9 Memoirs That Explore Mental Health with Bravery and Compassion

May 7 2021
Share 9 Memoirs That Explore Mental Health with Bravery and Compassion

As someone going through their own mental health journey after an exhausting year of loss and so much more, it feels important to share this list during Mental Health Awareness Month. Everyone has a unique way of relating to the world, but sometimes hearing other people’s stories, allows us to explore our own. Whether these reflect your personal experience or not, everyone should check out these memoirs.

Everything Is Fine
by Vince Granata

This is a difficult and tragic book that details the author’s experience after his schizophrenic brother murdered their mother. It is not an easy book to read, and it made me cry on more than one occasion, but it is worth reading. Vince recounts where he was when he learned what happened to their mother and of Tim’s unchecked illness. Part memoir and part journalistic deep dive into mental illness and schizophrenia, Vince examines the impact it had and has on his life while also coming to terms with his family and finding love for his brother. This book will move you and shock you, but the compassion that Vince has for Tim is beyond incredible.

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Everything Is Fine
Vince Granata

In this extraordinarily moving memoir about grief, mental illness, and the bonds of family, a writer delves into the tragedy of his mother’s violent death at the hands of his brother who struggled with schizophrenia. Perfect for fans of An Unquiet Mind and The Bright Hour.

Vince Granata remembers standing in front of his suburban home in Connecticut the day his mother and father returned from the hospital with his three new siblings in tow. He had just finished scrawling their names in orange chalk on the driveway: Christopher, Timothy, and Elizabeth.

Twenty-three years later, Vince was a thousand miles away when he received the news that would change his life—his younger brother, Tim, propelled by unchecked schizophrenia, had killed their mother in their childhood home. Devastated by the grief of losing his mother, Vince is also consumed by an act so incomprehensible that it overshadows every happy memory of life growing up in his seemingly idyllic middle-class family.

In this vibrant combination of personal memoir and journalism, Vince examines the disease that irrevocably changed his family’s destiny. As he painstakingly pieces together Tim’s story, Vince begins the process of recovering the image of his remarkable mother and salvaging his love for his brother.

Written in stark, precise, and beautiful prose, Everything Is Fine is a powerful and reaffirming portrait of loss and forgiveness.

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MENTIONED IN:

9 Memoirs That Explore Mental Health with Bravery and Compassion

By Maddie Ehrenreich | May 7, 2021

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Aftershocks
by Nadia Owusu

Identity can be such a key factor in mental health, especially when you are desperately trying to figure out exactly who you are. Which is exactly what Nadia explores in AFTERSHOCKS. After being abandoned by her mother as a toddler and moving around constantly with her father and her stepmother, then being raised by her stepmother after her father died, Nadia has always felt lonely. By the time Nadia went to university in America when she was 18, she felt as though she had so many personas inside her, she could barely keep it together. As she compares the events in her life to the aftershocks of an earthquake, her writing is poetic and powerful, and sure to captivate any reader.

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Aftershocks
Nadia Owusu

In the tradition of The Glass Castle, a deeply felt memoir from Whiting Award–winner Nadia Owusu about the push and pull of belonging, the seismic emotional toll of family secrets, and the heart it takes to pull through.

Young Nadia Owusu followed her father, a United Nations official, from Europe to Africa and back again. Just as she and her family settled into a new home, her father would tell them it was time to say their goodbyes. The instability wrought by Nadia’s nomadic childhood was deepened by family secrets and fractures, both lived and inherited. Her Armenian American mother, who abandoned Nadia when she was two, would periodically reappear, only to vanish again. Her father, a Ghanaian, the great hero of her life, died when she was thirteen. After his passing, Nadia’s stepmother weighed her down with a revelation that was either a bombshell secret or a lie, rife with shaming innuendo.

With these and other ruptures, Nadia arrived in New York as a young woman feeling stateless, motherless, and uncertain about her future, yet eager to find her own identity. What followed, however, were periods of depression in which she struggled to hold herself and her siblings together.

Aftershocks is the way she hauled herself from the wreckage of her life’s perpetual quaking, the means by which she has finally come to understand that the only ground firm enough to count on is the one written into existence by her own hand.

Heralding a dazzling new writer, Aftershocks joins the likes of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and does for race identity what Maggie Nelson does for gender identity in The Argonauts.

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Featherhood
by Charlie Gilmour

An almost dead and abandoned magpie resonates with Charlie Gilmour as he learns that his eccentric father who deserted him and his mother when he was just 6 months old, is dying. Despite finding love from his adoptive father, Charlie has always wanted to know more about his biological father, Heathcote Williams. FEATHERHOOD is told with a dual narrative of Charlie attempting to connect with Heathcote over the years and also him attempting to nurture and then eventually bonding with his rescued magpie, Benzene. Throughout these experiences, Charlie worries and wonders about the kind of father he will be and if Heathcote’s struggle with mental illness will one day affect him as well. FEATHERHOOD is intense, bizarre, and moving as Charlie searches for answers.

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Featherhood
Charlie Gilmour

“I loved every single page.” —Elton John

“The best piece of nature writing since H is for Hawk.” —Neil Gaiman

​In this moving, critically acclaimed memoir, a young man saves a baby magpie as his estranged father is dying, only to find that caring for the mischievous bird saves him.

One spring day, a baby magpie falls out of its nest and into Charlie Gilmour’s hands. Magpies, he soon discovers, are as clever and mischievous as monkeys. They are also notorious thieves, and this one quickly steals his heart. By the time the creature develops shiny black feathers that inspire the name Benzene, Charlie and the bird have forged an unbreakable bond.

While caring for Benzene, Charlie learns his biological father, an eccentric British poet named Heathcote Williams who vanished when Charlie was six months old, is ill. As he grapples with Heathcote’s abandonment, Charlie comes across one of his poems, in which Heathcote describes how an impish young jackdaw fell from its nest and captured his affection. Over time, Benzene helps Charlie unravel his fears about repeating the past—and embrace the role of father himself.

A bird falls, a father dies, a child is born. Featherhood is the unforgettable story of a love affair between a man and a bird. It is also a beautiful and affecting memoir about childhood and parenthood, captivity and freedom, grief and love.

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House of Sticks
by Ly Tran

HOUSE OF STICKS is an emotional experience in the form of beautifully heartbreaking prose. This is Ly Tran’s coming-of-age story as a Vietnam immigrant growing up in Queens. Barely able to make ends meet, Ly remembers sewing ties and cumberbunds on the living room floor and struggling through half her life without glasses because her father believed poor vision to be a government conspiracy. Tran’s life is filled with tragedy and generational trauma as she tries to understand who she is outside of her family’s expectations of her.

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House of Sticks
Ly Tran

An intimate, beautifully written coming-of-age memoir recounting a young girls journey from war-torn Vietnam to Ridgewood, Queens, and her struggle to find her voice amid clashing cultural expectations.

Ly Tran is just a toddler in 1993 when she and her family immigrate from a small town along the Mekong river in Vietnam to a two-bedroom railroad apartment in Queens. Ly’s father, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, spent nearly a decade as a POW, and their resettlement is made possible through a humanitarian program run by the US government. Soon after they arrive, Ly joins her parents and three older brothers sewing ties and cummerbunds piece-meal on their living room floor to make ends meet.

As they navigate this new landscape, Ly finds herself torn between two worlds. She knows she must honor her parents’ Buddhist faith and contribute to the family livelihood, working long hours at home and eventually as a manicurist alongside her mother at a nail salon in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that her parents take over. But at school, Ly feels the mounting pressure to blend in.

A growing inability to see the blackboard presents new challenges, especially when her father forbids her from getting glasses, calling her diagnosis of poor vision a government conspiracy. His frightening temper and paranoia leave an indelible mark on Ly’s sense of self. Who is she outside of everything her family expects of her?

Told in a spare, evocative voice that, with flashes of humor, weaves together her family’s immigration experience with her own fraught and courageous coming of age, House of Sticks is a timely and powerful portrait of one girl’s struggle to reckon with her heritage and forge her own path.

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From the Ashes
by Jesse Thistle

Addiction is a very serious illness that FROM THE ASHES does not shy away from. The trauma that Jesse Thistle witnessed and overcame makes FROM THE ASHES such a fitting title for this memoir. After being abandoned by his parents as a toddler, spending time in the foster system, and then eventually living with his grandparents, Jesse was haunted by the ghost of his father’s addiction. He frequently pushed back against his grandparents’ tough-love approach and eventually entered the vicious cycle of drugs, alcohol, and petty crime. Jesse succumbed to his struggles cyclically, until he realized that unless something changed, this life was going to kill him. In FROM THE ASHES, Jesse chronicles the racism, prejudice, homelessness, and other abuse that he experienced in his life, and how he found his way back to his indigenous heritage and family to finally find love and support.

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From the Ashes
Jesse Thistle

This #1 internationally bestselling and award-winning memoir about overcoming trauma, prejudice, and addiction by a Métis-Cree author as he struggles to find a way back to himself and his Indigenous culture is “an illuminating, inside account of homelessness, a study of survival and freedom” (Amanda Lindhout, bestselling coauthor of A House in the Sky).

Abandoned by his parents as a toddler, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers were cut off from all they knew when they were placed in the foster care system. Eventually placed with their paternal grandparents, the children often clashed with their tough-love attitude. Worse, the ghost of Jesse’s drug-addicted father seemed to haunt the memories of every member of the family.

Soon, Jesse succumbed to a self-destructive cycle of drug and alcohol addiction and petty crime, resulting in more than a decade living on and off the streets. Facing struggles many of us cannot even imagine, Jesse knew he would die unless he turned his life around. Through sheer perseverance and newfound love, he managed to find his way back into the loving embrace of his Indigenous culture and family.

Now, in this heart-wrenching and triumphant memoir, Jesse Thistle honestly and fearlessly divulges his painful past, the abuse he endured, and the tragic truth about his parents. An eloquent exploration of the dangerous impact of prejudice and racism, From the Ashes is ultimately a celebration of love and “a story of courage and resilience certain to strike a chord with readers from many backgrounds” (Library Journal).

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A History of Scars
by Laura Lee

A HISTORY OF SCARS is told through a collection of essays detailing Lee’s own experiences with trauma, intimacy, sexuality, and mental illness. She also tackles grief, the experience of her mother’s early-onset Alzheimers, and what it was like to grow up queer in an immigrant household. These are deeply emotional, yet incredibly relatable essays about facing ourselves and our truths.

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A History of Scars
Laura Lee

From a writer whose work has been called “breathtaking and dazzling” by Roxane Gay, this moving, illuminating, and multifaceted memoir explores, in a series of essays, the emotional scars we carry when dealing with mental and physical illnesses—reminiscent of The Collected Schizophrenias and An Unquiet Mind.

In this stunning debut, Laura Lee weaves unforgettable and eye-opening essays on a variety of taboo topics.

In “History of Scars” and “Aluminum’s Erosions,” Laura dives head-first into heavier themes revolving around intimacy, sexuality, trauma, mental illness, and the passage of time. In “Poetry of the World,” Laura shifts and addresses the grief she feels by being geographically distant from her mother whom, after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, is relocated to a nursing home in Korea.

Through the vivid imagery of mountain climbing, cooking, studying writing, and growing up Korean American, Lee explores the legacy of trauma on a young queer child of immigrants as she reconciles the disparate pieces of existence that make her whole.

By tapping into her own personal, emotional, and psychological struggles in these powerful and relatable essays, Lee encourages all of us to not be afraid to face our own hardships and inner truths.

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Like Crazy
by Dan Mathews

This memoir is funny and heartbreaking and sometimes I feel that I use those words too often when describing books. Boiled down, those are the two essential characteristics of LIKE CRAZY, which reads like a tribute to Matthews's mother–eccentricities, illness, and all. Wild child Dan Mathews had recently purchased a dilapidated Victorian home, when his mother was diagnosed with COPD. Realizing that it was finally his turn to step up and care for her, he brought her to Virginia to permanently live with him. But together, they continued to be wild, hosting elaborate costume parties, taking road trips, and facing down Mother Nature. It wasn’t until a violent ER visit that his elderly mother received another life-changing diagnosis: She had lived her entire adult life with undiagnosed schizophrenia. Darkly comical and full of compassion, LIKE CRAZY doesn’t shy away from mental illness, but finds that truth and humor can exist together.

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Like Crazy
Dan Mathews

Exquisite. Full of wry humor, tenderness, and compassion.” —Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author

A hilarious and heartbreaking memoir about a mother and son’s outlandish odyssey of self-discovery, and the rag-tag community that rallied to help them when they needed it most.

Dan Mathews knew that his witty, bawdy seventy-eight year-old mother, Perry, was unable to maintain her fierce independence—so he flew her across the country to Virginia to live with him in an 1870 townhouse badly in need of repairs. But to Dan, a screwdriver is a cocktail not a tool, and he was soon overwhelmed with two fixer-uppers: the house and his mother.

Unbowed, Dan and Perry built a rollicking life together fueled by costume parties, road trips, and an unshakeable sense of humor as they faced down hurricanes, blizzards, and Perry’s steady decline. They got by with the help of an ever-expanding circle of sidekicks—Dan’s boyfriends (past and present), ex-cons, sailors, strippers, deaf hillbillies, evangelicals, and grumpy cats—while flipping the parent-child relationship on its head.

But it wasn’t until a kicking-and-screaming trip to the emergency room that Dan discovered the cause of his mother’s unpredictable, often caustic behavior: undiagnosed schizophrenia.

Irreverent and emotionally powerful, Like Crazy is a “journey to self-acceptance and ultimately finding love” (Alan Cumming) and shows the remarkable growth that takes place when a wild child settles down to care for the wild woman who raised him.

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Heavy
by Kiese Laymon

While Kiese Laymon uses his body to illustrate the abuse he suffered, he also uses it to explore the reality of American society and of being Black in America. What does it mean to grow up in a society, in a country, that believes in progress but does not want to go through the uncomfortable and messy work for equity and equality that would achieve this? This memoir explores these questions and so much more, including sexual abuse, gambling, struggles with body image and eating disorders, and the complex relationship with his mother and grandmother. Laymon also begs everyone to examine how they love and what it means to love responsibly. Laymon’s experiences are vastly different from mine and while I can describe and recommend this book, his voice is more than powerful enough to stand on its own. And it should. HEAVY was written to his mother but has been shared with the world.

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Group
by Christie Tate

GROUP is entertaining and unconventional, but it absolutely deserves a spot on this list as Tate embarks on a journey of self-discovery, intimacy, and hope. While the idea of this type of group therapy may not appeal to everyone, and Tate herself was very skeptical at first, it gave her an opportunity to break down her barriers and finally learns what it means to connect. Tate chronicles her time as a law student and young lawyer dealing with intrusive thoughts and an eating disorder as she joins one of Dr. Rosen’s psychotherapy groups. All she must do is show up and be honest.

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Group
Christie Tate

“Hilarious and engrossing.” People * “Fearless candor and vulnerability.” —Time * “Funny, emotional, and insightful.” —Good Morning America * “Honest, addictive” —HelloGiggles * “Wonderful...sparkle and intelligence.” —Booklist * “Dazzling.” —Publishers Weekly

The refreshingly original debut memoir of a guarded, over-achieving, self-lacerating young lawyer who reluctantly agrees to get psychologically and emotionally naked in a room of six complete strangers—her psychotherapy group—and in turn finds human connection, and herself.

Christie Tate had just been named the top student in her law school class and finally had her eating disorder under control. Why then was she driving through Chicago fantasizing about her own death? Why was she envisioning putting an end to the isolation and sadness that still plagued her in spite of her achievements?

Enter Dr. Rosen, a therapist who calmly assures her that if she joins one of his psychotherapy groups, he can transform her life. All she has to do is show up and be honest. About everything—her eating habits, childhood, sexual history, etc. Christie is skeptical, insisting that that she is defective, beyond cure. But Dr. Rosen issues a nine-word prescription that will change everything: “You don’t need a cure, you need a witness.”

So begins her entry into the strange, terrifying, and ultimately life-changing world of group therapy. Christie is initially put off by Dr. Rosen’s outlandish directives, but as her defenses break down and she comes to trust Dr. Rosen and to depend on the sessions and the prescribed nightly phone calls with various group members, she begins to understand what it means to connect.

Group is a deliciously addictive read, and with Christie as our guide—skeptical of her own capacity for connection and intimacy, but hopeful in spite of herself—we are given a front row seat to the daring, exhilarating, painful, and hilarious journey that is group therapy—an under-explored process that breaks you down, and then reassembles you so that all the pieces finally fit.

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Photo credit: Scribner Books

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