Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

I have a weak point when reading – the loss of a child. Stories about losing a child – through death, family separation, to addiction, to crime – hurt my heart more than any other. I’ve mentioned a passage in Yanagihara’s A Little Life that haunts me because it gets to the very core of the issue.

When the loss of a child was revealed at the beginning of Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries, I prepared myself for a tough read.

You asked me for my secret. I told you about the son who didn’t live with me. I told you I lock myself in the bathroom to cry when I remember his milk breath… You said you’d be on the other side of the door. That’s how perfect love is at first. Solutions are simple, and problems are laid out simply.

Heart Berries is Mailhot’s memoir about her coming-of-age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Her childhood was marked by poverty, abuse, and time in foster care –

None of us attended school frequently. All of us had substance abuse problems, which are still welcome over the very sober pain of remembering.

Her teens were spent looking for any means of escape.

I was a teenager when I got married. I wanted a safe home. Despair isn’t a conduit for love.

She lost custody of her first child while having her second. After a breakdown, she was hospitalised and diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder, and bipolar II disorder.

Mailhot reflects on her relationship with her parents, intergenerational trauma, and how difficult it is to love while carrying grief and shame – this is particularly relevant in the context of her relationship with her second husband, Casey, who she both loves and rages against.

I realized that love can be mediocre and a safe comfort, or it can be unhinged and hurtful. Either seemed like a good life.

There’s precision to Mailhot’s language that belies the style of this memoir (non-chronological vignettes which sometimes needed more shape but that’s my only criticism). The words are raw, succinctly capturing her particular tragedies –

Every bathroom floor is different, but no mourning I do feels familiar. It feels brand new.

What I admire in memoirs is a fresh angle on universal experiences (in this case love and grief). In Heart Berries, Mailhot gives a cultural perspective, however her observations do more than draw attention to the differences between the Native American and white 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.

What Mailhot does exceptionally well in Heart Berries is describe the anguish and fear associated with motherhood. Like Yanagihara, she touches on something that few dare to think about and even fewer dare describe –

Social workers offered me respite – time away from my baby. I used the time to drink… Isaiah cried all night, and I remembered well that I held a hand over his mouth, long enough for me to know I am a horror to my baby. Nobody wanted him for those split seconds, and I wondered why the people who should be punished the most aren’t punished. Because they hurt children who don’t matter.

While the themes of grief and motherhood spoke most strongly to me, Mailhot’s reflections on mental health are worth noting. She speaks of the polarising effect of a diagnosis – labelling something that is part of the lived experienced – ‘I couldn’t distinguish the symptoms from my heart.’  And of suicide, she says –

I had not stopped wanting to die. It was not romantic because it felt passionless – like a job I hated and needed. Romanticism requires bravery and risk.

This memoir could have easily been a tale of woe, anger and blame. Mailhot avoids this and turns the lens on herself, giving us a story of vulnerability, told with unflinching honesty.

3.5/5 Memorable.

I received my copy of Heart Berries from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

‘I make pecan sandies now,’ you said. You looked content. You moved with certainty and were familiar with your kitchen – cooking was your new hobby.

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8 responses

    • The structure of the book was different – once you got into the swing of her narrative style it was good however it did take me a bit to pick up who she was talking about and who she was talking to.

  1. The “problem” of First Nations people is generally framed around how can we bring them into ordinary middle class lives, but they keep telling us, how do we find ways of living that are worthwhile. Have you read Marie Munkara? I see similarities.

    • I haven’t read Munkara but will seek it out. I have read very little by Native American authors – this book had a lot about the ‘issue’ as you so succinctly described it, but all within the context of Mailhot’s own life, which I think made it all the more powerful.

  2. I just finished this earlier in the week. (It fit into Novellas in November as well as Nonfiction!) I think you appreciated the style a little more than I did. I found myself highlighting a lot of individual lines, but not connecting to the story as a whole.

    • I think it was one of those weird books that I enjoyed more in retrospect, and when I looked back over the quotes I pulled, than when I was actually reading it. Does that make sense?! It doesn’t happen to me often but every now and then a book stays in my mind for unexpected reasons. I wrote my review a week or so after finishing it and I think parts resonated more over time.

  3. I loved her writing style- it was like harsh poetry. I made note of as many passages as you did, just because they were so beautiful. This memoir and Tommy Orange’s novel There There both made me realize how little Native American writing I’ve read. I hope to see more from both of them in the future!

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