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February 1, 2023

I’m returning with more books that have been essential to my personal growth. Understandably, memoirs have hugely influenced my life trajectory, most obviously evidenced by the fact that I have recently written a memoir of my own. I have long felt drawn to witness the stories of other humans up close, teaming with messiness, challenge, and change, and a wide spectrum of lessons and experiences I might otherwise not have encountered in my own life. It’s just as often I find they reveal patterns within my own story, providing me an immediate and invaluable vocabulary.

I love SO many memoirs, I’ve decided to share multiple memoir posts grouped according to loose themes. In my view, these books below relate the struggle of individuals to survive unconventional experiences in their youth and/or life-changing challenges after which they embark on a journey which leads to healthier beliefs, newfound communities, and a compelling desire to share their truth.

 (As always, my recommendations are shared in the spirit of taking what you need and leaving what doesn’t serve you at this time.)

1. Educated by Tara Westover

Shortly after it’s 2018 publication, this book was recommended to me by word-of-mouth endorsements from numerous readers, almost all of whom thought I might resonate with this author’s upbringing. They couldn’t have been more correct. I was blown away and deeply grateful that Tara made the effort to articulate complex dynamics and events that I too had experienced and long struggled to process. 

Born into an isolated Mormon and anti-establishment family, Tara and her siblings were raised without formal schooling, modern health care, and, at least initially, with no birth certificates to speak of. I resonated strongly with intense moments throughout this unsafe, unpredictable childhood. Indoctrination and escalating religious views were driven primarily by her father and taken up by her mother; her relationships with her siblings were fraught. When Tara later determines to seek out a college education and make a life beyond the approval and support of her family system, she often struggles with how their narratives clash with her remembered experiences. I took courage from her determination to make sense of her complicated youth and leave a record of what she had survived.

2. The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger

A truly singular and inspiring book about an astonishing life, this incredible memoir begins with young Edith’s determination of spirit as a teenager imprisoned in Auschwitz. She survives the war and endeavors to build a life beyond the devastation of her unspeakable experience. Her ongoing struggles eventually lead her to become a renowned psychologist and PTSD therapist.

We, the readers, reap the double benefit of witnessing a harrowing account of survival followed by the survivor’s eventual professional and expert examination of said same account. Later in the book, Dr. Eger also narrates her return to visit Auschwitz in the 1990s. I found this book stirring, epic, wise, and endlessly inspiring. 

3. Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

This beautifully written memoir chronicles the author’s stunning discovery that her much beloved and long deceased father is not a biological relative. Doubting everything she thought she knew, Dani begins sleuthing the internet and reexamining decades worth of memories. Her following efforts to piece together the puzzle of her conception, her family, and her heritage is a nuanced look at what makes us who we truly are. 

I believe family secrets are told and kept like so many unspoken promises we make to each other, often to avoid painful truths. If and when we try to face them, we may never find the answers we seek, we may never know how else our stories may have unfolded. I was riveted by Dani’s dogged curiosity and where her journey took her, full of twists and gifts to the very end.

4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

When considering memoirs as a genre, this 2005 title was an evergreen recommendation I saw consistently listed on best-of lists. I was intrigued and so I willingly followed Jeannette into a life that was not my own and yet was brimming with so many sights and sounds I knew in my bones. She speaks with vivid lyricism and unmistakeable love for both of her dysfunctional parents throughout a childhood of vagabond-like chaos. The title is derived from the imaginative but ultimately unfulfilled promise from an alcoholic father.

Though the resilient Jeannette eventually makes a life and a name for herself as a writer in New York, it’s an encounter with her mother, now homeless on a city street, that serves as the impetus for the complex examination of their family history, in all its pain and dream-filled glory.

Again, I’ll share more memoir-themed posts in the future, but next up are the books that were most helpful in my pen-to-paper writing process!

– Jessica x