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.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir

By Shulem Deen,

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

Why 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.

All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir

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.

An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir

By Mary Johnson,

Book cover of An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir

Why 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.

An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir

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.


Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

By Amber Scorah,

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

Why 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.

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

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.


Freckled: A Memoir of Growing up Wild in Hawaii

By T.W. Neal,

Book cover of Freckled: A Memoir of Growing up Wild in Hawaii

Why 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.

Freckled: A Memoir of Growing up Wild in Hawaii

By T.W. Neal,

Why should I read it?

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


The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir

By Ruth Wariner,

Book cover of The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir

Why 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. 

The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir

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,…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in authors, polygamy, and Utah?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about authors, polygamy, and Utah.

Authors Explore 70 books about authors
Polygamy Explore 12 books about polygamy
Utah Explore 14 books about Utah

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Educated, Rust Belt Boy, and The Scent of Rain if you like this list.