Judging by the length of this list, it’s safe to say I love memoirs. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I love hearing people’s personal stories and getting an inside look at how their brains work. I’m fascinated by how people work through tough situations in life and how they come into who they are. I try to glean as much wisdom as I can from memoirs and see how what I learn can apply to my own life.
Here is a list of some of my very favorites, in no particular order. It was hard to narrow this list down, but I removed all essay collections to save those for their own post, so keep an eye out! (Also, shameless ask here, if you like what you read, subscribe below or to the right to get posts to your inbox!)
Becoming isn’t just the story of Michelle Obama the First Lady; it’s about Michelle Obama the person. The book covers her childhood in the South Side of Chicago with her tight-knit family, her academic experience and what it was like being a poor Black kid in a system designed to fail her, landing a high-power, high-salary job in a law firm, meeting Barack and falling in love with him, realizing her true passion, the whirlwind of campaigning and becoming First Lady, and her life since moving out of the White House. She makes it clear that her eight years as First Lady were only a blip in her life and isn’t the whole story of who she is.
When I say reading Becoming changed my life, I’m not joking. I read it after finding myself unexpectedly unemployed with no idea what I wanted to do next and it inspired to explore a career path I’d been curious about for years. My favorite part of the book was when she was in her twenties and realized her dream career wasn’t fulfilling her and she took a huge risk to follow her passion. It was so relatable to me and showed that even people like Michelle Obama have struggled to know what they want to do with their lives.
In the Dream House
[TW: this book contains descriptions of abuse/domestic violence]
Between In the Dream House and her first book, Her Bodies and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado is easily one of my favorite writers. Her writing is vivid and hauntingly beautiful and I need her to write more books ASAP! In the Dream House is about being in an abusive relationship as a queer person (a subject on which very few books are written) and how it affected who Machado is today. Subject aside, I’ve never read a book like this before. Each chapter is like it’s own vignette, telling the story through narrative tropes. The book is a like a puzzle moving back and forth through time. Machado is brutally honest and raw in this book, shining a light on her pain and trauma instead of hiding it away.
[TW: this book contains descriptions of suicidal thoughts]
Dog Medicine by Julie Barton is truly a story of healing. It starts with Barton at her lowest point—she’s in her early twenties living alone in New York City and having a very serious mental health crisis. Barton’s mom comes to save her and move her back home to Ohio, where she continues to battle severe depression, until she finds hope in a new dog. The dog, Bunker, becomes the one bright spot in Barton’s life and helps her find her way back to herself.
This book is so incredibly raw and heartbreaking and doesn’t shy away from the ugly. I’ve never read such an honest book about mental health. I found it so empowering to read in my early twenties as I struggled with my place in the world and what I was meant to do. Dog Medicine tells the story of Barton’s life for one year following her breakdown and shows how far a person can come if they get help and keep trying.
Brain on Fire
True story: I once saw Susannah Cahalan across the way at Books Are Magic, but she was talking to someone else and I was too nervous to go over and say hi. *face palm* I wish I’d done it because her memoir, Brain on Fire, is incredible and I should have told her how much I loved it. Anyways, her story is wild and is truly a testament to the importance of listening to your own body.
This is the story of how, at 24 years old, Cahalan experienced a medical incident that left her in the psych ward with no memory and no diagnosis. Using her own medical records and interviews with family, friends, and doctors, she pieces together this terrifying time in her life to make sense of how it happened. The book, which is equal parts horrific and fascinating, shows how Cahalan fought for herself in what seemed like a hopeless situation.
Know My Name
[TW: this book contains descriptions of rape/sexual assault]
If you’re looking for a book that will wreck you and also help you heal, this is it. Know My Name by Chanel Miller is the story of Miller’s experience as “Emily Doe” after she was raped while unconscious at Stanford University in 2015. This book is hard to read at times as it goes into detail about what happened to Miller, but it also offers so much hope. It starts the night of the attack and follows Miller’s years-long journey of going to trial, seeking justice, trying to heal, and the community and support she found in the aftermath of it all. This book is really beautiful in how it illustrates the way trauma affects the body and mind, and how the love of others can save you. I especially loved the way Miller talks about how art and writing have helped her heal and make sense of what happened to her. This book is a reminder that even if you feel like your life is ruined and that you’ll never recover, that good things can still happen. It’s never too late. After reading this and following Miller on social media, I can easily say she’s one of the best people on this earth.
I already knew from reading Stephanie Danler’s novel, Sweetbitter, that she’s an incredible writer, and her memoir, Stray, solidifies that. Danler weaves together past and present so seamlessly as she explores childhood trauma and neglect and how that has shaped her as an adult. The book, which came out this year, talks about addiction and mental health and how those affect our relationships to others and ourselves. I love the way the book explores family and generations and the roles we play as children, grandchildren, and parents, and what happens when the roles reverse. I know it sounds sad, and it is, but it’s full of hope and love. Danler has overcome so much and this book is a testament to her resiliency.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed is one of those books that makes you take a hard look at your life and examine if you’re on the path you want for yourself. It’ll make you want to strap a giant backpack to yourself and venture off into the woods. Or at the very least, it’ll get you to be quiet with yourself and reflect on who you are.
Wild is the story of how at 26 years old, Strayed went on a three-month solo backpacking trip along the West coast. After her mother died and her marriage ended, Strayed had hit a dead end in her life and felt completely lost and alone. On a whim, she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail despite having zero experience. I love this book so much because it’s not so much about finding a part of yourself that’s been lost, it’s about shaping who you are and how you’ll live your life.
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure
[TW: this book contains descriptions of domestic violence]
This book is unlike any other on this list—not only is it less than 100 pages, but it also mixes some fiction in with memoir. Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison is really about storytelling and what it means for women to tell their own stories. Allison tells the story of her family and how the women in her family have influenced who she is. She writes about forming her own identity and beliefs as the men around her try to control her and the other women in her family. She explores her sexuality, girlhood, healing, and creating (and owning) her own narrative.
[TW: this book contains descriptions of rape/sexual assault]
It goes without saying that Roxane Gay is one of the greatest humans alive, but I’m going to say it anyways—Roxane Gay is one of the greatest humans alive! She is one of the best and most unflinchingly honest writers of our time. She’s not afraid to talk about uncomfortable things, and in Hunger she talks about her body. Starting from her childhood and continuing up to the present day, she explores what it means to live in a fat body in this world, a world that rejects and demeans anything not thin and beautiful.
Gay completely owns who she is and is straightforward about her struggles, but she never seeks pity. This isn’t a book about diet culture or learning to love the skin you’re in. As Gay says, this isn’t a “success” story. It’s about her lived reality and how trauma has affected her life and her body. It’s about healing and acceptance. You can feel her pain and truth in every word she writes.
When We Were the Kennedys
As someone who’s lived in Maine the past several years, When We Were the Kennedys was fascinating to me. Monica Wood, a Maine native, writes about her childhood growing up in Mexico, Maine in the 60s. (Maine actually has a lot of towns named after countries and major cities, which is really weird, but also cool.) Mexico is a small town centered by a large paper mill that employed many members of the largely immigrant community, including Wood’s father. When he died suddenly, her family was completely thrown off guard and forced to cling to each other and their town to survive. Wood does such an incredible job exploring grief and healing in this book, as well as family dynamics and the strange complexities of small town life.
As I said, I LOVE memoirs! What are some of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below!
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