Crafting an honest memoir is not easy, nor is it a simple task to find a truly vulnerable and insightful memoir to read. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of nine breathtaking memoirs that hold nothing back. These intimate portraits don’t shy away from even the most taboo subjects or toughest of truths, and they all manage to confront these challenging topics with elegant prose, page-turning urgency, and heart-tugging poignancy. Each of these books is not only a raw look into the life of one person but also a reflection on the larger themes and questions that remain, often unspoken and unacknowledged.
9 Breathtaking Memoirs That Don’t Hold Back
Former child star of iCarly and Sam & Cat Jeannette McCurdy offers an unflinchingly honest look into her relationship with her controlling mother. Jennette’s mother’s greatest desire was to see her daughter be an actress, which is why she started sending her on auditions at age six, put her on “calorie restriction” diets, and required limitless access to her diaries, emails, and texts. When her mother dies of cancer after she takes on her role in Sam & Cat, Jeanette embarks on a journey to shed the layers of manipulation and uncover who her mother truly was and discover what it really is she herself wants.
A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by iCarly and Sam & Cat star Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life.
Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income.
In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarly spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants.
Told with refreshing candor and dark humor, I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair.
In EASY BEAUTY, Pulitzer Prize finalist philosophy professor Chloe Cooper Jones explores taboo questions of disability and motherhood. All her life, Jones has depended on “the neutral room of her mind” as a space of solace from the judgmental and painful world of her rare congenital condition, sacral agenesis. But after Jones unexpectedly becomes a mother, she begins to look beyond the confines of her academic success to reclaim a life that others—and perhaps even she herself—have denied her for years.
“Soul-stretching, breathtaking…A game-changing gift to readers.” —Booklist (starred review)
From Chloé Cooper Jones—Pulitzer Prize finalist, philosophy professor, Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant recipient—a groundbreaking memoir about disability, motherhood, and a journey to far-flung places in search of a new way of seeing and being seen.
“I am in a bar in Brooklyn, listening to two men, my friends, discuss whether my life is worth living.”
So begins Chloé Cooper Jones’s bold, revealing account of moving through the world in a body that looks different than most. Jones learned early on to factor “pain calculations” into every plan, every situation. Born with a rare congenital condition called sacral agenesis which affects both her stature and gait, her pain is physical. But there is also the pain of being judged and pitied for her appearance, of being dismissed as “less than.” The way she has been seen—or not seen—has informed her lens on the world her entire life. She resisted this reality by excelling academically and retreating to “the neutral room in her mind” until it passed. But after unexpectedly becoming a mother (in violation of unspoken social taboos about the disabled body), something in her shifts, and Jones sets off on a journey across the globe, reclaiming the spaces she’d been denied, and denied herself.
From the bars and domestic spaces of her life in Brooklyn to sculpture gardens in Rome; from film festivals in Utah to a Beyoncé concert in Milan; from a tennis tournament in California to the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, Jones weaves memory, observation, experience, and aesthetic philosophy to probe the myths underlying our standards of beauty and desirability, and interrogates her own complicity in upholding those myths.
With its emotional depth, its prodigious, spiky intelligence, its passion and humor, Easy Beauty is the rare memoir that has the power to make you see the world, and your place in it, with new eyes.
Constance Wu spent her entire childhood in the quiet suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, knowing that she was too loud, too emotional. Local theater became her outlet, the one place where being loud and emotional was encouraged, not suppressed. MAKING A SCENE follows, through a series of intimate essays, Wu’s journey from her childhood to a decade of auditioning and waiting tables to her big breaks in Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians. This behind-the-scenes memoir is a powerful depiction of the inspiring highs and gut-wrenching lows of making it in Hollywood as an Asian American.
From actor Constance Wu, a powerful and poignant memoir-in-essays.
Growing up in the friendly suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, Constance Wu was often scolded for having big feelings or strong reactions. “Good girls don’t make scenes,” people warned her. And while she spent most of her childhood suppressing her bold, emotional nature, she found an early outlet in local community theater—it was the one place where big feelings were okay—were good, even. Acting became her refuge, her touchstone, and eventually her vocation. At eighteen she moved to New York, where she’d spend the next ten years of her life auditioning, waiting tables, and struggling to make rent before her two big breaks: the TV sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and the hit film Crazy Rich Asians.
Through raw and relatable essays, Constance shares private memories of childhood, young love and heartbreak, sexual assault and harassment, and how she “made it” in Hollywood. Her stories offer a behind-the-scenes look at being Asian American in the entertainment industry and the continuing evolution of her identity and influence in the public eye. Making a Scene is an intimate portrait of pressures and pleasures of existing in today’s world.
Months into the pandemic, MSNBC anchor Katy Tur received a box from her mother filled with the journalistic video recordings that made her parents famous: from the 1992 beating of Reginald Denny in the LA riots to O. J. Simpson’s run from police in the white Bronco. Opening up about her own trajectory from local journalist to global correspondent as well as her complicated relationship with her parents, Tur explores the world of journalism from both intimate and expansive perspectives. ROUGH DRAFT offers a meditation on what we inherit and what we write for ourselves.
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“It’s a hell of a story.” —The New York Times
“A stunning and revelatory memoir.” —Oprah Daily
From MSNBC anchor and New York Times bestselling author Katy Tur, a shocking and deeply personal memoir about a life spent chasing the news.
“By the time I was two years old, I knew to yell ‘Story! Story!’ at the squawks of my parents’ police scanner. By four, I could hold a microphone and babble my way through a kiddie news report. By the time I was in high school, though, my parents had lost it all. Their marriage. Their careers. Their reputations.”
When a box from her mother showed up on Katy Tur’s doorstep, months into the pandemic and just as she learned she was pregnant with her second child, she didn’t know what to expect. The box contained thousands of hours of video—the work of her pioneering helicopter journalist parents. They grew rich and famous for their aerial coverage of Madonna and Sean Penn’s secret wedding, the Reginald Denny beating in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and O.J. Simpson’s notorious run in the white Bronco. To Tur, these family videos were an inheritance of sorts, and a reminder of who she was before her own breakout success as a reporter.
In Rough Draft, Tur writes about her eccentric and volatile California childhood, punctuated by forest fires, earthquakes, and police chases—all seen from a thousand feet in the air. She recounts her complicated relationship with a father who was magnetic, ambitious, and, at times, frightening. And she charts her own survival from local reporter to globe-trotting foreign correspondent, running from her past. Tur also opens up for the first time about her struggles with burnout and impostor syndrome, her stumbles in the anchor chair, and her relationship with CBS Mornings anchor Tony Dokoupil (who quite possibly had a crazier childhood than she did).
Intimate and captivating, Rough Draft explores the gift and curse of family legacy, examines the roles and responsibilities of the news, and asks the question: To what extent do we each get to write our own story?
HEAVY is a provocative and vulnerable look at one man as he recounts his childhood with his challenging and dazzling mother in Jackson, Mississippi, and traces the complex trajectory that unfolded afterward. Covering everything from his experiences with sexual violence to college suspension, moving to New York to eating disorders and addictions, acclaimed essayist Kiese Laymon’s memoir spans years as he attempts to confront his complicated relationship with his family, his identity, and his nation. Laymon uses personal narrative to cast a critical eye on a country determined to move forward without coping with the unresolved challenges of its past.
Vince Granata grew up in a seemingly ideal family in suburban Connecticut, the older brother of three siblings: Christopher, Timothy, and Elizabeth. But his memories of his childhood are thrown into disarray when, as an adult, he receives the news that his brother Tim—who has been struggling with schizophrenia—has killed their mother. EVERYTHING IS FINE is Granata’s moving and candid attempt to reconstruct his life and the complex but immutable love he has for his siblings.
Grief, mental illness, and the bonds of family are movingly explored in this extraordinary memoir “suffused with emotional depth and intellectual inquiry” (Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises) as 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 red 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—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 candid, smoothly unspooling prose, Granata reconstructs life and memory from grief, writing a moving testament to the therapy of art, the power of record, and his immutable love for his family” (Booklist).
In this memoir about the transformative powers of resilience, one Métis-Cree man survives trauma and addiction to rediscover himself. Jesse Thistle found himself in foster care and then in the home of his tough-love paternal grandparents after his own parents abandoned him. There, the shadow of his addict father was never far away, and soon Jesse succumbed to addiction himself, living on and off the streets for nearly a decade. Eventually finding his way back to his Indigenous culture and family, he reflects in this memoir on the power of prejudice and the possibility of hope.
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).
In BOMB SHELTER, the bestselling author of I MISS YOU WHEN I BLINK reflects on motherhood, the unexpected, and the limits of control. Mary Louise Philpott has always seen herself to be, in equal measures, an optimist and a worrier. But when she wakes up one morning to find her teenaged son unconscious on the floor, her anxiety overcomes her bright side as she tries her hardest to do the impossible and avoid anything unexpected. With her distinctive voice that is both humorous and poignant, Philpott’s memoir will leave readers both laughing and crying.
From the bestselling author of I Miss You When I Blink and “writer of singular spark and delight” (Elizabeth Gilbert, #1 New York Times bestselling author) comes a poignant and powerful new memoir-in-essays that tackles the big questions of life, death, and existential fear with humor and hope.
A lifelong worrier, Philpott always kept an eye out for danger, a habit that only intensified when she became a parent. But she looked on the bright side, too, believing that as long as she cared enough, she could keep her loved ones safe.
Then, in the dark of one quiet, pre-dawn morning, she woke abruptly to a terrible sound—and found her teenage son unconscious on the floor. In the aftermath of a crisis that darkened her signature sunny spirit, she wondered: If this happened, what else could happen? And how do any of us keep going when we can’t know for sure what’s coming next?
Leave it to the writer whose critically acclaimed debut had us “laughing and crying on the same page” (NPR) to illuminate what it means to move through life with a soul made of equal parts anxiety and optimism (and while she’s at it, to ponder the mysteries of backyard turtles and the challenges of spatchcocking a turkey).
Hailed by The Washington Post as “Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr, and Laurie Colwin all rolled into one,” Philpott returns in her distinctive voice to explore our protective instincts, the ways we continue to grow up long after we’re grown, and the limits—both tragic and hilarious—of the human body and mind.
A debut memoir about what it means to make a real connection, GROUP traces Christie Tate’s transformative journey in her psychotherapy group. Despite graduating at the top of her law school class and thinking she finally has her eating disorder under control, Christie still finds herself having suicidal ideation. But Dr. Rosen assures her that if she joins one of his psychotherapy groups and truly opens up, she can change her life. In this refreshing and readable book, Christie overcomes her skepticism and experiences real intimacy in a way she never thought possible.
A REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK * NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The refreshingly original and “startlingly hopeful” (Lisa Taddeo) debut memoir of an over-achieving young lawyer who reluctantly agrees to group therapy and gets psychologically and emotionally naked in a room of six complete strangers—and 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 despite 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.
“Often hilarious, and ultimately very touching” (People), Group is “a wild ride” (The Boston Globe), and with Christie as our guide, 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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