The best LGBTQ memoirs of trauma and transformation

Chana Wilson Author Of Riding Fury Home
By Chana Wilson

Who am I?

I am a storyteller, a radio producer, and a psychotherapist. My thirty years as a therapist enabled me to witness the healing that comes from exploring our stories and family history. My clients’ courage inspired me to write my own story. My mother-daughter story explores the interplay of the personal with social movements. In the 1950s, my family was devastated by homophobia and conversion therapy. I am profoundly grateful for the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1970s, which transformed our lives. Both my mother and I were able to recover from trauma and come to joy, connection, and activism.

I wrote...

Riding Fury Home

By Chana Wilson,

Book cover of Riding Fury Home

What is my book about?

When I was seven, my mother attempted suicide and was taken away to a mental hospital for electroshock treatments. Riding Fury Home tells the story of the intense, complicated bond between my mother and myself, from growing up in the 1950s as her caretaker, to discovering in adulthood that she had been a closeted lesbian given psychiatric treatment to “cure her,” to our shared exhilaration in the 1970s when we both come out as lesbians.

The memoir traces the profound ways in which our two lives were impacted by the social landscape of our time. Riding Fury Home is a shattering account of our family’s struggle against homophobia and mental illness, and a powerful story of healing, forgiveness, and redemption.

The books I picked & why

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

By Jeanette Winterson,

Book cover of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why this book?

I had loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson’s powerful, fictionalized version of her childhood as a queer child adopted into a Pentecostal family. For me, the intense potency of Winterson’s memoir grew as I read. She stoically copes in childhood with her adopted mother’s ongoing abuse and rejection, locking her for hours in the coal bin or out on the doorstep. At sixteen, Winterson is forced to leave home because of being in love with a woman. In adulthood, her childhood trauma catches up with her as she sinks into profound depression and a kind of madness. Her journey, both to find her birth mother and to heal into mental health, make this memoir unforgettable.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

By Alison Bechdel,

Book cover of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Why this book?

I was drawn to this graphic memoir because, like me, Bechel grew up with a closeted parent in a heterosexual marriage while being a queer child herself. Like my memoir, Fun Home is also a coming-out story. Her art beautifully details the complexities of family life with both humor and gravitas. Some of the humor involves dead bodies, as her family runs a funeral home. Yet Bechdel must also grapple with profound loss: just after she comes out to her father, he dies by suicide, walking in front of a truck. She wonders if she can infer that he was a tragic victim of homophobia, but tells herself that’s too simplified an answer. This memoir is rich, complex, and riveting.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography

By Audre Lorde,

Book cover of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography

Why this book?

This stunning memoir by the poet Audre Lorde chronicles her childhood in Harlem in the 1930s and 40s, the daughter of black West Indian immigrants, and her young adulthood. I was intrigued to learn about Lorde’s life as an out lesbian in the 1950s, curious to know what that life was like in the generation before mine. So little about the life of gay forbears has been available, creating an acute longing in me to know more. Zami’s narrative weaves through the women in Lorde’s life: her mother, sisters, high school friends, and many lovers, creating a web of who and what sustained as well as challenged her. Lorde invented a new form she dubbed “biomythography” that combines history, biography, and myth. That combination is gripping and poetic.

Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir

By Cherrie Moraga,

Book cover of Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir

Why this book?

Native Country of the Heart is, like my memoir, a mother-daughter story. Queer Chicana feminist Cherríe Moraga intertwines her own story with her mother Elvira from childhood onward. Her resilient mother had a rough life, starting with being hired out as a child by her dad to pick cotton in the California fields. I learned so much about Chicano culture and the Mexican diaspora that we never get in school. One stunning fact: when Dust Bowl survivors came to California, two million Mexicans were repatriated to Mexico to let the white immigrants work the same fields. Moraga beautifully layers her personal story with cultural insights and reflection. I was very moved by Moraga’s grief during the slow loss of Elvira to dementia and her death from Alzheimer's.

Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father

By Alysia Abbott,

Book cover of Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father

Why this book?

This story interested me because I was curious about what it was like to grow up with an out gay parent. When Alysia was two, her mom died, and her father moved with her to San Francisco. For better and worse, she was raised amidst San Francisco’s vibrant gay male scene of the 1970s and 80s. I related to her struggles as a child with the need to fit in. At the same time, her dad introduced her to the creative world of writers and artists, enriching her life. In the 80s, tragedy struck, as gay men in their community died of AIDS in epidemic numbers. After she left home, her father called her to come back when he was dying of AIDS. Her writing is honest and doesn’t simplify.

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