What’s In My Therapy Library: Memoir Edition
Memoir is such a cool genre because each one brings so much depth to our understanding of the human experience. Of course, we can only know what we have been through ourselves, and that’s a very limited point of view. Memoir, while it cannot let us know firsthand, give us an idea of what life is like for someone else. And that, especially in the mental health field, is a supremely powerful thing.
Below you’ll find some memoirs that have added plenty of depth to my human experience. Even as a therapist, I can’t know firsthand just from my textbooks and classes what it’s like to have every mental illness. Kay Jamison has helped me understand bipolar disorder (or manic-depressive illness, as she prefers). Sick Boy, written by someone I know personally, has not only helped me understand what it’s like to have cancer as a child, but also given me a reminder that people are not always what they seem. Until I knew Mr. Waller had written a book, I didn’t know he’d had cancer growing up.
I hope these memoirs help you feel as connected to the world as they do for me! Please leave your memoir recommendations in the comments.
***Affiliate Disclaimer– I may receive a small commission from either Amazon or Bookshop.org if you make a purchase from this page. This is at no extra cost to you, and I would only recommend books that I have personally read and truly endorse!
Related: Master List of Book Posts
My Memoir Shortlist
by Susanna Keysen
When Susanna Keysen was eighteen, she was taken to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder after overdosing on pills. Though she denied it was a suicide attempt, she was sent to McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, where she ends up spending 18 months. Girl, Interrupted is the story of her time there.
There isn’t much of a linear plot to this book; it’s more like a collection of poetic and narrative observations. Looking at the Amazon reviews I see some people were confused or disappointed by this, but I think it speaks to the way the brain works, to be honest. We don’t see things linearly until after the fact, and if we’re meant to feel like we’re in this with her, we wouldn’t know what was important to string together until later.
I’m also very drawn to the characters in this memoir, and particularly how Keysen’s opinions of them change throughout the story. For example, at first she thinks the character Alice is one of the more sane ones, just weirdly sheltered. Then one day she is unexpectedly moved to maximum security. When the girls go visit her, they find she’s painted the walls, as well as herself, with her own feces. It’s a highly visceral example of not ever knowing what anyone else is really going through.
by Victor Frankl
No list of books on the human condition would be complete without Man’s Search for Meaning. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it– it was actually named one of the top ten most influential books in America.
Dr. Frankl was a Jewish man sent to several concentration camps during WWII. Since he was highly educated, the Nazis found use for him and made him work, but he lost everyone he loved, including his pregnant wife.
He doesn’t wallow in his pain though. In fact, he uses his suffering as an example of his theory known as logotherapy. He believed that the point of life is not to avoid suffering, but to find meaning in it.
by Lucy Grealy
Lucy Grealy had Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that gave her a 5% chance of survival. Even more shocking, she was just a child when she fought and beat it.
There are some scenes of Lucy in the hospital and navigating the cancer, but she is clear that’s not the purpose of the book. It’s about how, to remove it, Lucy’s doctors removed a third of her jaw. Though the cancer was gone, Lucy’s face was permanently deformed, and her self-esteem issues would linger for many years to come.
The most poignant part of the memoir for me is precisely what some readers hated about it. Though the book makes an attempt at a clean ending, Grealy never fully accepted her face, and in 2002, she died of a drug overdose. While some readers hoped for a story of survival and strength, upon learning of her continued suffering and death, they felt let down. To me, the memoir becomes an even better example of humanity. It is flawed. It doesn’t automatically come with a happy ending. Just because Lucy had cancer doesn’t mean she was otherwise perfect. She had demons she ultimately could not win against. Though it is devastating, it is true.
by Lily Bailey
Every once in a while, most people have scary intrusive thoughts like, “what would happen if I just punched this guy in the face right now?” However, most of us can dismiss them without much issue and resume daily life. That’s not the case for everyone.
Lily Bailey suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She has thoughts that she cannot quiet until she acts on them. If she had a harmless intrusive thought like the one above, even though she wouldn’t act on it, she would spend hours secretly engaging in routines she believed would earn her penance. A particularly strong example is when she learns of pedophilia and thinks she is a pedophile for having seen the naked body of her little sister, with whom she shared a bedroom.
I love the intimacy that this memoir offers– even without having OCD you can feel connected to this author. I devoured this book in one sitting last summer, and I wish she would write more!
by Sean Waller
Truthfully, this is a story that is based in real life, but technically fiction. It was written by a teacher who works at one of the schools where I sub, so I may be a little biased, but I do think it provides really good insight into what it’s like for a child to have cancer. And I do believe others agree with me– schools are beginning to add Sick Boy to their English curriculum as it does such a good job teaching perseverance and gratitude.
The book takes place in 1983 and follows an 8th grader named Tim. He is popular and athletic, thus poised to have an amazing year. Until he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Now, he has to navigate not only his transition from middle school to high school, but also from “being the popular kid to the sick kid.”
by Gail Storey
How could you not read a book by someone so clearly meant to be an author? The last name Storey? Come on! I met Gail Storey when she gave a talk at a writing conference called Boldface in Houston in 2015. She was so sharp and engaging that I couldn’t help but buy her new book!
If you’ve ever heard of Wild by Cheryl Strayed, this is sort of a lesser known version of that. They are both retellings of a journey through the Pacific Crest Trail, a hike of over 2,000 miles that takes months. While neither of them had hiking experience at the beginning, I Promise Not to Suffer stands out because Gail’s decision to hike the trail was an intense act of love for her husband. The story follows her trying to navigate not only the trail, but her difficult thoughts about life and love.
My Memoir Wishlist
While I have not read these memoirs yet, they’re on my list for sure! As I read them, I will move them over to the previous section with a short review, like the others.
Educated by Tara Westover
The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Unbearable Lightness by Portia De Rossi
Wasted by Maria Hornbacher
Just Checking Emily Colas
Beautiful Boy by David Sheff (I’ve seen the movie and I hate that I haven’t read the book!)
Tweak by Nic Sheff
We All Fall Down by Nic Sheff
Brain on Fire by Susannah Calahan
Heavy by Kiese Leymon
My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison