* None of the following books have been tested for their ability to make grown men cry.
There are books. And then there are books. You know, books that make you weep longer after the final page has turned. Books you read in a fervor, unable to do anything until you reach the final page. Books you think about repeatedly for years on end. Books you tell everyone to read because life just isn’t quite right otherwise.
I love reading memoirs. I think, probably, it’s my desire to understand human nature. I don’t think I’ve ever read a decent memoir that didn’t involve some kind of struggle. I’ve read about life with mental illnesses like anorexia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve read about life with physical illnesses like Parkinson’s, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I’ve read about being in jail, and working in jail. I’ve read about being a sexual predator, and about being sexually preyed upon. I’ve read about losing a mother, a husband, a child, oneself. I’ve read about marriage, and divorce. Love, and hate. Being held captive, and being set free.
There are only a handful of these books that have stayed with me for years. My favourite memoirs share two things: honesty and vulnerability. When you sit down with these books, you get to know the person who wrote them. Truly. They open up their foibles, their mistakes, the darkest places of themselves, and they lay it all on the table. For you to absorb, judge, reject, or love.
I’ve listed up five of the best memoirs I have ever read (and I have read a few). Don’t assume they have great writing. I remember they do, and some definitely do, but they’re included because of their emotional punch. The impression they left on me, often many years later.
EVERY EIGHTEEN MINUTES
by Ellen Flint
Imagine your brother. If you don’t have one, imagine a sister, or your best friend. Imagine one day you are with them, laughing, eating crackers, and watching your favourite TV show. Imagine the next day they get up and go off to work, and you never, ever see them again.
This is the topic of Ellen Flint’s memoir, Every Eighteen Minutes, so named because someone in Australia goes missing every eighteen minutes. In her memoir, Flint details the aftermath of her brother’s disappearance. The emotional impact. The constant believing he will turn up, harrassing random people on the street who look like him, and waiting, wondering, what happened.
After I read the final page, I googled Missing People in Australia. With a knot in my stomach, I scrolled through hundreds of photos of people who had gone missing. Some had gone recently. Some had been missing for as long as 30, even over 40 years. Women. Men. Children. It was a bizarre feeling, looking at the faces of people who vanished without a trace. Where did they go? Did they want a new life? Were they taken? Murdered? By whom? And how were they selected?
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This book provides a rare insight into the pain that goes along with a tragedy you probably think will never happen to you. It’s a heart wrenching story. As I read, I kept imagining there would be happy ending. That he’d just left for a while, needed some time to clear his head, get himself together, and would return. He doesn’t.
THE YEAR MY SON AND I WERE BORN
by Kathryn Soper
Kathryn Soper is mormon. This is important because it forms the crux of her problem. She has a baby with Down Syndrome, and according to Mormon beliefs, having an intellectually disabled child is considered a gift from God. That’s right, only the awesome parents get the special kids. And that’s the problem, Soper doesn’t quite see it that way. Sure he’s special, but right then, when she’s just found out he has Down’s Syndrome, it feels more like a punishment than a gift.
Soper writes with amazing vulnerability. Asking herself why she feels so miserable and ungrateful when all her church friends are remarking on her marvelous gift from God. It’s kind of like when something terrible happens to you, and immediately, instead of allowing you to process, everyone jumps in and says POSITIVE THINKING, as if that will somehow change reality.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Beneath the heartbreak, Soper is writing a book about acceptance. And it’s kind of reassuring. Something bad happens, and yes, you are allowed to feel terrible about it, and you will work through it, in time. It’s also a gentle reminder that says, when something bad happens to someone, let them feel that, work through it, and find their own way through. Don’t shove positivity down their throat until they’re ready.
THE BOY WHO LOVED APPLES
by Amanda Webster
Here’s what my mind throws up: a neurotic, white female. What comes to Amanda Webster’s mind is: controlling, manipulative female. The problem with stereotypes is that they’re often wrong. A lesson Webster learned when her 11 year old son developed anorexia.
This book is not for the faint of heart. I read most of it in one afternoon, curled up in bed, sobbing hysterically. I didn’t think endless paragraphs about trying to get someone to drink a protein shake could be so enthralling, or so painful. Every time Richie had to drink a shake, every appointment he had with yet another doctor who wanted him in hospital, I was there in the room, a silent observer. Witnessing his terror of the rogue calorie. Witnessing his mother’s desperation. Almost every page was painful, and with startling clarity, it made me appreciate my mother so much, despite the fact I’ve never had anorexia.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This is the best memoir about anorexia I’ve read (I’ve only read two, and the other one was written by a neurotic white girl). Read it to break down stereotypes. Read it to see anorexia in action. I dare you not to be frightened.
by Claire Dederer
At this point, you might be getting the impression that I enjoy reading about other people’s misery. You’re right. I do. But only because miserable books like this usually have some sort of uplifting message. It usually goes along the lines of, “hey, all this bad stuff happened, but I got through it in the end”. I like that kind of story. Which is why it was a little surprising that I enjoyed Poser so much. It’s not the most heart breaking story I’ve ever read, although if I’m honest, I cried while reading this one too (I’m so emotional these days). I suppose, that’s the sign of a good writer. Someone who can take a situation that you would say ‘oh that is sad’ and forget about, and make it provoke so much empathy in you that you cry even though no one is dying or being raped or whatever.
Claire Dederer is my new author crush (my previous obsession was Pierce Brown, simply because he is both extremely attractive and geeky all at the same time). She is the most hilarious writer I have ever read. She’s the kind of person whose life is a series of humorous events. Or, more likely, a series of mundane events that she has the gift of making seem outrageously funny. All that, plus yoga. What’s not to love?
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This is the kind of book you’d take on a summer holiday. I read it when I was going through a reading slump. The kind of slump that had left me bereft with books for six months. Nothing was enjoyable. Reading was a chore. And then BOOM. Poser comes along a steal my heart. There’s no real lesson here, except: Sometimes it’s fun to just let loose and have a laugh.
I CAN’T REMEMBER THIS ONE’S NAME
The irony of forgetting the name of one of the most unforgettable memoirs I’ve ever read is not lost on me. I’ve included it here for two reasons: It was unforgettable, and I am hoping someone will recognize it let me know what it was called.
It was a memoir written by a man who was imprisoned for 17 years. He was some sort of political prisoner, and he, along with many others, were put into sunless cells, with only enough room to lie down. They lived in a desert. They were fed gruel once per day. They left their cells only a handful of times during their captivity. Many died.
My starkest memories of this book include a passage the author wrote about a fellow prisoner. The prisoner was constipated. The constipation was so bad he spent many an hour sharpening a stick he had found, or maybe it was a stone. He desperately inserted this up his anus to try and break up the blockage inside. Instead, he perforated a hole in his bowel, and was left there to die. They knew when he’d died, because of the smell.
This book, that I cannot remember the name of, has stuck with me for years. I remember it because I was horrified that people were treated this way, and that while I’m sitting in a cozy bed under a goose down duvet, there are people stuck in desserts being eaten alive by scorpions. That’s what I call a reality check.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: A man was eaten by scorpions. Isn’t that enough?
What’s the best memoir you’ve ever read?
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