This is one of those books that I had on my radar as a book to help me get more diversity of perspective in my reading, but it wasn’t necessarily at the top of the list. Probably because it’s nonfiction…and I’ve just always preferred fiction. But then I was at my local bookstore a few months ago and it just called out to me from the shelf. I am a hella mood reader, so I usually listen to those urges…this time being no exception. And yet again, I’m over here congratulating myself for following my reading moods. This memoir is a force – one that I can’t say is good/bad (I have a hard time quantifying memoirs like that, because it seems like a judgement on the person’s experiences, rather than the writing of them), but one that pulled me along in its wake from the very first page.
“Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see.”
Heart Berries is a collection of Mailhot’s reflections on her own history and coming of age. From a severely difficult childhood on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest to a current day struggle with mental health and relationships, Mailhot has experienced and witnessed an extreme amount of trauma in her life. This short collection of essays (?) examines these events, her personal realizations, discoveries and reactions to them, and how they have altered and defined her life trajectory. And woven throughout, Mailhot shares and references cultural commentary/examples, traditional beliefs woven into the fabric of her life and overall narrative.
“I couldn’t distinguish the symptoms from my heart. It was polarizing to be told there was a diagnosis for the behaviors I felt justified in having.”
I have to start by saying that one of my strongest reactions was how absolutely difficult this was to read. Both as far as the topics covered and the style/language used, this book was all hard edges and arduous going. I felt drained each time I read part of it. And I actually found myself having to limit the number of chapters/pages I read in any given sitting. Which does nothing if not demonstrate, without you even having to open the book, how much Mailhot has had to/is still dealing with. If I had trouble just reading it, I cannot help but wonder how she dealt with living it. Which, in fact, is part of what this book was born from. During her time as an inpatient after a diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II Disorder, Mailhot used writing as a method of working through her trauma.
“I don’t think I can forgive myself for my compassion.”
“Trying to pretend damaged me the most.”
Going back to the writing, for a moment, it is unlike anything I have ever read. It’s a sort of jarring poetry in motion. It jumps (I cannot say flows, since it’s too staccato for that) from one thought/moment/feeling to the next with language that is simultaneously precise (like you can tell that each individual word was purposefully chosen) and esoteric (to the point that I often reread sections multiple times to understand the full meaning). However, despite that, or perhaps because of it, I was able to overlook any of the times that I had trouble following or connecting with the words themselves, because the clarity of the sentiment is strong and powerful. Everything is so intensely raw, but it’s so concise that it’s clear it’s a raw whose insights were born from considerable effort and editing, a combination of visceral-ness and refinement. It is harsh, in tone and style, in a way that seems to accurately reflect the emotions and situations it’s describing. And, in a way that I would be hard pressed to explain in more depth, there is a real sense of disembodiment in the writing, a sense of disconnect and stream of conscious that (it seems) illustrates, in exactitude, Mailhot’s inner dialogue and experience.
“In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don’t even know that white people see transcendence the way we do. I’m not sure that their dichotomies apply to me.”
As far as topics and themes, this book should come with a considerable number of warnings, for everything from extreme poverty to childhood abuse to mental illness to substance addiction to suicide ideation/attempt. And all of these go hand in hand as Mailhot lives them, personally and through others, to create the woman she is today. There is so much pain. And part of her reflection includes the place that pain holds both in her life and in her culture, which is absolutely fascinating to read about. Honestly, there is quite a bit of heartbreak here for the reader, not just in reading Mailhot’s experiences, but also as someone on the outside, who therefore has the clarity provided by distance, on how the trauma in her childhood affected her. Reading the guilt and inner turmoil caused by and in reaction to so many situations that were beyond her control…it’s a testament to the naivete of childhood and a sorrowful look at how our adult selves cannot look past and forgive our younger selves for not sooner recognizing what we now know as “shameful.” In general, the lifelong effects of childhood trauma, the memories and emotions that will never let Mailhot go, in this memoir are affecting beyond words. So, so tragic.
“To ascend there must be a dark, a descent.”
“People have a right to think things will change.”
And yet. And yet the power Mailhot regains through her ability to honestly and fully address everything she’s been through, including (especially) the parts that may cast her in a “negative” light (so to speak), is so important. The message that all of these experiences were not enough to keep her at the bottom, that she has enough strength (even if it goes in waves and backwards steps are taken) to push against the darkness within and around her…that is the other side of the story in this memoir. And it should be given just as much, if not more, glorification than the rest.
“Each child, woman and man should know a limit of containment. Nobody should be asked to hold more.”
These are words that, while being shared with an audience, are clearly necessary for the author as well. There was not a single superfluous word or explanation or detail or justification. It’s a stripped down, barebones, appeal. And I love that you can tell how much this writing is for Mailhot herself. It’s not easy to understand/follow/divine as a reader, so I know I missed some things, but the fact is that what I did understand were stronger and more authentic for the effort I had to put in. It was all a clear function of how much putting these words on paper, and shaping them to perfection, was something Mailhot felt she needed to do. Her honesty is a bravery that is impossible to quantify. Although it’s hard, the intensity is called for, and deserving of as wide an audience as possible.
“I can’t believe my reserve of water—from my nose and eyes. I have dormant fluid in my body, every woman does. I don’t know if I am a cavern or a river. Once, you said I was a geyser: a hole in the ground—bursting.”
**I highly recommend reading the afterward interview with the author. She speaks to why and how she chose to tell her own story and what prompted her to share a fully nonfiction account (instead of reality-based fiction). Mailhot also shares some important and no-holds-barred opinions on the way the Indian narrative has been used in the past and how she wanted to subvert those expectations/stereotypes/coercions here. The reasons she touches on for handling it all the way she did is almost as powerful as the book itself.