20 wonderfully miserable memoirs: A reading list for the school of hard knocks
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Maya Angelou (1969)
This literary classic chronicles a traumatic childhood fraught with racism, rape, and Angelou’s struggle for self-definition.
"This Boy's Life," Tobias Wolff (1989)
Wolff’s young life involves getting knocked around by his mother's violent beaux, trying to run away, and fantasizing about being a star student.
"Wild Swans," Jung Chang (1991)
Chang braids together the lives of three fierce women: her grandmother, a concubine; her mother, a loyal Chinese Communist; and herself.
"Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story," Paul Monette (1992)
Monette writes of his odyssey from a closeted student to a happy, openly gay man.
"Autobiography of a Face," Lucy Grealy (1994)
Disfigured after cancer required the removal of one-third of her jaw, Grealy recalls the pain of living in a society obsessed with beauty.
"Prozac Nation," Elizabeth Wurtzel (1994)
Wurtzel recounts her pre-Prozac struggle with crippling depression and suicide attempts (as if adolescence weren’t bad enough).
"A Child Called 'It'," Dave Pelzer (1995)
Pelzer’s account of the vicious abuse and criminal neglect he suffered at his mother’s hands as a child may be the misery-memoir archetype.
"The Liars’ Club," Mary Karr (1995)
Set in small-town 1960s Texas, Karr’s darkly funny childhood memoir stars her extended family as eccentrics.
"Angela’s Ashes," Frank McCourt (1996)
This tale of an Irish immigrant family living in Brooklyn and Ireland has it all: deaths of young children, lifelong alcoholism, poverty, and typhoid.
"Drinking: A Love Story," Caroline Knapp (1996)
In a memoir as informative as it is moving, Knapp intersperses facts about alcoholism through the story of her own 20-year battle.
"Running With Scissors," Augusten Burroughs (2002)
When 12-year-old Burroughs’ unstable mother sends him to live with her psychiatrist, his life takes a bizarre turn, but his humor remains.
"A Million Little Pieces," James Frey (2003)
Some of Frey’s memoir was, he later admitted, fabricated. But we’ve included it because what’s more miserable than being publicly shamed?
"Waiting for Snow in Havana," Carlos Eire (2003)
Part of Operation Peter Pan, where children were airlifted from Cuba to the U.S., Eire is torn between safety and longing for his faraway home.
"The Glass Castle," Jeannette Walls (2005)
With parents who sometimes forgot to feed their children, it’s a shock Walls can write about her impoverished, nomadic youth with affection.
"The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion (2005)
One of the greatest writers of our time suffers a terrible tragedy: While her daughter lies in a coma, her husband dies of a heart attack.
"Fun Home," Alison Bechdel (2006)
Bechdel’s graphic memoir explores ties with her closeted father, who apparently commits suicide shortly after she comes out.
"A Piece of Cake," Cupcake Brown (2006)
The recipe for a witty, unbelievably resilient Cupcake: Mix drug addiction, prostitution, rape, and homelessness. Add death of a parent and miscarriage.
"A Long Way Gone," Ishmael Beah (2007)
It’s the 1990s: Sierra Leone is mired in a brutal civil war, and 12-year-old Beah is a brainwashed child soldier who lives through it.
"Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?," Roz Chast (2014)
In this graphic memoir, the New Yorker cartoonist helps her elderly parents navigate the aging process while reflecting on their lives.
"Not My Father’s Son," Alan Cumming (2014)
His tale begins with a genealogy TV show on which he hopes to learn about his grandfather, and ends with revelations about his abusive father.