First Nation Author Maps Her Path to Healing

By Mohammad T. Khan

“Heart Berries” by Teresa Marie Mailhot is a New York Times Bestseller. Photo courtesy of Symposium Books.

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.   

Show Asks Whether Time Is Running Out

By Mohammad T. Khan
A photo from A Collaboration with Time-Deterioration series, by Robert Farber. Photo courtesy of Hexton Gallery.

A photo from A Collaboration with Time-Deterioration series, by Robert Farber. Photo courtesy of Hexton Gallery.

The exhibition “Tick Tock: Time in Contemporary Arts”, which opened at the Lehman College Art Gallery on Feb. 20, 2018, shows time from the perspective of different artists within multiple genres from the mid-nineteenth century to today. The exhibition presents a range of media, including oil-on-canvas, sculpture, photography, video, mixed construction and installations. The artists’ representations of the importance of time in our daily lives and even in our dreams provide the exhibition’s overarching theme. The show’s quality is inconsistent, especially because some of the work is controversial or experimental. Some of the pieces, such as “Sunday Afternoon,” by John Carlin and “blow up 273 -the long goodbye” by Kysa Johnson, were evocative, but many were unstimulating, such as Laurie Simmons, “Walking Pocket Watch II.” 

Two artists from the nineteenth century show how the experience of time changes as a person grows older. In “Boy with a Clock,” oil on panel, Carl Haag shows how a child experiences time. A little boy plays with a clock undisturbed by time constraints. In “Sunday Afternoon,” using oil on canvas, John Carlin depicts how the passage of time differs for three individuals. Through a scene from a rustic family’s everyday life, the picture shows how time progresses for people in different life stages. The young boy playing outside seems to be enjoying his time. For him time is going by slowly. The viewer gets an impression that for the woman in the house time in the moment is precious, because she is lost in a book. The old man in the home looks like his time went by too quickly. He is looking away from his family, perhaps reflecting on his past and his body language shows that he is not engaged in the present. Both artists have used an accessible representational style of painting typical of its time to show how time is experienced in our lives.  

The artist Robert Farber’s work shows that a person’s beauty fades over time. His “A Collaboration with Time-Deterioration Series” are two deteriorated archived fashion photographs of models from 1980 and 1981. The two photos smudged very badly as the photos deteriorated naturally over time.   At one time, the pictures probably looked nice. The picture in 1981 looks more attractive than the one in 1980. It looks very bright. The picture in 1980 looks hideous because, due to the photo’s deterioration, the woman’s face looks like a monster from a horror movie. This photo also looks darker than the one in 1981. Both, however, show that glamour and beauty, like the medium Farber used, are defenseless against time. 

Other artists explore the idea that time should not be wasted. Mary Engel has made a sculpture of a dog composed of watches, wire, mesh, and fabric in “Sleeping Watch Dog.” The dog seems to be relaxing, wasting its time by not doing its guard duty. Alexandra Forsyth Martinez has formed an open hand-blown hourglass out of white sand in the “First Instance (The Beginning).” The sand at the bottom of the hourglass demonstrates that time has run out. Its two companion pieces show an unexpected progression. In “Second Instance (The Middle)” and “Third Instance (The End).” Martinez adds black sand — using ashes — inviting us to reflect about time running out. The three hourglasses lead us to contemplate time itself differently and whether everything should be done before the deadline, considering we all become ashes in the end. Steven Spazuk’s “Ticking Bomb,” and “Stopping Time,” are made of soot on paper mounted on panel. “Stopping Time” shows an object sitting on the clock’s hands that causes time to stand still. “Ticking Bomb” conveys how important time is when a bomb is set to blow up, but also serves as a metaphor for time running out. This art is all highly conceptual. Their representations of time are confusing but thought provoking.

Each piece has its own unique way of commenting on time, and attempting to capture how each of us has a meaningful relationship to time. However, the exhibition did not address some concepts of time, such as prioritizing time management. Despite a few unimpressive pieces, this exhibition is likely to please most patrons, who are sure to enjoy the diversity of the art and the representations of time.