Perhaps more than any other genre, memoir relies upon empathy. The memoir writer invites us to enter her world and inhabit her perspective. Our ability to do so largely determines our understanding of the memoir and our satisfaction upon reading it. Sarah Einstein’s Mot is remarkable in that it enacts memoir. Einstein invites us to enter her world as she enters the world of a homeless man named Mot.
As the book opens, Einstein is arriving at a campground in Amarillo, Texas, Mot’s current locale. She has driven 1,400 miles from Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is the director of a place called Friendship Room, a drop-in center for adults with mental illness. Einstein’s trip is partly an escape from a job that has become a nightmare. Her clients, many of whom are addicts with violent tendencies, have turned against her and are posing threats to her safety. Of late, the only friend she’s found at Friendship Room is Mot, a regular visitor there for a month before he moved on to Amarillo.
Mot is a sixty-five-year-old homeless veteran who “wanders from place to place dragging a coterie of dead relatives, celebrities, Polish folktale villains, and Old Testament gods along with him in his head.” His delusions, which seem to stem from an abusive childhood, dictate his behavior and are often frightening. He warns Einstein that the Big Guys Upstairs don’t want her around. He believes the Toyota insignia is a magic symbol designed to weaken American drivers and take over the world. He sometimes fasts for days in fear that Moloch, who lives in his throat, will steal his food.
But in his lucid moments, Mot is articulate and gentlemanly. He’s a natural storyteller, recounting plausible tales of his travels to Europe and two semesters of study at the University of Vermont. He reads avidly, recites poetry, and offers witty observations, commenting on a garish landscaping job, “There is tacky yard art in the subtext of that garden.” He brings Einstein gifts that he knows she’ll enjoy, like a handmade scrapbook of photocopied New Yorker cartoons. He is, above all, companionable, and that companionship helps Einstein survive her darkest weeks at Friendship Room.
Mot’s friendship also helps Einstein weather the dark clouds of her marriage. Her husband, Scotti, is a psychologist who supports Einstein when her actions serve others—traveling cross-country to see Mot is okay—but not when she acts on her own behalf—storing the pots and pans in a low cupboard where she can reach them is not okay and results in Scotti’s refusal to cook. Scotti regards Einstein’s eventual resignation from her job as an overreaction and a failure. Mot, on the other hand, treats Einstein’s fears as genuine and affirms her decision to resign.
In part, Einstein’s memoir is a commentary on contemporary friendship. Mot is a true friend, and Einstein’s world “is better, less lonely because of him.” He’s also the first new friend Einstein has made in years, and her only friend with “time to talk to no purpose or take a drive without a destination.” There’s a poignant irony in the fact that Mot’s way of life, disenfranchised from the systems many of us take for granted, in some ways accommodates friendship more easily than the modern lives we accept as standard.
In other ways, though, Mot is unable to sustain a trusting friendship. Einstein never romanticizes Mot or their relationship. She recognizes the inequality of their circumstances and grapples with the ethics of following Mot to Amarillo:
I’m never certain that I’m not doing a selfish, harmful thing to him by encouraging our friendship. His life is hard but one he is able to live, and I’m asking him to change things for my sake. … Mot says that it’s good for him to have company and that it makes him feel more solid to be the one who is asked for help instead of the one asking. But he also says that the Big Guys Upstairs punish him for letting me tag along. … Maybe I’ve been touristing misery, visiting his difficult life to gain perspective on the tiny discomforts of my own.
Still, Einstein makes a second trip to visit Mot in Oklahoma City and, when the car he’s been living in breaks down, convinces him to return with her to Morgantown. She helps him settle into an apartment he can afford by working odd jobs, and she’s eager to help him resume his college education. Later, after Mot has moved on, she recognizes “the danger of having come to see [herself] as someone who was helping him rather than as someone who was his friend.”
It’s impossible to read Mot without asking, “Would I do that? Could I do that?” Einstein ventures where few of us are willing to tread, in any relationship. She makes herself vulnerable to Mot, sharing her insecurities and receiving his advice with humility. When Mot discloses details about his past and the experience of living with his mental illness, she accepts his truth and resists the “impulse to replace belief with diagnosis.” She enters his world not only by traveling to the places where he lives, but by honoring his narrative.
As readers of memoir, we are asked to do the same—to suspend our doubt and our judgment in favor of empathy. Mot is a compact book at 168 pages, but in that space it manages to be both a compelling story and an argument for the importance of memoir. First-person narratives are sometimes dismissed as navel-gazing. Nothing could be further from the reality of Einstein’s writing. In Mot, Einstein looks beyond herself and challenges us to do the same. From the opening scene to an epilogue providing concrete ways to improve conditions for marginalized individuals, Mot calls us to embrace humanity with the compassion Einstein herself extends.
About the Reviewer
Kim Kankiewicz has written essays and reviews for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Washington Post, Full Grown People, the Butter, and other publications.