Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries shares the difficult moments, revelations, and adversity she has faced throughout her life, and how these specifically relate to her as an Indigenous woman. However, at the core, this is a novel about her mother. Mailhot comes to terms with her mother’s treatment of her and perhaps even begins to understand who she really was.
Whazinak, Mailhot’s mother, neglected her child in favor of serving the community. She was an activist fighting for the rights of Indigenous peoples. As Mailhot recalls, “it is odd that I went to foster care while my mother worked in a group home. But it was not odd to me” (34). To an outsider, Whazinak’s absentee tendencies are odd. But to Mailhot, they were regular life. While Mailhot recognizes her mother’s actions as harmful, she understands Whazinak’s own struggles. She says, “Men were born to hurt my mother in the flesh and the text, and she was my savior” (38). Whazinak was used by men. They took her story and experiences and shaped them into something that would work for them, with no regard for her feelings. Paul Simon is perhaps the most famous of these men, as he used her correspondence with convicted murderer turned activist/poet Salvador Agrón to write the Broadway musical The Capeman. The musical reduced Whazinak to an “Indian hippie chick” (37). Whazinak thus protected her child in her own way, and her struggles eventually informed Mailhot of her own.
I believe Mailhot also speaks of intergenerational trauma through her mother. Intergenerational trauma is trauma that is passed down through the family. It is often not intentional, as trauma often shapes how we perceive and influence others.
“The people at the highest risk of trauma and those with the most difficulty working through it have experienced their own trauma but also have come from a family where there was a trauma in their parents and often in their parents’ parents,” (Coyle).
Intergenerational trauma can also be specific to a racial/ethnic group, as the result of everyday racism. Whazinak’s erasure by men can be attributed to racism, as Indigenous women are continuously forcibly forgotten by wider society. Mailhot feels this trauma not just because her mother faced it, but because as an Indigenous woman herself she also experiences it.
Despite her neglect, Whazinak obviously cared for her daughter. Mailhot recalled how her mother “loved dearly, and often gave [her] things to nurture” (112). Her mother expressed her love through gifts and things that Mailhot could love even when she wasn’t there. Even after her death, Whazinak’s spirit stays with Mailhot. She says, “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” (114). Her mother both positively and negatively affected her, and both of those things cannot be forgotten.
Whazinak was not a perfect person, and neither is Mailhot – or any of us. This is a memoir filled with stories of people struggling to cement their place in the world. As Mailhot says, “to ascend there must be a dark, a descent” (122). Once you hit rock bottom, you know there’s only one place left for you to go.
Coyle, Sue. “Intergenerational Trauma – Legacies of Loss.” Social Work Today, vol. 14, no. 2, 2014, https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051214p18.shtml. Accessed 26 April 2019.
Mailhot, Terese Marie. Heart Berries. Counterpoint, 2018.