The best memoirs that tell painful stories with eloquence and insight

Who am I?

I am a therapist, and I work with people from all walks of life and with all manner of suffering. I am drawn to memoirs because I consider it the real self-help genre of literature. Like good therapy, a good memoir will make sense of a story: how it happened, why it happened, how it affected the person, and what they did (do) to face it, and thrive in spite of it. As a writer, I take pride in bringing that same quality to my work. I have been asked many times, “How can you bear to reveal all that stuff about yourself, especially when it’s unflattering?” The answer is always “Isn’t that the part that matters? Isn’t that the part where the growth occurred? Isn’t that what makes the story worth telling?”

I wrote...

Trailing: A Memoir

By Kristin Louise Duncombe,

Book cover of Trailing: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Something unexpected occurs when Kristin Louise Duncombe moves to New Orleans to begin her adult life as a psychotherapist: She falls madly in love with a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor, abandons all of her plans, and follows him on a medical mission to East Africa. Just when she has managed to establish a life for herself in Nairobi, a violent carjacking catapults her into a state of acute post-traumatic stress, and her life thereafter devolves into a world of intense anxiety that permeates every aspect of her existence. Forced to examine questions about her relationship, career, and personal identity, she struggles to save her marriage while facing the most difficult fight of her life: saving herself.

Probing deeply into her tumultuous search for identity, she captures the essence of the experience with extraordinary authenticity and honesty. 

The books I picked & why

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Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs)

By Wendy Plump,

Book cover of Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs)

Why this book?

Wendy Plump’s VOW is the only memoir I have ever read that reveals what it is like to be the “cheating” partner (there are many books that address being cheated on). This is NOT a book touting infidelity or polyamory. It is simply an extremely honest accounting of a marriage riddled by affairs (both partners), how the author coped with the fallout, and grew into a more mature and insight-driven version of herself. This very topic activates so much judgment by so many people (just read some of the seething, scathing reviews on Amazon), but the truth is, human beings DO cheat, they DO commit infidelity, and Wendy Plump, who is a terrific, elegant writer and storyteller, has addressed this topic with great candor. It takes an extremely brave person to tell this type of story; hence, this book is brave and beautiful.

Half a Life

By Darin Strauss,

Book cover of Half a Life

Why this book?

At sixteen years old, Darin Strauss had just received his first driver’s license and was on his first unsupervised drive, when a classmate, on a bicycle, swerved in front of his car.  She was killed instantly.  There was never a question of actual culpability: bystanders described the girl on the bike as literally driving in front of his vehicle, as though intentionally (a theory corroborated by suicidal thoughts recorded in her last diary entry the night before the accident). But this did not alleviate the trauma of killing someone, and the anguish and guilt that Darin Strauss carried forward for many, many years into his adult life, and probably always will. “Half a Life” refers to how he lived thereafter; halfway in his own existence, and the other half in constant preoccupation with the girl whose life was no more. This book will fill you with such empathy and compassion for the author, and a horrified fascination with the story, for who among us has not been afraid of being implicated in something that was not really our fault?

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

By Elizabeth McCracken,

Book cover of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Why this book?

This is a book about grief, and wrenching loss, of the nature that most people (fortunately) won’t face: having a stillborn baby. Elizabeth McCracken was nine months pregnant with her first child when the baby, a little boy, suddenly died, in utero. This is a book about facing unthinkable loss, and the unique impact of this sort of loss on community, who has been waiting with joyful anticipation for the new arrival. McCracken writes about her loss with such poignancy; it is one of those books that leaves you feeling amazed at the resilience of the human spirit.


By Mary Karr,

Book cover of Lit

Why this book?

LIT is Mary Karr’s third memoir, and my favorite (which says a lot because I could not put down The Liar’s Club or Cherry). It is a book about something fairly common – alcoholism – but it is a true, no holds barred, let-me-tell-you-just-how-much-of-a-wreck-I-was account of the way drinking skewed her thinking, affected her relationships and her work, and how she finally turned to prayer to work her way out. This is NOT a book about Jesus-is-your-savior, nor is it preachy about “to booze or not to booze.” It is a book about how, if you are willing to tell the truth about yourself, to be brave enough, and self-aware enough to not hold back, you will find your way out of the s**t.

Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

By Kerry Cohen,

Book cover of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

Why this book?

Kerry Cohen has written an unflinchingly honest memoir about how her craving for love as an adolescent and young adult led her into one situation after another where she used her body as currency, believing it the way to secure a relationship. Of course, this distorted thinking created other problems – abuse, relationships with inappropriate people - that she then needed to find her way out of. She does, eventually, and shows us the great power that comes from learning to love yourself. Cohen’s storytelling is vivid, and of great value to anyone (which means most everyone) who has ever grappled with low self-esteem, and taken a dead-end path to feeling better. 

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