Roxane Gay has deemed Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries, ‘astounding’, and it ranks amongst the favourite books of both Kate Tempest and Emma Watson. The New York Times calls it a ‘sledgehammer’ of a book, and believes that Mailhot has produces ‘a new model for the memoir.’ I had heard only praise for the book, Mailhot’s debut, and was therefore keen to pick up a copy myself.
Heart Berries is described as ‘a powerful and poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalised and facing a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.’ It sounded incredibly hard-hitting, and indeed, that is the overarching feeling which I have of the memoir.
As well as a form of therapy, Heart Berries was written as a ‘memorial’ for the author’s mother, as a way of reconciling with her estranged father, ‘and an elegy of how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.’ In the book, Mailhot finds herself able to discover ‘her own true voice, [and] seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, re-establishes her connection to her family, to her people and to her place in the world.’
Mailhot married for the first time when she was a teenager, and living on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia, Canada. Her husband was violent, and took their young son away from her. She writes of the way in which this led to her entire life collapsing: ‘We mined each other, and then my mother died. I had to leave the reservation.’ Mailhot goes on to declare, ‘It’s too ugly – to speak this story…’, and then to ask, ‘How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I chase it every time?’
From the outset, Mailhot’s voice is authoritative and firm. She begins by writing: ‘My story was maltreated. The words were too wrong and ugly to speak. I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle… I was silenced by charity – like so many Indians. I kept my hand out… The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless. We sometimes outrun ourselves.’ Some of the imagery which she goes on to create is nothing short of startling: ‘That’s when my nightmares came. A spinning wheel, a white porcelain tooth, a snarling mouth, and lightning haunted me. My mother told me they were visions.’
I found the memoir insightful, particularly when it came to explaining the place in the world of the First Nations community, and the author’s comparisons drawn between her people and the whites who live around them. She also considers how the First Nations people have had to adapt to the modern world: ‘Our culture is based in the profundity things carry. We’re always trying to see the world the way our ancestors did – we feel less of a relationship to the natural world. There was a time when we dictated our beliefs and told ourselves what was real, or what was wrong or right. There weren’t any abstractions. We knew that our language came before the world.’ Her wider culture helped her to overcome, or at least to work through, some of the abuse which she suffered: ‘The only thing, the right thing – the thing that brought about my immunity – was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back. The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital. I don’t feel the eyes of my grandmother anymore.’
So many things form an integral part of Mailhot’s story: poverty, anger, being viewed as ‘Other’, objectification, vulnerability, self-perception, motherhood, heartbreak, loss, and mental health, to name but a handful. The structure which she has used throughout Heart Berries, which is made up of a series of loosely connecting essays, works well; it demonstrates that one’s memory is never exact, but can be warped and moulded. The almost stream-of-consciousness prose, and turns of phrase, allow the reader to keep in mind just how troubled Mailhot was when writing. She shows this in harsh, heartbreaking phrases, such as ‘I feel like my body is being drawn through a syringe. Sometimes walking is hard.’ She comes across as brusque yet sincere, laying her grief bare upon the page: ‘I fit the criteria of an adult child of an alcoholic and the victim of sexual abuse. I reiterate to the therapist several stories about my eldest brother’s abuse and my sister’s. I often have felt, in proximity to their violations, that I mimic their chaos.’
Heart Berries is a slim memoir, filling just 130 pages. There is so much to be found within its pages, however, and I feel that I got more from it than I have in memoirs three or four times its size. Heart Berries presents a searing and honest portrait of a troubled life. It is both brutal and bitter in what it portrays. What is included here is presented as the prose which she wrote whilst receiving help for her diagnosed disorders, and is addressed to her husband, Casey: ‘I’m writing you from a behavioral health service building. I agreed to commit myself under the condition they would let me write.’ There are many trigger warnings throughout Mailhot’s memoir, but she never goes into detail about the kinds of abuse which she suffered; rather, she has kept this part of her story hidden. Heart Berries is a dark yet admirable book, which has a real sense of poignancy.