The best nonfiction books about people who have triumphed over extreme adversity

Who am I?

When I was young, my mother became addicted to Valium. Following years of the inevitable traumas associated with living with addiction, my mother committed suicide six weeks before my wedding. I am an accidental writer, having chosen the law as my primary profession. On its face, my first book, Inflection Point: War and Sacrifice in Corporate America is a behind-the-scenes exploration of high-profile litigation in Big Pharma. However, it is really the story of my personal struggle to come to terms with my own feelings of loss and abandonment as a result of my mother’s passing. In writing this book, I not only healed, but found a second professional passion.


I wrote...

Unblinded: One Man's Courageous Journey Through Darkness to Sight

By Traci Medford-Rosow, Kevin Coughlin,

Book cover of Unblinded: One Man's Courageous Journey Through Darkness to Sight

What is my book about?

Unblinded is the true story of New Yorker Kevin Coughlin, who became blind at age thirty-six due to a rare genetic disorder known as Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. Twenty years later, without medical intervention, Kevin's sight miraculously started to return. He is the only known person in the world who has experienced a spontaneous, non-medically assisted, regeneration of the optic nerve. Unblinded follows Kevin's descent into darkness, and his unexplained reemergence to sight.

The books I picked & why

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Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover,

Book cover of Educated: A Memoir

Why this book?

Westover’s memoir is a triumph over adversity story. I was drawn to it because Westover’s drive to become educated despite her family’s poverty reminded me of Kevin Coughlin, co-author of my book, and his quest to regain his eyesight after suddenly going blind at age thirty-six due to a rare genetic disease. I have found that by reading and writing about people who have “beaten the odds” it helps me to feel grateful that I, too, am one of these people. The odds that Westover would become educated were very slim, but her determination and perseverance produced the miracle, which is beautifully described in her story. 


The Choice: Embrace the Possible

By Edith Eva Eger,

Book cover of The Choice: Embrace the Possible

Why this book?

The details were different, but the outcome was the same. Dr. Eger is a Jewish Holocaust survivor; I am a woman raised in a Christian family in Virginia. She danced for Josef Mengele on the night he sent her mother to the gas chamber; I spent my youth tiptoeing around a mother whose nerves were shot before her thirtieth birthday. Dr. Eger’s mother was murdered; my mother, despite her intelligence, beauty, and talents, chose to end her life before her fiftieth birthday. Despite the differences in our stories, Dr. Eger and I have one very important thing in common. Despite the fact that we were both victimized, we did not want to remain in a victim consciousness, and we chose not to do so. 

The Choice chronicles a sadly familiar story. She and her family were among the hundreds of thousands of European Jews imprisoned, tortured, raped, and killed in concentration camps. In Dr. Eger’s case, it was Auschwitz. Her family perished; she survived. Dr. Eger’s courage and willingness to share her truth reduced the bite of mine. Her triumph made my triumph possible. If she could reach a place of thriveness, then so could I. Like Dr. Eger, I too believe that after all the blame and punishments have been meted out, for others as well as for ourselves, the only viable choice we have left is forgiveness. 


Man’s Search for Meaning

By Viktor Frankl,

Book cover of Man’s Search for Meaning

Why this book?

I chose Viktor Frankl”s extraordinary book, Man’s Search for Meaning, because, like Dr. Eger’s book, it reveals the indomitable nature of the human heart. The first part of this book is a condensed memoir on the years he spent in a concentration camp during WW2. The second part unpacks, thread by thread, what he learned from this experience, what made the Nazis do what they did, and why some victims can choose life while others perish. Like Dr. Eger’s book, his thesis is the same—ultimately, we have the choice. I also chose this book because my father was one of the soldiers that liberated the survivors of Dachau. After the war, he remained friends with many of the people he helped to liberate and watched them rebuild their lives. This led him to believe that education was the single most important gift you could give someone. He always said, “At the end of the day, they can take everything away from you except what is in your brain.”


Unbroken

By Laura Hillenbrand,

Book cover of Unbroken

Why this book?

I choose Unbroken because it is the best example I have read of a triumph over adversity story in terms of overcoming physical and emotional suffering. American soldier, Louis Zamperini, was captured by enemy soldiers when his plane went down in the Pacific Ocean. Overcoming the shark-infested waters by surviving on a raft, only to be eventually captured, Zamperini's chances for survival were slim. Surviving on his ingenuity, will, and refusal to lose hope, Zamperini’s triumph over adversity is a mesmerizing tale of persistence despite all odds.


Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can't See Clearly

By Isaac Lidsky,

Book cover of Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can't See Clearly

Why this book?

Lidsky suddenly became blind as an adult and had to rebuild his life from the ground up. Overcoming the physical, as well as the emotional, obstacles to suddenly losing his eyesight, Lidsky charts his journey from the top to the bottom and back to the top again. Since reading Lidsky’s story and co-authoring Coughlin’s book, I have found gratitude in small things, despite my own personal struggles. More than once, I have said to myself, “If they can keep going in the face of sudden blindness, so can I.”


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