PERSONAL: Born in CA; married Joel Rakow; children: Augie, Joey, Madeline. Education: Harvard University, M.A.; Boston College, Ph.D.
ADDRESSES: Home—Los Angeles, CA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Counterpoint Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, CO 80301.
CAREER: Theologian and writer.
The Memory Room, Counterpoint Press (Boulder, CO), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: In The Memory Room writer and theologian Mary Rakow's debut novel-in-verse, Barbara Harris is overwhelmed with a debilitating flood of long-repressed, horrific childhood memories after being temporarily stranded in a malfunctioning elevator. Barbara's memories are of brutal torture and abuse of her and her siblings at the hands of her bipolar parents—recollections of her father experimenting on her with dental tools, of burying her under the house with only a few straws for breathing protruding from the soil, of her mother burning her hands and feet on a hot oven door.
Overwhelmed by these traumatic events from her past, Barbara sinks rapidly into depression and despair, suffering a mental breakdown that leaves her nearly unable to function. She leaves her teaching job at a university and remains alone in her home, deteriorating both physically and mentally. In her distress, she even destroys her treasured cello, which had once brought music, one of her greatest pleasures, into her life. People she had previously relied on, such as her pastor, dismiss her problems and recollections as trivial, perhaps even fabricated. Worse yet, the man she loves, Daniel, has been required to move to England for his job; from across an ocean, he supports her, but is unable to offer the close support she desperately needs.
At the urging of her neighbor Josephine, a well-meaning elderly widow, Barbara agrees to see a psychiatrist. Her treatment is initially ineffective—for weeks, Barbara sits in silence during her sessions, not speaking, not responding. But over time, she begins to respond to the earnest treatment, until a breakthrough allows Barbara to briefly leave the pieces of her broken cello with the psychiatrist. Encouraged by his patient and gentle approach, Barbara slowly recounts her memories, meticulously detailing the abuses she suffered, and in doing so takes the first crucial steps to her recovery.
A reviewer in Publishers Weekly called The Memory Room "a breathtaking debut that avoids the cliches of abuse narratives as it tests the boundaries of prose and poetry," and a Kirkus Reviews critic termed it "poetic and tragic." Although Margee Smith, writing in Library Journal, would have liked to know more about Barbara's equally traumatized siblings, she acknowledges that the book simply doesn't have room for their stories as well. "Rakow's suspenseful style and economy of scene communicate much more profoundly than verbose works," Smith wrote.
A Kirkus Reviews reviewer expressed some misgivings about the mixed poetry-prose style of The Memory Room. "Barbara's saga is powerfully imagined and profoundly insightful," the critic wrote, "but the novel's stylistic challenges—frequent snippets of verse interspersed with voices past and present—at times seem excessive." The Publishers Weekly critic, however, commented that "The horror of her tale is ultimately redressed by the sensitivity and skill with which it is told."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2002, review of The Memory Room, p. 216.
Library Journal, December, 2001, Margee Smith, review of The Memory Room, p. 175.
Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2002, review of The Memory Room, p. 38.
Counterpoint Press,http://www.counterpointpress.com/ (May 8, 2002).
Yale Review of Books,http://www.yalereviewofbooks.com/ (May 2, 2003), review of The Memory Room.*