The best memoirs by people who walked away from life-defining ideologies

Who am I?

I became involved in a rigid religious movement as a teen and prepared for the ministry at a fundamentalist college and seminary. I took this ideology to its logical extreme and became a foreign missionary. I know from the inside how such an ideology takes hold of a person and how difficult it is to escape its grasp, especially when family and career are intertwined. Through my own struggle with depression and anxiety, I scoured books to help understand myself and faith development, eventually earning a Ph.D in counseling, emphasizing developmental theory. I know from personal experience what it means to walk away from a way of thinking that has defined much of your life.


I wrote...

The Long Surrender: A Memoir about Losing My Religion

By Brian Rush McDonald,

Book cover of The Long Surrender: A Memoir about Losing My Religion

What is my book about?

The author becomes a Jesus freak during during high school in the seventies and unwittingly slides into fundamentalist Christianity. Terrified by the teaching of hell, he decides to become a fundamentalist preacher, eventually going with his family to Taiwan as missionaries for seven years. He loves Taiwan but questions about his faith plague him, he struggles with depression and anxiety. Later he is a pastor in the U.S. for many more years, misgivings about his faith ever-present--searching for a way out. Finally, after 30 years, he walks away from the pulpit to begin a different life.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir

Brian Rush McDonald Why did I love this book?

Shulem Deen grew up in the culture of Hassidic Judaism in New York City. With limited education and awkward English, he decides to explore the world beyond the insular community in which he has lived his entire life. Despite warnings from his wife and recriminations from his community, he eventually decides to leave and seek a new life for which his previous existence has left him completely unprepared. I’m intrigued that a person has the courage to push the boundaries of his existence even though no one in his family or community supports him.

By Shulem Deen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All Who Go Do Not Return as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shulem Deen was raised to believe that questions are dangerous. As a member of the Skveres, one of the most insular Hasidic sects in the US the US, he knows little of the outside world. After turning on the radio, his curiosity leads him to a feverish inquiry into the tenets of his religious beliefs and his faith unravels. In All Who Go Do Not Return, Deen bravely traces his harrowing loss of faith.


Book cover of An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir

Brian Rush McDonald Why did I love this book?

The author had been to college for one year when she decides to commit herself to become a nun and joins the Missionaries Charity, led by the famous Mother Theresa of Calcutta. For more than twenty years she serves faithfully in the sacrificial community of nuns, her emotions constantly swinging between devotion and desire for something different—longing to continue the learning she started in college and also dreaming of connectedness through romance. Even though she rises to positions of authority in the organization, she decides to leave the order for a different life. This story intrigues me cause of Johnson’s genuine devotion to the cause and to its leader, but also her honesty about her human longings.

By Mary Johnson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An unforgettable spiritual autobiography about a search for meaning that begins alongside one of the great religious icons of our time and ends with a return to the secular world
 
At seventeen, Mary Johnson saw Mother Teresa’s face on the cover of Time and experienced her calling. Eighteen months later, she entered a convent in the South Bronx to begin her religious training. Not without difficulty, this bright, independent-minded Texas teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, and in time became close to Mother Teresa herself.

Still, beneath the white and blue sari beat the…


Book cover of Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

Brian Rush McDonald Why did I love this book?

The author grows up in the Jehovah’s Witness faith and, along with her husband goes to China as a ‘preacher.’ She is increasingly unhappy with her religion and marriage. While working at a podcast to support herself, she corresponds with an American who challenges her religious beliefs. Deciding to leave the church, she tells her husband she wants a divorce and returns to the US to begin reconstructing her life. To make such a life-altering change while living in a foreign country without any support, even from her husband shows incredible courage. I am amazed at how the desire to leave an oppressive ideology can embolden a person to make nearly unthinkable choices.

By Amber Scorah,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"À la Tara Westover's Educated, Scorah's pensive, ultimately liberating memoir chronicles her formative years as a Jehovah's Witness...and captures the bewilderment of belief and the bliss of self-discovery."--O, The Oprah Magazine, Named one of "The Best Books by Women of Summer 2019"

"Scorah's book, the bravery of which cannot be overstated, is an earnest one, fueled by a plucky humor and a can-do spirit that endears. Her tale, though an exploration of extremity, is highly readable and warm."--The New York Times Book Review

A riveting memoir of losing faith and finding freedom while a covert missionary in one of the…


Book cover of Freckled

Brian Rush McDonald Why did I love this book?

T.W. Neal grows up with parents who opt to live on a sparsely populated Hawaiian island, not wearing clothes, surfing, smoking Marijuana, and eating magic mushrooms. The family lives in a van or in housing with few modern amenities and the author attends school on the island only sporadically. Due to her mother’s mental illness and her father’s alcohol abuse, she at times, has to run the household. With difficulty she connects with relatives and a few teachers and begins to reach for a lifeline to break free from the life her parents chose. She wants to go to college and eventually is able to leave the island and pursue a mainstream life. It is astounding that a person growing up in such circumstances would have the desire and determination to forge a different life.

By TW Neal,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For fans of The Glass Castle and Educated, comes mystery author Toby Neal’s personal story of surviving a wild childhood in paradise. We never call it homeless. We're just "camping" in the jungle on Kauai...

We live in a place everyone calls paradise. Sure, Kauai’s beautiful, with empty beaches, drip-castle mountains, and perfect surf...but we’ve been "camping" for six months, eating boiled chicken feed for breakfast, and wearing camouflage clothes so no one sees us trespassing in our jungle hideout. The cockroaches leave rainbow colors all over everything from eating the crayons we left outside the tent, and now a…


Book cover of The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir

Brian Rush McDonald Why did I love this book?

This is an amazing memoir of a woman who was raised by a fundamentalist Morman family who lived in a polygamist compound in Mexico. She was her father’s thirty-ninth child and the daughter of a union between him and her mother, who was his fifth wife. Her father died when she was only 3 months old, and she spent most of her childhood with her mother, four siblings, and an abusive stepfather. The community was a confusing combination of rigid religious beliefs, sister wives, and poverty. At age 15 she takes three of her siblings and escapes to California to build a new life. I am amazed that a child could have the understanding, foresight, and courage to do what she did. The book is very well written and thoroughly captivating. 

By Ruth Wariner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sound of Gravel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Sound of Gravel is Ruth Wariner's unforgettable and deeply moving story of growing up in a polygamist Mormon doomsday community. The thirty-ninth of her father's forty-one children, Ruth is raised on a farm in the hills of Mexico, where polygamy is practiced without fear of legal persecution. There, Ruth's family lives in a home without indoor plumbing or electricity and attends a church where preachers teach that God will punish the wicked by destroying the world. In need of government assistance and supplemental income, Ruth and her siblings are carted back and forth between Mexico and the United States,…


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A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

By Nita Sweeney,

Book cover of A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

Nita Sweeney Author Of How to Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a thirty-year meditator, certified meditation leader, and award-winning author, it’s my job to keep up on the latest books about mindfulness and Zen practice. Despite seeing new volumes being published regularly, I return to these books as great sources of solid practice information. Each of these authors explains meditation in accessible terms, easy for readers to follow and understand. I can’t remember who said that a confused reader is an antagonistic reader, but they are right. The books I’ve suggested offer clarity. They help readers begin or continue their practice and understand how and why meditation is worth their time.

Nita's book list on why meditation is worth your time and effort

What is my book about?

Reduce stress, ease anxiety, and increase inner peace—one day at a time—with a year of easy-to-follow mindfulness meditation techniques. Certified mindfulness teacher, bestselling author, ultramarathoner, wife, and dog-mom Nita Sweeney shares mindfulness meditation practices to help anyone break free from worry and self-judgment.

Mindfulness meditation trains you to live in the present moment—the now. Feel calmer. Think more clearly. Respond more effectively and enjoy a more fulfilling life. Even in tiny doses, mindfulness is scientifically proven to enhance physical and mental health, boost creativity, and improve cognition function.

A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

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