Mythology is the “penultimate truth”—it is what can be known but not directly told, explains Joseph Campbell in the documentary series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. By that definition, what Terese Marie Mailhot encapsulates in the 124 pages of her bestselling memoir Heart Berries is an epic excavation and experiment to uncover and tell the mythology of her lineage. Mailhot recounts her flight from the grip of abuse, mental illness, and the brutal poverty of life on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia. Her odyssey is marked by a failed teen marriage, the loss of her eldest child in a custody battle, an undergraduate degree from New Mexico State University, a period in psychiatric care, an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts, a second marriage, and a position as a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.
Mailhot’s tale stretches much further than the saga of one life, however; it spans across many ages as it reckons with intergenerational trauma. She writes, “I was the third generation of the things we didn’t talk about,” in a nod to how her early life embodied silences. Heart Berries contributes to the process of rewriting the myth of Indigenous ancestry, reminding the reader that Indigenous people, like all people, represent the totality of human experience and are not simply spirit guides that “hover around to admonish people about what they should be doing, what they’re doing wrong, how they’re destroying nature,” as the Ojibwe writer David Treuer said in 2006. Mailhot has referred to Heart Berries as exploring the experience of being Indigenous, a dynamic she has said was made possible by the writers who came before her and did “the work of looking at being Indigenous.” Referring to the clarity with which she relates her childhood abuse and neglect, she has characterized the work as a “memorial” to her parents. “I’ve memorialized them in a way that is more true to my experience with them, which is even different than what my brothers experienced,” she said in a 2018 interview with Kristin Lin for The On Being Project.
Mailhot reimagines the memoir and develops a new form that empties the narrative of exposition as a device to reflect the bareness left behind by trauma. This approach challenges the reader to rediscover what defines an epic, as Mailhot undertakes a redefinition of memoiristic language in a search to convey the devastation of intergenerational trauma. Heart Berries is written in simple, declarative language, a style that frees the reader to contemplate the deeper associations between Mailhot’s individual experiences and the experiences of centuries of Indigenous people. Through this simplicity of language Mailhot invites the reader to step into a multifaceted and complex world that is both literal and allegorical. “The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless,” she writes on page one. “We sometimes outrun ourselves.” Only two paragraphs in, the reader is forced to reckon with the depth of current that flows through Mailhot’s writing; the “river” of which she writes is both one of water that nourishes the Salish tribes of the Pacific Northwest and one of ancestral pain that courses through Salish women.
Mailhot began writing Heart Berries in a psychiatric hospital, where she had committed herself after a breakdown following a breakup with her second and current husband, Casey Grey, who had also been her undergraduate writing teacher. The memoir is mostly written as conversations with him. Mailhot recognizes that her relationship with Grey started out messy and that she was not stable when it began, but on this topic, “men don’t usually care about that,” is all she writes. “I couldn’t distinguish the symptoms from my heart,” she writes when reflecting on the dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder she received during that hospitalization. Much of what works in Heart Berries is Mailhot’s unapologetic ownership of her experience with trauma, both its initial injury and its lasting lesions. Linguistic economy is the vehicle she uses to lay side-by-side for the reader her experience and her perspective as two halves that comprise her whole. By resisting the impulse to explain the lens through which she views the world, Mailhot presents herself as both damaged and whole.
On her breakdown, she writes to her husband: “Feel culpable in my insanity because you are partly to blame.” On her suicidal ideation: “Sometimes suicidality doesn’t seem dark; it seems fair.” On being a mother: “Isaiah cried all night, and I remembered well that I held a hand over his mouth, long enough for me to know I was a horror to my baby.” On her sexual abuse by her father: “I don’t think he was wrong for demanding love—it was the manner in which he asked, and whom he asked that was unforgivable.” These observations keep the reader off-balance, while simultaneously encapsulating the sweep of epic trauma in a brevity that a less talented writer might struggle to convey.
Mailhot’s instincts and writing chops are perhaps most notably on display in the section where she addresses her sexual abuse head on. Her father, Ken Mailhot (who also went by Ken Paquette), to many might be most succinctly described as satanic: a tormented artist whose story is long and complex enough that it was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Hopeby Thomas Buchan and Stuart Reaugh. We learn of his atrocities and eventual murder throughout Heart Berries in language that is both direct and obtuse. When it comes to recounting her abuse, Mailhot understands that a graphic reveal would actually undermine the horror. Instead, she relies on the scant prose that serves her well:
My father, I said.
Just saying the two words cracked my voice. It was enough for him [Mailhot’s husband] to know.
“He hurt me,” I said.
Just the three words were too many and enough for me to know . . . Every new word became more horrific . . . Every day I negotiate the minutes of my life, remembering that I can’t remember enough.
The sparsity of exploration serves a dual purpose, revealing her devastation and invoking the specter of generations of trauma and abuse.
In Heart Berries, Mailhot digs into her abuse and by so doing unearths a multi-generational wounding. It is a massive self-healing process. Her journey of self-discovery runs parallel to her experiments with form and language. Mostly these explorations are successful and point to a new framework for the memoir. But at times, the barren literary approach she develops injects emotional distance when a reader might desire a tighter weave. In a passage exploring self-esteem, she writes that her “mother wasn’t big on esteem for herself, let alone trying to foster that in me.” In keeping with the narrative’s stark style, she moves directly into reflection: “I think self-esteem is a white invention to further separate one person from another. It asks people to assess their values and implies people have worth. It seems like identity capitalism.” Here brevity belies the deeper meaning, that embodying self-esteem doesn’t escape the reach of trauma. Elsewhere she writes: “I realized that love can be mediocre and a safe comfort, or it can be unhinged and hurtful. Either seemed like a good life.” What initially can appear reductive proves to be a meditation on the legacy of abuse. By eschewing explication, Mailhot invites the reader to find meaning and cedes control over what meaning might be imagined.
As a memoir, Heart Berries does everything it technically should not, and succeeds while doing it. The book often lacks character development; the logic of scene placement is not always evident. Critical information is sprinkled throughout the pages like cosmic dust drifting across time. Yet somehow Mailhot encapsulates the essence of trauma, telling its truth less through words than by imparting what is known about its lineage and its repercussions. Mailhot recognizes what Campbell observes, that American myths no longer are operative or effective, largely because of the systemic erasure of North American Indigenous history. Mailhot’s personal trauma reflects the cycle of violence and abuse that erases memory in the individual and culture in the collective. Campbell refers to myths as “vehicles of communication between the conscious and the unconscious, just as dreams are.” Much of what is unsettling in Heart Berries is the dream-like connection to the unconscious that Mailhot creates with her scant prose, a style that embodies Campbell’s description of the mythologist as oracle who reminds us that private and communal experience are reflected in the telling of myth.
Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2019. 124 pp. $16.95.