody in your home to intervene. Your father left
when you were four. So you, your sister and your mother ended up moving
in with your grandparents, which sounds like it was no bargain.
It sounds like your grandfather was pretty violent himself and had quite
a temper. But were your grandparents able to keep your mother under
Ms. BARTOK: No. You know, my grandfather was very ignorant about - most
people were ignorant about mental illness in that era, and he was
extremely ignorant about mental illness and thought she was just acting
crazy and wouldn't stop.
And he had very little tolerance for her or her illness, even though I'm
sure he loved her. And I also think he probably had some kind of
undiagnosed illness himself, perhaps bipolar disorder or something. He
had extreme - he had an extreme violent and â violent streak.
My grandmother, I loved her very much, but she was pretty inept. She was
pretty - you know, she was abused physically by her husband and was also
kind of unhelpful and didn't - she was always afraid that the neighbors
would hear about what's going on in the house.
She was always very concerned about what the neighbors would think, and
that often superseded any kind of action on her part to really react in
time to help our mother.
So you know, very early on my sister and I kind of put on adult clothing
and really took on the responsibility of our mother.
GROSS: Were people in your neighborhood afraid of your mother?
Ms. BARTOK: They grew more afraid of her. Sometimes she was - you know,
schizophrenics sort of, at least the kind that my mother had, she was a
paranoid schizophrenic, and she flip-flopped between a kind of intrusive
behavior that was very intense and what they call positive behavior, but
it's not positive. It's, you know, violent behavior or hearing voices
and all those things.
She flip-flopped between that and detachment, what they call negative
behavior - catatonic, depressed, barely leaving the house for days. And
when she was in that state, she could last that way for months, and then
sometimes she'd come out of it.
And sometimes she - you know, my mother would be very, very sweet. And I
think that the people in my neighborhood, most of the ones who lived
near us were incredibly kind and were often very helpful to her, as much
as they knew what was going on and helped her sometimes even when there
was, you know, something that was pretty scary going on.
GROSS: So you, your sister, your mother, moved in with your
grandparents. Eventually your grandfather died, and then your
grandmother got very sick, and she needed to be moved to an elder care
facility. And so your mother was on her own. Was that when she, like,
really became homeless?
Ms. BARTOK: I placed my grandmother in this, in elder care, in '89, and
then that year my mother went completely downhill, even where(ph) she
was doing - it was hard to imagine her getting worse than she was, but
she got worse.
And so by 1990, long series of events, but she ended up becoming
homeless when she lost â she lost the house that she had been living in.
And then I didn't hear - I didn't know where she was for two years,
GROSS: You didn't know because you couldn't find her or because you
didn't want to know?
Ms. BARTOK: I did want to know where she was. I didn't want her to know
where I was. Apparently she showed up in a friend's husband's office one
day and demanded my address. But she wouldn't give hers. She wouldn't
let anyone know where she was, but she gave a post office box. So that's
when we started writing letters to each other.
GROSS: Now, this is something I really want you to explain because it's
such a horrible position to be in. You didn't want your mother to know
where you were because she could be so abusive. I mean, it was dangerous
for you, yes?
Ms. BARTOK: Right, yes.
GROSS: But you loved your mother. You wanted her to be taken care of.
But you couldn't be that person because you just couldn't, right? I
mean, tell us why that was like an impossible situation for you, why you
would not - why you thought it was like an unworkable situation to have
your mother move in with you so that your mother wouldn't be homeless.
And I ask this because we all see people on the street, many of whom we
know that their families tried to keep them, you know, at home, and it
just, it was not possible.
Ms. BARTOK: Well, you know, when I was younger - this is in the '70s,
'60s and '70s, there were like a couple community centers - one was
called, I think, the Recovery Center - by our house. And my mother went
there and she was learning life skills. It was for the mentally ill. And
she was learning - you know, she got better care. It wasn't great, but
it was, you know, it was better, and she had a place to go to and she
was in a support group and all these things.
But in 1980, you know, when Reagan came to office, a lot of funding
dropped for places like that. So my mother, little by little, began to
lose the few support or safety nets that she had, and that the family
had, to sort of - you know, my mother had this outlet that she could go
to, and she could get some - she had a doctor to talk to once in a
while, and she had - you know, she was learning things, how to take care
So you know, I think that the problem with so many people on the
streets, it's just there's no, there's very little support system, and
that was the problem for me.
You know, we - my sister and I had taken this thing to court several
times to try to get her, our mother, a legal guardian, because we lived
in different states. Even if we wanted to take her in, because of state-
to-state law, we couldn't have. It would have taken three years, so - a
three-year waiting period. And each time the court denied our
guardianship request because my mother could - she could buy her own
cigarettes and she could cash her own checks.
GROSS: I know there were times when you tried to get your mother
committed to a mental institution and you were able to do it for very
short periods of time but never for a long time. What were the problems
Ms. BARTOK: Well, you know, they used to keep people in mental
institutions a lot longer and - as we know - and then, you know, then
there was this huge release of everyone. And because I don't do memory,
was it the '60s or '70s? I can't remember.
GROSS: I think it was the '70s. And you're talking about the changing of
the laws for institutions, because so many of the mental institutions
were so bad. They treated people so poorly. Institutionalization was
seen as a very negative thing for many patients.
But then things swung in the other direction, where a lot of those
patients ended up on the streets instead of in the mental institutions.
So that didn't seems like the best solution. But that's the way it ended
up for a lot of people.
Ms. BARTOK: That's the way it ended up for my mother. I mean,
theoretically, what was supposed to be in place of those institutions,
you know, were community centers like the place that helped my mother
before. But those dwindled or weren't there, and so, you know, my mother
got very little support from the social system that was available to
her, and therefore she ended up on the street.
So you know, it was always really a difficult thing, difficult decision
to try to get her institutionalized, because I knew that certainly
wasn't a great thing either, and I felt like I was betraying her in some
way, you know, and some of these places were just terrible.
But she would have harmed herself or harmed us. There was no real
alternative. We just needed to be safe, and we needed her - we needed
somebody to keep her safe from killing herself.
GROSS: But you couldn't be the ones to do that because then you wouldn't
Ms. BARTOK: No, we wouldn't be - I mean, my mother was so obsessed with
my sister, Natalia(ph), then Rachel(ph), and obsessed with me, and
didn't - you know, her idea was that, her master plan was that we three
all go on government aid, we live in an apartment together, and we don't
leave the apartment ever.
And she had already, you know, in my adult life shown up at various
jobs, friends' houses. She'd call - the police would show up at my door
because my mother would, you know, call the local district and say that
I was being raped or murdered. She would call a hundred times a day. I
mean, it was pretty horrible. I couldn't live like that, nor could my
GROSS: My interview with Mira Bartok was recorded last week. We'll hear
more of the interview in the second half of the show. Bartok's new
memoir about her schizophrenic mother is called "The Memory Palace." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Mira Bartok. Her new
memoir, "The Memory Palace," is about having a mother who is
schizophrenic, paranoid and violent. Bartok's mother attacked her and
tried to slit her throat. Bartok couldn't get her institutionalized or
have a legal guardian appointed to make decisions on her mother's
So the police almost suggested to you that you change your name and
phone number and not tell your mother because she was driving them crazy
'cause she'd always call the police to go check on you. Is that how you
got the idea of changing your name?
Ms. BARTOK: I think it probably was, first, my sister's idea. My sister
was in school - graduate school at the time (technical difficulties)
when the policeman made that suggestion to me. She knew that she was
going to be out looking for professional jobs, you know, teaching
English at a university and there was no way she was going to have our
mother show up and - in her classroom and, you know, she didn't want to
lose her job. I think it was my sister's idea, but you know, definitely
the policeman, after he said it, I immediately got an unpublished phone
number and wrote my mother a letter saying that I had moved, but I
actually hadn't. This was before she ended up becoming homeless but it
was very close to that time.
GROSS: So you changed your last name to Bartok after Bela Bartok, the
Ms. BARTOK: Yes.
GROSS: Who your mother probably introduced you to because she loved
classical music and had been a piano prodigy. When I say introduced you
to, I mean to his music, not to him as a person.
Ms. BARTOK: Right.
GROSS: So you sever ties with her. You changed your phone number, didnât
know your address. She didn't even know your name anymore. But you had a
post office box for her. And then you had a post office box for yourself
so she could send you letters that you would get through a friend who
would check the post office box.
At this point, you knew that she was homeless, that she was spending
some time living on streets and parks, in airports and, you know, I'm
sure like it's hard to live with that, even though you knew you couldn't
live with her. How much did that eat at you? How difficult did it make
your life to know what hell her life was?
Ms. BARTOK: I thought about it every day. I mean I lived my life and I
made art and I had jobs and I had relationships. But, you know, there
was a part of me that kept things rather private about that because, you
know, you're at a party and people are having conversations and somebody
turns to you and says, what's your family like? What does your father
do? What does your mother do? She's homeless and she's schizophrenic. I
mean, that's cheerful. So, you know, I mean I learned to change topics
very quickly and just sort of, in some ways, compartmentalize that part
of my life. But I thought about her all the time, constantly, and was
always thinking about what I could like, you know, I how is keeping
warm? You know, what does she need? And I also was constantly sending
her art supplies because I knew she had started drawing and - so I was
always thinking about her.
GROSS: Mira, I'd like you to read a letter that your mother wrote you
while she was homeless and when you were communicating through each
other through - with each other through post offices boxes. This is a
letter that she sent to you on the back of a Dunkin' Donuts bag.
Ms. BARTOK: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And she sent it with a postcard from a Marc Chagall museum show,
because she loved going to museums, even when she was homeless. Would
you read the letter for us?
Ms. BARTOK: Sure. (Reading) Dear daughter, I am trying to adjust to life
with a white cane. Many years ago, there was a man in Cleveland who made
a point of a rap tap tapping by my way but I am a little slow in the
game of Simon Says. These days I keep a journal. There is always the
continuous anxiety of blanking out again, and I need to be reminded of
myself constantly. One can't always rely on who was there, but on one's
Within your sphere of interest, the painting you made for me in the
1980s called "Selective Forgetfulness" is missing, stolen or
confiscated. I have some complaints going, as you can imagine. By the
way, when you translate the message in the above dots, you will learn
nine letters of the Braille alphabet. Note to your artist: the color
pencils you sent are being used by yours' truly. I thank you. PS, when I
have something nice to write about, I'll let you know. Love, Mother.
GROSS: It's such a disjointed letter of kind of delusional non
sequiturs. What do you make of a letter like that? What reading did you
infer from it?
(Soundbite of heavy sigh)
Ms. BARTOK: Well, on the one hand, if I separate myself emotionally -
which is hard to do - from a literary point of view, you know, when I go
through my mother's letters and her journals, I think they are like some
kind of incredibly lyrical, hallucinatory bit of literature. I mean I
just think they're absolutely beautiful and very inspiring to me.
On the other hand, I know that my mother saw signs in so many things, in
numbers, in pictures, in things that she heard on the radio. And so, you
know, I try to read into what was she thinking? Is the man in Cleveland
she's talking about? You know, what is Simon Says? You know, what does
that mean to her? So I start getting into this sort of investigative
mode in my brain, trying to understand my mother. And you know, after
reading 17 years of her diaries, I find, I realized I have a little bit
of a better sense of how she saw patterns in the universe. But still,
you know, this is really a lot of things firing at once in her brain and
no one will ever know. So I guess I find them terrifying and beautiful,
and often very funny. My mother was not without a sense of humor.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Mira Bartok and she's the
author of a new memoir called "The Memory Palace," and it's about her
mother who was schizophrenic, delusional, often violent and for many
years homeless. The memoir is also about Mira Bartok's own urological
problems after a car accident that left her with traumatic brain injury
and memory problems.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Mira Bartok. She written a
new memoir called "The Memory Palace." It's part about being the
daughter of a schizophrenic woman who was often violent and almost
always delusional. And it's also about her own memory problems after she
was in a car accident that left her with traumatic brain injury.
For the last three years of your mother's life she lived in a shelter
for women in Cleveland. And when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer,
the staff of the shelter tracked you down, and they called you, and you
went to see her for the first time in 17 years. She was, at this point,
about 80 and very sick.
Ms. BARTOK: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: How was she different from what you'd remembered? And in her
frail state, was she still violent?
Ms. BARTOK: No. I, you know, my sister and I both feel like we got the
sweet part of our mother back. She was - and she was very, you know, she
was medicated while she was in the hospital, medicated for her
schizophrenia as well. And she was so happy that we were both there. My
sister came a couple days after I arrived. And she didn't say that much.
I mean, by then she was so ill and it was very hard for her to speak.
But I felt, it was actually very peaceful to be with her.
My only regret - well, no, my one of many regrets, but one regret is
that I wish that someone had sent me a photograph of her in her elder
years, because I think that I might have tried to make, you know,
physical contact with her sooner. In my mind she was still this really
aggressive person, and dangerous person, where in reality, the last few
years of her life, I think she was pretty, you know, infirmed in some
GROSS: Was there any part of you that was - and forgive me if this comes
off the wrong way - but was there any part of you that was relieved when
your mother died, because her life had been - so much of her life had
been so painful; she had been so threatening towards you when you were
younger and you were so worried about her in all the intervening years?
Ms. BARTOK: Absolutely, as horrible as that might sound to some people.
I mean my biggest nightmare was that she would die - I mean imagine this
- you have a mother out there and she gave birth to you and she loved
you and you loved her, and you have no idea where she is and you won't
even know when she dies or where she dies - and you'll never know. I
mean, the fact that I - it was an amazing gift to be given this short
period of time at the end of her life to be with her and to know where
she was, and to know that she was well cared for. She was very loved at
the shelter, the women really watched out for her, and the women came
every single day. And so, when she died, it was...
GROSS: Came to the hospital to see her.
Ms. BARTOK: Yes. I mean every day, you know, her bed was circled by
these women from the shelter who called her grandma, even though she
insisted she was sometimes 40 years old and sometimes 50. But, you know,
she, I was really, even though I was just grief stricken when she died
and felt like I had no, not enough time with her, I definitely was
relieved. And just to know that I, you know, I was there at the end and
no longer had to think about this anymore.
GROSS: The women's shelter where your mother spent the last three years
of her life changed their name after she died and they changed it to her
name. It is now called The Norma Herr Women's Center. And on the website
for the center it explains why. It says: Norma was an elderly woman
whose courage in the face of homelessness and mental illness served as
an inspiration to other residents and to staff.
What does it mean to you to hear that?
Ms. BARTOK: It's pretty extraordinary. I mean we recent - my sister and
I went in October - the end of October for the reopening of the shelter.
The shelter was in pretty bad condition and then got some Obama stimulus
funding and a couple of the grants and they were able to rebuild the
shelter. Now it's just beautiful. And there was the ceremony, my sister
and I were the keynote speakers and there were people from the mayor's
office and commissioners, and it was very emotional. You know, this
place that, you know, I think my mother had been the oldest resident. It
was, I'm still very (unintelligible) about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BARTOK: You know, I'm just very and I, you know, and I've
maintained, I keep in contact with them and now I'm going to go there
and next month, early next month and do a poetry workshop with the women
there. And it's just, we, you know, I have this ongoing relationship
with them and it's really great. I mean, you know, who knew that a
little frail, very, very ill homeless woman would have her name on a
building, a large building like that in her honor, this one little
person? It's pretty incredible.
GROSS: I see so many homeless people in the street who are talking to
themselves and who are arguing with people who don't exist in reality or
at least don't exist next to them. And, you know, I always wonder like,
who are they? How did they end up living on the street? Do they have
family? What's their back story? Who were they? What were they like
before they became ill? When you run into somebody homeless on the
street who is mentally ill, do you try to interact with them? Do you try
to give them money or food, or what do you do? I think we all wonder
what are we supposed to do in the face of this?
Ms. BARTOK: I think most of the time, unless I'm in a hurry, and I just
- and I know that sometimes these interactions can actually take time.
And I know it sounds terrible, but sometimes I'm in a hurry or I have to
do something that requires a lot of concentration and I know that
sometimes one tiny little interaction with someone and listening to them
will totally throw me off. But most of the time, if it's cold out I go
up to them. I ask if I could get them something hot to drink or
something to eat. If it's hot out I go, sometimes I don't even ask. I
just go and get them some cold water. I, you know, one thing you donât
think about that often is a lot of people living on the street don't
hydrate enough. They're not drinking enough water, especially in the hot
weather. And sometimes people don't even let them into their stores to
get water, so that's always a concern.
So I try to make eye contact. I ask them how they're doing. My first
impulse is to get them some nourishment and then it really depends on
how it goes, because sometimes I'll give money, sometimes I don't.
Sometimes I just check, do you know where the nearest shelter is? I try
to be aware of where the local shelters are. I treat them like a human
because, you know, they are human and every one of those people had a
family at some point, had a mother, had a father. Perhaps they have
children. They were loved at one time. And so I think I just try to do
my small part in asking - I mean in just giving them a little dignity
for the day.
GROSS: Mira Bartok, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. BARTOK: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Mira Bartok's new memoir is called "The Memory Palace." You can
read a excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Our interview was
recorded last week.
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'Lights Out': A Total Knockout Of A Boxing Drama
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tonight the FX network presents a new drama series called "Lights Out,"
about a retired heavyweight boxer contemplating a comeback.
Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says it's a very good show, and so far a
very good year for television.
DAVID BIANCULLI: I'm not sure what's going on here, but I definitely
approve. In the first week of 2011, the Showtime cable network gave us
the premiere of "Episodes," the Matt LeBlanc comedy that may end up as
the best new comedy series of the year. And now, in the second week of
2011, the FX network gives us "Lights Out" - which may well end up, 50
weeks from now, as the best new drama series of the year. This much
fresh quality television so early in the year? I've never seen anything
like it. But I love what I'm seeing.
"Lights Out," on the surface, has the same basic template as "The
Fighter," the new movie starring Mark Wahlberg. That film is about a
boxer, his chance at a title shot, and the tough-as-nails, hot-tempered,
loose-cannon family that's in his corner - for good and for bad. Same
premise in "Lights Out," except this time there are other issues
involved - like money and mobsters.
"Lights Out" is created by Warren Leight, who ran season two of "In
Treatment" for HBO. His more significant credit, though - and one that
applies more directly - is that he wrote the fabulous Tony Award-winning
Broadway play "Side Man," about a jazz musician and his son. That play
really dove into family dynamics in a big way, while also exploring -
and explaining - an intense type of artistic dedication. What "Side Man"
did with jazz, "Lights Out" does with boxing.
The star of the TV series is Holt McCallany, playing Patrick Leary, a
heavyweight champ. In the opening scene, his wife Theresa, played by
Catherine McCormack, begs him to retire after a brutal loss in the ring.
He does, and the series cuts to five years later. Patrick's ex-boxer
brother, played by Pablo Schreiber, is now his business manager, and
their father runs a local boxing gym that Patrick bought with his prize
money. But that money has all dried up, as Patrick admits, while driving
home his dad, played by a perfectly crusty Stacy Keach.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Lights Out")
(Soundbite of traffic)
Mr. STACY KEACH (Actor): (as Pops) See my kid in the ring? I'm telling
you, with a little time Omar could go all the way.
Mr. HOLT MCCALLANY (Actor): (as Patrick Leary) I need to talk to you.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) He reminds me of your brother coming up. Doesn't
have the reach.
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) Did you know that was IRS in today?
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) Well, I'll tell you what I told your brother. I've
seen the IRS come after fighters all my life. You don't play cute with
them. Whatever they say you owe, you just pay. You listening to me?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) I'm broke, dad.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) What?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) I got nothing to pay them with. It's
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) How?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) I don't really know.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) Does Theresa know?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) No. And she's not gonna.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) It was her fault in the first place. I mean I love
her, but that was big money on the table and she took you out of the
BIANCULLI: McCallany is totally believable as the former heavyweight.
The actor has real experience as a boxer, which is obvious, but he's
also got the weary credibility of someone who's been through a lot. For
the same reason, I love that Keach was cast as the father. He played a
washed-up boxer in "Fat City," a movie made way back in 1972, and every
line in his face seems to be acting the part.
The rest of the supporting cast - the unsavory characters who help, hurt
or tempt Lights along the way - is just as good. Some are from "The
Wire" or "Oz." Others - like Bill Irwin, who's usually clowning around,
but plays it menacingly straight here as a white-collar mobster - are
impeccably, inventively cast.
FX sent out all 13 episodes of this first season for review, and it's
obvious why. They keep getting better and better, and the path to the
hoped-for comeback bout is anything but straightforward. Each episode
ends at the closing credits with a boxing-ring bell going off, like it's
signaling the end of another round. And often, based on what you've just
watched, it feels that way. You'll want to head back to your neutral
corner and take a rest. Not only after the scenes that take place inside
the ropes, but all of them. "Lights Out" is that intense - and that
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com, and
teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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Tiger Mothers: Raising Children The Chinese Way
TERRY GROSS, host:
Amy Chua is a law professor at Yale who's written big think books on
free market democracy and the fall of empires. Her new book, however, is
a memoir called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," which is about
raising her two American daughters in what she describes as the Chinese
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Chua's approach to parenting is
controversial, even scary. But there is no question that her memoir is
destined to be one of the most talked about books of the season.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Amy Chua may well be nuts. What kind of a mother hauls
her then-seven-year-old daughter's dollhouse out to the car and tells
the kid that the dollhouse is going to be donated to the Salvation Army
piece by piece if the daughter doesn't master a difficult piano
composition by the next day? What kind of a mother informs her daughter
that she's garbage? And what kind of a mother believes, as Chua tells
readers she does, that an A- is a bad grade, the only activities your
children should be permitted to do are those in which they can
eventually win a medal, and that medal must be gold?
What kind of a mother? Why, a mother who's raising her kids the Chinese,
rather than the Western, way. In her new memoir, "Battle Hymn of the
Tiger Mother," Chua recounts her adventures in Chinese parenting, and
nuts though she may be, she's also mesmerizing. Chua's voice is that of
a jovial, erudite serial killer - think Hannibal Lecter - who's
explaining how he's going to fillet his next victim as though it's the
most self-evidently normal behavior.
That's the other gripping aspect of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."
There's method to Chua's madness - enough method to stir up self-doubt
in readers who subscribe to more nurturing parenting styles. Trust me,
"Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" is going to be a book club and
parenting blog phenomenon; there will be fevered debate over Chua's
tough love strategies, which include ironclad bans on such Western
indulgences as sleepovers, play dates, and any extracurricular
activities except practicing musical instruments, which must be the
violin or piano.
When Chua married her husband, fellow Yale law professor and novelist
Jed Rubenfeld, they agreed that their children would be raised Jewish
and reared the Chinese way, in which punishingly hard work - enforced by
parents - yields excellence; excellence, in turn, yields satisfaction in
what Chua calls a virtuous circle. The success of this strategy is hard
to dispute. Older daughter Sophia is a piano prodigy who played Carnegie
Hall when she was 14 or so. The second, more rebellious daughter, Lulu,
is a gifted violinist. Chua rode the girls hard, making sure they
practiced at least three hours a day, even on vacations, when she would
call ahead to arrange access to pianos for Sophia in hotel lobby bars
and basement storage rooms. Chua also rarely refrained from criticizing
her daughters, and in one of the many provocative passages that fill her
book, she explains: Chinese parents can do things that would seem
unimaginable - even legally actionable - to Westerners. Chinese mothers
can say to their daughters, Hey fatty, lose some weight. By contrast,
Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of
health and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up
in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. Western parents
are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't.
They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very
I was on my living room couch, reading the end of Chua's memoir, when my
12-year-old daughter came downstairs and announced that she had done
enough reading for one day and that since she had also practiced flute
for 15 minutes, she was going to kick back and watch TV - in this case,
a made-for-TV Disney movie. Chua tartly sums up the stereotypically
Western Disney plot this way: In Disney movies, she says, the studious
kid always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all
about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes
and run into the ocean or something like that. But that's just Disney's
way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning
prizes gives you opportunities, and that's freedom - not running into
I looked over at my daughter and had mixed feelings about her just
chillin' in front of the TV, rather than plugging away in that virtuous
circle of enforced practice. I guess I won't be sending out the
invitations to Carnegie Hall anytime soon.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua. You can read a
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download
podcasts of our show.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.