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Sarah Einstein. Mot: A Memoir. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2015. 168 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
The story of Mot and its author, Sarah Einstein, might be unbelievable as a work of fiction, which makes this memoir all the more remarkable in its telling. Serving the story of an improbable friendship are elements, both big and small, that lend veracity to the storytelling and create in Einstein a reliable narrator.
From the memoir’s opening in a KOA campground in a hard-luck part of Amarillo, Texas, the reader is hooked immediately by the lush description and the delicate foreshadowing of an unlikely pair of friends. Mot is a homeless drifter in his mid-sixties, who is waiting—or we think he is waiting—for Einstein’s visit. She has driven from West Virginia, alone, to spend a platonic week with him, sharing a cabin and seeing the sights, leaving behind her new husband and step-daughter, and a marriage still straining from its brevity and the negotiations of merging several lives into one.
We know almost immediately that Mot is suffering from severe mental illness—the voices, the paranoia, and at times the word-salad of the truly disturbed—and that Einstein knows him as a former client from her stint at the Friendship Room, a drop-in day facility for the homeless and mentally ill. We are not sure what to make of Einstein, a woman on the verge of middle age, and Mot, who is in possession of voices and delusions and “The Big Guys Upstairs.” Anyone with a passing understanding of mental health issues will see warnings and red flags, and from time to time the reader may feel a pang or two of discomfort. We wonder about the propriety of such a friendship, all the boundary business that is the cornerstone of working with vulnerable clients, and this wondering is echoed in the descriptions of a relationship that Einstein’s husband has with his own client, Rita. But as the story unfolds, the narrator provides space for our questions while laying her story brick-by-brick in a subtle, elegant way.
We are not sure, early on, what motivates the narrator to pursue her friendship with Mot, who has left West Virginia. Einstein has vacated her position at the day center after a traumatic event. She packs up and leaves her husband for a week, something he supports in light of his own enmeshed relationship with a mentally ill client. We can’t imagine how a friendship with Mot can be sustained or sustaining. But they are friends, enjoying each other’s company, cooking together, swimming, and talking, although awkwardly at times, about all sorts of things. She likes his company. He fusses over the health of her car. Their excursions include many trips to Pep Boys and AutoZone so he can keep her Toyota in prime condition. We think, in this small gesture, that he worries about her, cares for her. That he is her friend. She enjoys her time with him, but wonders, too, about this “fragile faith” she has in him. Is he safe? With her? Around children? Is this foolish, her effort with this man?
By the end of this enlightening and engaging read, many of the reader’s questions are answered. Through an economic and tightly structured book, we begin to understand mental illness in a new, more human way—not a clinical discussion, but the day-to-day reality of it, told from a loving and practical point of view.
Mot gives the reader a glimpse into the world of the truly disenfranchised, especially the invisible world of the homeless. With an economy of language but sharp detail, Einstein shows us the reality of living “off the grid.” She describes Mot sleeping behind abandoned buildings and in Walmart parking lots after he buys a beat-up car. She gives the reader a glimpse of the homeless person’s day, showing us how Mot, upon rising each morning, gathers his meager belongings and hides them somewhere safe to be retrieved later. He then cruises the aisles of Walmart, charging his phone in the small appliances department. For anyone who has worked with or knows someone who is homeless, these small details ground the story in reality and ring true. For those who have not had this experience, these elements provide a glimpse into this hidden world. Einstein writes of Mot’s struggles with mental illness, the voices, the one named Moloch who “lives” in his throat and who chokes Mot and alters his voice when he speaks. She describes with spare prose the way he lives, the way he leaves, here one day, gone tomorrow, and the mechanisms by which he stays connected, at least tenuously, with the real world. We see his world as chaotic. But the writing is anything but. In fact, it is through seamless prose, word choice, and imagery that the reader comes to understand Mot’s chaos and accept it, just as Einstein does.
In both the memoir’s title and in an interview with Brevity, Einstein admits that she has written a memoir in which the narrator isn’t the main character. That she is telling Mot’s story. But of course, in doing so, she is also telling her own, which unfolds on a canvas strewn with Walmarts, campgrounds, and a home life that is fractured, loving, and supportive in equal measures. We like the time we spend with Mot and Einstein. We understand them better by book’s end. We understand the world a bit better, too, and perhaps, ourselves.