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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Kristin Louise Duncombe Why did I love 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.

By Wendy Plump,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There are so many ways to find out. From a cell phone. From a bank statement. From some weird supermarket encounter. One morning in early January 2005, Wendy Plump's friend came to tell her that her husband was having an affair. It was not a shock. Actually, it explained a lot. But what Wendy was not prepared for was the revelation that her husband also had another child, living within a mile of their family home.

Monogamy is one of the most important of the many vows we make in our marriages. Yet it is a rare spouse who does…

Book cover of Half a Life

Kristin Louise Duncombe Why did I love 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?

By Darin Strauss,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Half a Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this powerful, unforgettable memoir, acclaimed novelist Darin Strauss examines the far-reaching consequences of the tragic moment that has shadowed his whole life. In his last month of high school, he was behind the wheel of his dad's Oldsmobile, driving with friends, heading off to play mini-golf. Then: a classmate swerved in front of his car. The collision resulted in her death. With piercing insight and stark prose, Darin Strauss leads us on a deeply personal, immediate, and emotional journey—graduating high school, going away to college, starting his writing career, falling in love with his future wife, becoming a father.…

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

Kristin Louise Duncombe Why did I love 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 Elizabeth McCracken,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending," writes Elizabeth McCracken in her powerful, inspiring memoir. A prize-winning, successful novelist in her 30s, McCracken was happy to be an itinerant writer and self-proclaimed spinster. But suddenly she fell in love, got married, and two years ago was living in a remote part of France, working on her novel, and waiting for the birth of her first child.

This book is about what happened next. In her ninth month of pregnancy, she learned that her baby boy had died. How do you deal with and recover from…

Book cover of Lit

Kristin Louise Duncombe Why did I love 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.

By Mary Karr,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Lit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The long awaited sequel to the beloved and bestselling 'The Liars' Club' and 'Cherry' - a memoir about a self-professed 'blackbelt sinner's' descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness, and her astonishing resurrection.

'If you'd told me, even a year before I start taking my son to church regular that I'd wind up whispering my sins in the confessional or on my knees saying the rosary, I would've laughed myself cockeyed. More likely pastime? Pole dancer. International spy. Drug mule. Assassin.'

Mary Karr's prizewinning 'The Liars' Club' chronicled her hardscrabble Texas childhood and sparked a renaissance in memoir, cresting…

Book cover of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

Kristin Louise Duncombe Why did I love 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. 

By Kerry Cohen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Loose Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For everyone who was that girl.

Loose Girl is Kerry Cohen's captivating memoir about her descent into promiscuity and how she gradually found her way toward real intimacy. The story of addiction-not just to sex, but to male attention-Loose Girl is also the story of a young woman who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning.

For everyone who knew that girl.

In rich and immediate detail, Loose Girl re-creates what it feels like to be in that desperate moment, when a you try to control someone by handing over your body, when the touch…

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The Finest Lies

By David J. Naiman,

Book cover of The Finest Lies

David J. Naiman Author Of The Finest Lies

New book alert!

Who am I?

Anyone with siblings knows the deal. Your sibling becomes your first best friend and closest confidant but also your first competitor and fiercest critic. Navigating that relationship as a teen is fraught with peril. If done poorly, it can leave deep scars. If successful, it can teach you the foundations of how to build healthy relationships for the rest of your life. This theme has everything a writer needs to craft an emotional narrative, and these books do it best.

David's book list on sibling rivalry that will inspire you to reconnect

What is my book about?

A mysterious stranger traps teen siblings in a precarious game where each must overcome their embittered past for the other to survive.

This suspenseful, yet winsome novel explores the power of family and forgiveness. But take heed. The truth can cut like shards of glass, especially for those who’d rather avoid it. Sometimes, only the finest lies will do.

The Finest Lies

By David J. Naiman,

What is this book about?

High schooler Nicole Hallett has just about had it with her brother Jay, so when a mysterious man appears with an offer to replace him with a better one, she doesn’t hesitate. Nicole has always been impulsive, but this time, she finds herself in predicament far worse than anything she’s experienced. Just like that, an average snow day—usually filled with hot cocoa and snowball fights—is commandeered by the stranger, who forces the siblings into a dangerous game.

Confronted by past reflections, tested by present complications, and threatened by future possibilities, Nicole has until the end of the day to disentangle…

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