Book review: Heart Berries, by Terese Marie Mailhot
I avoid the mysticism of my culture. My people know there is a true mechanism that runs through us. Stars were people in our continuum. Mountains were stories before they were mountains. Things were created by story. The words were conjurers, and ideas were our mothers.
Terese Marie Mailhot is a woman of the First Nations in Canada, raised on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation. Her bestselling memoir in essays Heart Berries has garnered heaps of acclaim since its February release. Literature from Indigenous writers needs an infusion of fresh perspectives and voices, and with the unconventional style of these essays and their raw, vulnerable, painful soul-baring, she’s done something uniquely creative with memoir.
It’s told in stream-of-consciousness impressions, memories, and letters she wrote during a stay in a mental institution, suffering a breakdown after a breakup. An afterword explains that the book began as fiction, some of it previously published under that guise. When she experienced a sudden recollection of childhood abuse by her father, she decided to restructure as memoir, and what resulted was a purging of all the hurt and anger over the abuse she’d suffered in childhood and adult relationships.
For a short book, there’s a lot going on. Following the threads of it all is difficult with the obfuscated style. It’s intensely confessional, yet the stylistic haziness fades into incoherency, and the constant switching between time and perspective while vacillating between choppy, staccato sentences and overly poetic prose make stories less intimately revealing and more stylized. It reads more like an exaggerated fictive style than nonfiction – “I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said.”
Most pieces are addressed to her partner, Casey, during the course of her breakdown. The relationship feels increasingly toxic and despite their separation at the time of writing she remains deeply, fervently in love with him. He was her professor (I think? I was confused on specifics throughout) at some point. It’s rife with infidelity, jealousy and emotional manipulation.
Telling this present story, Mailhot hearkens back to her childhood, growing up on the reservation and later in foster care (aging out to a young marriage, her first son taken away to the US by his father) and the haunting heritage of a neglectful mother and abusive father and all the problems and heartbreaks inevitably accompanying this. She shows what shaped her sense of self, and why she seems to view herself as undeserving.
My mother’s looming spirit guides me some days, telling me that nothing is too ugly for this world. I am not too ugly for this world.
What felt strongest was a section near the end addressing her relationship with her troubled mother, a social worker who’d met Mailhot’s father while he was in prison for abducting a girl (I pieced all this together with outside sources, as I don’t think I absorbed everything as it was told here.) Because the writing is already so vague and impressionistic, it’s even harder to follow when a sudden switch occurs between topic, time, addressee, etc.
Mental illness can color everything that a sufferer does, including every decision made. She writes about putting her hand over her baby’s mouth when he’s crying and knowing how horrible that is. People make painful, inexplicable choices that are bad for themselves and others because they’re hurting, in love, mentally ill, all this and more – but these actions were rendered starkly, with a remove despite the clearly overwhelming pain she felt. The context is there but there’s so much distance thanks to stylized narrative that the truth feels guarded and the result is unsettling and jarring. I’m sure this was the intention, but where I think such a technique would work in fiction, it feels out of place, or at least unfinished, in nonfiction.
I’m afraid to criticize strongly because I believe Mailhot’s writing about her experience, and the role that longtime discrimination and abuse against Indigenous communities played in her upbringing and family are crucial, as are the cycles of mental illness and poverty that played out in her life and that she’s illuminating with honest writing. But the style made me appreciate the message less, it not only puts a barrier in place but feels like an MFA thesis piece.
I don’t mean to discount what it can do for understanding something deeper about the Indigenous experience, or to detract anything from Mailhot’s struggles and brave confrontation of them within her survival. Discussing memoir is so tricky. I would’ve appreciated something more edited and cohesive, and more focus beyond the intense relationship with her partner. I get that generations’ worth of pain and abuse coalesced in her and led to mental anguish and bad choices while learning what she was capable of, but too often it felt like reading an uncomfortable lament about a bad relationship that no one including her therapist can talk her out of.
This drawn-out account of the relationship was what most put me off the book. I didn’t find this portion well-written, especially seeing how she can turn a phrase elsewhere (particularly in writing about her mother). It’s simplistic – You called. I cried., etc. I was surprised at behavior in her MFA program, advisors who pried into her relationship with Casey, whether they were still together – the administration-student relationships sounded unhealthy and incestuous, with another teacher (or staff member? I don’t even know) possibly getting involved with him when he lies that his relationship with Terese is over, although still using her for sex.
I’m glad that Indigenous writing is no longer merely the lens through which to view experience, as Mailhot explains in the afterword. It’s especially meaningful where she weaves the effect of those myths, stories, violence perpetrated and internalized into her narrative. But it doesn’t save the unedited, scattered feeling, the uneven and sometimes stiff, sometimes overdone writing, and that something of the experience is difficult to prise from the writing style.
The spirits used to possess the people. We called it “Indian sick,” and it was the first illness to be accounted for. It begins with want, with taking, and ends with a silence that hurts and makes us beg. There were stories about the cures and causes. Women tried to eat soapberries, or nothing, and talked about how we all had it coming.
When she writes like this, weaving Indigenous stories into the trauma of her upbringing and her survival of abuse, her tumultuous life, how it’s all shaped and affected and weighed on her – I saw what’s to love in her writing. The voice she could be helping other women claim is a powerful one.
The only thing, the right thing—the thing that brought about our 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.