By Mohammad T. Khan
Canadian author Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, “Heart Berries” explores intersecting themes of family dysfunction, mental illness, maternal and erotic love, healing, and identity. The book powerfully shows how devastating abuse is across generations.
Raised on the Sea Bird Island Indian Reservation, Mailhot says her words are “too wrong and ugly to speak,” yet she balances brutal candor with poetic detail, especially in describing her love affair and eventual marriage to Casey, a creative writing professor and father of her third child.
Mailhot links intergenerational family dysfunction to the socially marginalized status of Indians. At turns troubled, intimate, empowered, defiant, and poetic, Mailhot’s non-linear account uses memory as a means of coming to terms with her own trauma and her identity as a woman and writer whose life has been haunted by the foreboding sense that “Indian women die early.”
The honest and affecting memoir recounts her coming of age, marriages and recovery from trauma. Mailhot marries at a very young age as the only means of escaping a legacy of abuse and crushing poverty, having aged out of the foster care system. She has two sons with her first husband, but her eldest son is taken away from her because of her mental illness. Mailhot moves to El Paso with her younger son, gets a GED and goes to college. There she begins an affair with creative writing professor Casey, who then withdraws from her mania and what seems to him excessive demands. When they break up, Mailhot ends up in a hospital.
In the hospital, Mailhot is told that she has post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar II, and an eating disorder. Writing is offered there as a form of therapy, and she begins writing to Casey, which becomes part of the memoir. Although Casey is not committed to Mailhot, they resume their sexual relationship and she becomes pregnant. When she eventually marries Casey, the challenges of intimacy arouse memories of being sexually assaulted by her father, a trauma Mailhot understands she must confront.
“I inherited black eyes and a grand, regal grief that your white women won’t own or carry. I don’t think you know how I felt, and I wondered what my grief looked like to you?”
- Teresa Marie Mailhot, “Heart Berries”
In her writing, Mailhot effectively describes intergenerational dysfunction namely her neglectful mother and abusive alcoholic and abandoning father — and its impact. “None of us attended school frequently,” she writes of herself and her siblings. “All of us had substance abuse problems, which are still welcome over the very sober pain of remembering.” Her father’s abuse leads Mailhot to mistrust her partners.
Her mother is loving but often neglectful. Mailhot describes how her mother once “lost” her while shopping, leaving her “accidentally locked in a bathroom stall in pitch black,” after an employee cleans and locks it when the shop closes.
Far more destabilizing, her mother leaves Mailhot and her siblings for periods of up to three weeks, causing Mailhot to be put in foster care. The abandonment leaves her insecure, and she carries this legacy of her parents’ abusive and neglectful behavior into her own life and pays a steep price for it.
Mailhot also never loses sight of what it means to be an Indian in a white world. Nowhere is this collision more apparent than in her relationship with Casey: “White women have always made me feel inferior, but I don’t think you know how much. All you see is me killing ladybugs, or crying, or asking you what I did. You can’t know the spite of my feelings.” Mailhot sees judgment in Casey’s eyes: she’s brutal, she’s crazy, she’s the other. She struggles with feelings of inferiority, yet she also recognizes her worth as an Indian woman: “I inherited black eyes and a grand, regal grief that your white women won’t own or carry. I don’t think you know how I felt, and I wondered what my grief looked like to you?” This paradox is central to the memoir. Mailhot does not flinch from exposing her feelings of intense vulnerability and anger.
The heart berries of the title refer to healing lore in Native American culture and offer crucial hope. There is much illness and pain in the book, and everyone needs a healer, most of all Mailhot. “I knew I was not well. I thought of the first healer, who was just a boy. My friend Denise told me the story. She called him Heart Berry Boy, or O’dimin.” The title reflects the themes of illness and healing that run through the whole memoir, suggesting the possibility of healing for its author, and for First Nation people.