Weighing in at just over 100 pages, Terese Mailhot’s memoir “Heart Berries” is light by industry standards, but don’t be fooled: it might be the heaviest book you’ll read all year.
In these 11 essays, Mailhot takes readers on her journey toward personal truth: a messy, revelatory process reflected both in the book’s narrative structure and its searing, poetic language. The result is a work as real and cutting as a razor, and as beautiful and urgent as the blood it draws.
Mailhot grew up on Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia, born to a loving but neglectful mother and a “drunk savant” of a father who was found beaten to death in a motel “over a prostitute or a cigarette. I prefer to tell people it was over a cigarette.”
The poverty, abuse, shame and confusion Mailhot endured was not limited to one or two generations. Her family endured years of intergenerational abuses because of destructive Canadian government policies, including when her grandmother was forced to leave her family and culture to attend Indian Residential School.
Here, Indian children suffered systematic abuse, the repercussions of which were felt for generations. “Indians froze trying to run away, and many starved.”
So many children died, Mailhot writes, that their bones were built into the walls of new boarding schools.
“Heart Berries” began as a series of letters written by Mailhot to her now second husband while she briefly was institutionalized for post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder. Through her missives we see Mailhot grasping again and again for a foothold on life, and as she gains her strength she begins to piece together elements of her forgotten — and repressed — childhood.
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Mailhot is fearless in her honesty, delivering an unflinching treatise about the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse: how it affected her adult relationships, her connection with her own children, and the way she saw herself.
“Ten minutes of my life were enough to kill me. ... I spend hours convincing myself that no child is ruined — and the one inside of me is worth remembering fondly. My mother’s looming spirit guides me some days, telling me that nothing is too ugly for this world. I am not too ugly for this world.”
A lyrical work from a remarkable new author, “Heart Berries” is a triumph.