The best books for daughters with toxic or complicated mothers

Rica Keenum Author Of Petals of Rain: A Mother's Memoir
By Rica Keenum

Who am I?

Growing up, my mother refused to acknowledge that my stepfather sexually abused me for many years. I was forced to call him “Dad” and I was told to “forgive and forget.” It took me decades to understand that while I could teach my mind to deny my pain and grief, trauma stayed embedded within my heart and shaped my life, relationships, internal beliefs, and decisions. After a triggering event, it ultimately morphed into depression, which I’m now battling in my forties. Having written two memoirs on the impact of trauma, I am only now finding the wisdom and courage to distance myself from my mother and stepfather. The books I’ve recommended have brought me comfort and a sense of relief. 

I wrote...

Petals of Rain: A Mother's Memoir

By Rica Keenum,

Book cover of Petals of Rain: A Mother's Memoir

What is my book about?

Taking a girl's voice is the same as taking her power. Petals of Rain is a memoir about love and loss, secrets and lies. The story follows a mother navigating motherhood and womanhood – an abuse survivor emerging and learning to speak, to scream, to sing to her own wounded heart, and to finally understand what it takes to be whole after breaking to pieces. 

The books I picked & why

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What We Carry: A Memoir

By Maya Shanbhag Lang,

Book cover of What We Carry: A Memoir

Why this book?

While I found this memoir to be beautiful in language and story, I connected most with the author’s stark revelations. She writes from the perspective of a daughter, then a new mother, and finally a caregiver for both her child and her ailing mother. As she navigates life in these varied roles, she begins to see the truth about her mother with compelling clarity. In the end, I felt a deep sense of understanding and was able to remind myself that while I have been naive in my own relationships, it was love that compelled me to cling to my mother, even at the cost of my own wellbeing. 

What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

By Michele Filgate (editor),

Book cover of What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

Why this book?

This vulnerable collection of essays drew me in with the words, “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them.” As I continued to read, I had the eerie feeling that the author had read my diary (although I don’t actually have a diary), had met my mother, and had lived my life in so many ways. And while this book contains stories from many authors, the single thread of longing for mothers who’ve loved and hurt us ties them together seamlessly. They are beautifully expressed, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes humorous, but ultimately worthy of savoring. 

White Oleander

By Janet Fitch,

Book cover of White Oleander

Why this book?

It’s been many years since I first read this book, and I am still haunted by the voice of its protagonist. Unlike the other mother-daughter books on this list, White Oleander is fiction, although readers who have clung to toxic mothers or endured hardship, abuse, loneliness, and abandonment, will see the truth on every page. The story and its characters are unforgettable.

The Part That Burns

By Jeannine Ouellette,

Book cover of The Part That Burns

Why this book?

Once again, I felt I’d found an author who read my diary. In this odyssey through memory, Jeannine Oullette recalls the painful past and the many ways in which trauma shaped her life. As I savored each vignette, I found myself also reading with urgency, eager to find the deeper meaning. It is thought-provoking and emotionally layered. Not a linear story, The Part That Burns deftly describes Ouellette’s life as a victim of sexual abuse and neglect, but never leaves the reader with a heaviness too great to bear. For me, this book was not so much a story as a flower to be plucked petal by petal.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

By Natasha Trethewey,

Book cover of Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

Why this book?

This exquisite memoir contains a chilling account of Tretheway’s mother’s murder at the hands of Tretheway’s abusive stepfather. Delving into the past, she unearths her mother’s history and recaptures the days leading up to her death, even providing police reports of the conversations prior to the murder. And while her mother’s poor choices had a tragic ripple effect on Tretheway’s life, as I fully understand from my own mother-daughter experiences, her compassion never wavers and the result is an illuminating work of art and an example of the heart’s resilience. 

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