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10 Poignant Memoirs

Memoir is said to be a self-sacrificial form of literature, with the author baring themselves for the benefit of their readers who might feel less alone upon reading an articulation of a similar experience to theirs. With memoir, the author encourages people to break out of their silence and speak up about their pain.

This genre was once dominated by politicians and celebrities, but ever since the autobiographical boom of the nineties, the world has heard from just about anyone with a story to share. Here are ten examples of authors who have written poignantly about a certain time in their lives for others to learn and take courage from.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was written by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby in ten months using only his left eyelid, after a massive stroke left him in a conscious coma called locked-in syndrome. With the help of a transcriber and partner-assisted scanning, the former editor-in-chief of ELLE magazine wrote at the rate of one word per minute until he was able to convey his life before and after the stroke. Bauby told of spending time with his family at the beach, being given a bath, and meeting visitors at the hospital. Sadly, two days after this unique perspective on life with locked-in syndrome was published with immediate commercial success, Bauby succumbed to pneumonia.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

American neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was working on his final year of residency at Stanford University when he and his wife noticed his rapid decline in health. The thirty-five-year-old doctor was soon diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer. During treatment, he penned essays on illness and medicine for Stanford Medicine, The New York Times, and The Paris Review, joined interviews for public forums and media outlets, and began working on his memoir about going through a terminal illness. He lost the battle two years later, and his book was posthumously published ten months later.

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

At the tender age of 9, Irish-American poet Lucy Grealy is diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma and loses the right side of her jaw after a schoolyard injury. Grealy’s memoir deals with her family’s financial situation, Grealy’s issues with self-image, and her experience with chemotherapy. Grealy undergoes several reconstructive surgeries well into adulthood, but she eventually learns to make peace with her appearance.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Girl, Interrupted depicts American author Susanna Kaysen’s 18-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder after her suicide attempt at 18 years old, Kaysen describes her struggle with depersonalization as well as the struggles of her fellow patients and the influence of some staff members. Six years after its publication, the memoir was adapted into a film starring Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Not for the faint of heart, the memoir of African-American author Jesmyn Ward recounts the death by drug overdose, shooting, car accident, and suicide of five Black men in Ward’s life, interspersed by her personal history as a poor, smart, Black female in Mississippi. Ward’s depiction of her survivor’s guilt and resilience provides a compelling account of the psychological, political, and sociological conditions that plague America’s Black youth.

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt

Poverty, alcoholism, and death mark Irish-American author Frank McCourt’s otherwise lyrical and charming memoir. McCourt is the eldest son of Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan McCourt, who were married in a shotgun wedding. Malachy’s alcoholism aggravates the family’s struggle with poverty, and Frank’s siblings die one after the other. The family moves after each death, and Angela sinks deeper into depression. While Angela is treated as the long-suffering heroine, Malachy dominates as the antagonist of the memoir even after he has abandoned his family.

H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald

The memoir of British author and falconer Helen McDonald tells the story of her year spent training a hawk in the aftermath of the death of her father, who was a respected photojournalist taken away too soon by a heart attack. McDonald managed to weave several things together: her grief diary, meditation about the English countryside, a how-to on falconry based on her experiences with the northern goshawk, and a retelling of T.H. White’s own account of training the same species.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking is another classic book about mourning, winning the National Book Award for Nonfiction as well as becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Didion writes about her grief after her husband’s death, reliving and analyzing the fact, and focusing on different aspects of the experience after each replay, all the while caring for her invalid daughter.

The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr

Another finalist of the National Book Critics Circle Award, American poet Mary Karr’s memoir deals with Karr’s troubled childhood. The book employs a non-linear storyline as Karr depicts a family and town plagued by alcoholism and psychological problems. Karr is said to have inspired a resurgence of the genre following the publication of her memoir.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir has been banned from libraries due to the themes it addresses: emotional abuse, suicide, sexual orientation, and gender roles. Bechdel chronicles her dysfunctional family life as well as the youth she spent in rural Pennsylvania. The graphic memoir took almost a decade to complete since Bechdel employed an arduous artistic process wherein she photographed herself in different poses to use as reference for her illustration. The book became the subject of academic publications and was also turned into a Pulitzer-nominated musical adaptation.