Book Review: Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot
Memoir: Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot
Terese Marie Mailhot is many things. A writer. A member of a First Nation who grew up on a reservation. A survivor of sexual abuse. A single parent. A foster child. Someone who has lived with mental illness, including hospitalization, pharmacological treatments, and therapy. MFA graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts. All of these things and more are told in sometimes harsh, grim, painful, honest, and raw detail in her memoir Heart Berries. This is not a memoir of triumph and conquest, “How I Overcame My Issues (And You Can, Too!).” This is a memoir of survival, a story of endurance, bereft of hope beyond making it through today.
Much of the book is written as a series of letters to “Casey.” Casey is revealed through these letters to be her lover, boyfriend, and father of her third child. During the course of these letters we learn about the author’s childhood, including reflections on being Indian, revelations of sexual abuse by her father, and later fleeing into a teenage marriage that produced two children and a world of heartache. The letters start when she is in the hospital for mental illness, struggling with the nature of her relationship to Casey, to the son who still lives with her, to the son who lives with his father, to her own parents, and to the world as a Native American woman.
As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think he may be selling both types of families short, but there is a measure of truth in the observation. Mailhot’s unhappiness stems from so many sources. Like many of us broken people, there is a degree of longing to be fixed: through medicine, through therapy, through relationships, through motherhood, through forgiveness. She recognizes, though, that some things cannot be fixed. You cannot fix sexual abuse. You cannot fix betrayal. You cannot fix failures with future successes. Time inexorably continues, and there’s no reversing course to undo the violence done to us or done by us.
What can be done, and what Mailhot seems to be doing, is choose to proceed. You cannot fix abuse. You can decide not to be defined by it. You cannot fix betrayal. You can decide whether or not to stay. You can decide whether or not to move forward. You cannot fix failure. You can decide to succeed in your academic pursuits, to publish groundbreaking work, to insist that your voice is worth hearing and speak your truth–however painful–into a world that too often ignores female and Native voices.
Heart Berries is not a book to read for comfort or solutions. There are none to be found here. This is a book, though, for honesty, for endurance, for anyone who has suffered. You’re not alone, your pain is real. Heart Berries does not offer a cheap grace or an easy victory. Instead it screams into the void, “I’m here and I matter!” The power of her voice eloquently testifies that Terese Marie Mailhot indeed is here, and matters.