An alcoholic’s confessional of life from buzzed adolescence to blitzed adulthood and the fellowship of recovery.
Educator, essayist, and novelist Jamison’s (The Empathy Exams: Essays, 2014, etc.) introduction to the alluring crackle of alcohol occurred innocently in her early teens, but her messy descent into full-blown addiction began years later with her first blackout. In her early 20s she began drinking daily to blunt chronic shyness and ease relationship woes while getting her master’s degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, the author found “drunken dysfunction appealing” and identified with accomplished writers whose creative genius managed to function notably beneath the blurry haze of intoxication, something she dubs the “whiskey-and-ink mythology.” Throughout, the author references historical literary greats who were alcoholics, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, and Charles Jackson, among others. Jamison examines the transformative patterns of addiction and how these authors, within their own bodies of work, attempted to “make some sense of the sadness that consumed” them. Saturated with unbridled honesty, her riveting chronicle expectedly slopes downward, as the author notes how she once believed that “passing out was no longer the price but the point.” After an abortion and persistent heart arrhythmias, Jamison eventually spiraled into the bleak desolation of rock-bottom alcoholism. Her ensuing heartbreaking attempts at rehabilitation ebbed and flowed. She relapsed after desperately missing the sensation of being drunk (“like having a candle lit inside you”), yet she also acknowledged that sobriety would be the only way to rediscover happiness and remain alive. Attending meetings, sharing her stories, and working the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous ushered the author into a new sober reality. Throughout Jamison’s somber yet earnestly revelatory narrative, she remains cogent and true to her dual commitment to sobriety and to author a unique memoir “that was honest about the grit and bliss and tedium of learning to live this way—in chorus, without the numbing privacy of getting drunk.”
The bracing, unflinching, and beautifully resonant history of a writer’s addiction and hard-won reclamation.
Record of a childhood in flight from war and terror.
“I hated that I had to eat,” writes Wamariya. “I hated my stomach, I hated my needs.” Growing children are always hungry, but the author, forced at the age of 6 to flee her native Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, was for years as a refugee never able to satisfy those elemental needs. Intercut with her chronicle of experiences in a series of refugee camps are moments from her new life in America, where she landed at the age of 12, adopted into a welcoming home in a bit of fortune that she did not trust: “I was callous and cynical….I thought I could fool people into thinking that I was not profoundly bruised.” She had reason to worry, for on a six-year trail that passed through one African nation after another, she witnessed both generosity and depravity coupled with the constant worry that the older sister with whom she had fled would decide that she was too much of a burden and abandon her. She did not: Her sister’s presence through one fraught situation after another is a constant. Wamariya’s experiences adjusting to life in a country where, her sister declared, beer flowed from faucets and people owned six cars at a time are affecting, and there are some Cinderella moments in it, from being accepted to Yale to appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show. But more, there are moments of potent self-reckoning; being a victim of trauma means that “you, as a person, are empty and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own.” The work of finding home and feeling safe—it’s something that every foe of immigration ought to ponder; in that alone Wamariya’s narrative is valuable.
Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.
The president of Planned Parenthood recounts her life as an activist.
For decades, Richards has been at the forefront of anti-war, civil rights, labor, and women’s issues; as she demonstrates, activism and the desire to work for the common good run in her family. Her father was a labor attorney and environmentalist, and her mother, Ann Richards, was a fierce fighter for women’s rights who became governor of Texas. As a high school girl new to Austin (she was born in Waco), she made and wore a black arm band supporting the moratorium to end the Vietnam War. After graduation, she headed east to Brown University. She supported striking janitors and librarians, took a semester off to intern for the Project on the Status and Education of Women in Washington, D.C., and became a union organizer in New Orleans. There, she met and married labor organizer Kirk Adams and formed a family that has supported labor across the country ever since. After some time in Southern California, she went back to Texas to work for her mother’s campaign for governor, and she formed the Texas Freedom Network to fight against right-wing textbook censorship. Then it was off to Washington again to serve on Nancy Pelosi’s staff. The author sprinkles short asides throughout the book that alternate between genuinely instructional and boring—e.g., well-worn tips on work-life balance. However, the guidelines for starting any organization are spot-on: direct, down-to-earth, and highly practical. In 2006, Richards and her family moved to New York City so she could assume the lead role at Planned Parenthood in 2006, and she has made the organization instrumental in a wide variety of women’s-rights causes. In the past year, she has spent considerable time battling for her organization amid the Trump administration’s efforts to cut funding.
A memoir that makes palpable the immense influence of an organization that has improved so many women’s lives.
Better Call Saul meets La Leche League in this creative memoir.
In a work that veers from confessional to cautionary tale to small-town crime blotter, Baker (English/Univ. of Wisconsin-Oshkosh) offers a harrowing account of her childbearing years at the center of the Midwestern methamphetamine crisis. The author and her high school sweetheart, Ryan, returned to their Wisconsin hometown to raise a family only to find that Oshkosh had traded its overalls for opioids. Ryan scraped together an unsteady income as a public defender for the many townsfolk cursed by addiction and its attendant woes: assault, theft, murder, child endangerment, and criminal neglect. Although she portrays Ryan’s law practice as a noble ministry defending the weakest from too-severe punishments, Baker is hardly the meek pastor’s wife in this paternalistic scenario. Her only source of relief from the anguish of bipolar depression was getting high on oxytocin, the feel-good hormone released during pregnancy, breast-feeding, and near-death experiences, but she had to continue to have babies in order to keep this precious “oxy” flowing. As the children kept coming and the family’s debts piled up, they descended into the moral quagmire of the impoverished. Baker blames her failings as a mother and citizen (ignoring seat belt laws, letting her children’s front teeth rot) on her self-diagnosed addiction. Even as she compares her escapades and temporary insanity to the meth addicts all around them, she details her family’s hypocrisy in being willing to profit from, but not befriend or live among, her husband’s clientele. In order to gather the drug-addled denizens to her breast in narrative solidarity, she subsumes their tragic stories in her own and makes the disturbing anecdotes from their case histories serve as evidence for her theories about motherhood under duress. The author writes with an imaginative, studied complexity that, when joined with the disquieting subject matter, results in a memoir both evocative and irritating but which readers may find themselves unable to put down or soon forget.
An unflinching dispatch from the intersections of motherhood, poverty, drugs, and mental illness.
A heart-rending debut memoir from the outspoken feminist and essayist.
Gay (Bad Feminist, 2014, etc.) pulls no punches in declaring that her story is devoid of “any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites.” Rather than a success story, it depicts the author, at 42, still in the throes of a lifelong struggle with the fallout from a harrowing violation in her youth. The author exposes the personal demons haunting her life—namely weight and trauma—which she deems “the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me.” Much of her inner turmoil sprang from a devastating gang rape at age 12. “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe,” she writes. Gay painfully recalls the “lost years” of her reckless 20s as a time when food, the anonymity of the internet, and creative writing became escapes and balms for loneliness. The author refers to her body as a “cage” in which she has become trapped, but her obesity also presents itself as a personal challenge to overcome the paralyzing psychological damage caused by rape. Broken into clipped, emotionally resonant chapters, Gay details a personal life spent grappling with the comfort of food, body hyperconsciousness, shame, and self-loathing. Throughout, the author is rightfully opinionated, sharply criticizing the media’s stereotypical portrayal of obesity and Oprah Winfrey’s contradictory dieting messages. She is just as engaging when discussing her bisexuality and her adoration for Ina Garten, who taught her “that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.” Gay clearly understands the dynamics of dieting and exercise and the frustrations of eating disorders, but she also is keenly in touch with the fact that there are many who feel she is fine just as she is. The author continues her healing return from brokenness and offers hope for others struggling with weight, sexual trauma, or bodily shame.
An intense, unsparingly honest portrait of childhood crisis and its enduring aftermath.
A recent Cambridge University doctorate debuts with a wrenching account of her childhood and youth in a strict Mormon family in a remote region of Idaho.
It’s difficult to imagine a young woman who, in her teens, hadn’t heard of the World Trade Center, the Holocaust, and virtually everything having to do with arts and popular culture. But so it was, as Westover chronicles here in fairly chronological fashion. In some ways, the author’s father was a classic anti-government paranoiac—when Y2K failed to bring the end of the world, as he’d predicted, he was briefly humbled. Her mother, though supportive at times, remained true to her beliefs about the subordinate roles of women. One brother was horrendously abusive to the author and a sister, but the parents didn’t do much about it. Westover didn’t go to public school and never received professional medical care or vaccinations. She worked in a junkyard with her father, whose fortunes rose and fell and rose again when his wife struck it rich selling homeopathic remedies. She remained profoundly ignorant about most things, but she liked to read. A brother went to Brigham Young University, and the author eventually did, too. Then, with the encouragement of professors, she ended up at Cambridge and Harvard, where she excelled—though she includes a stark account of her near breakdown while working on her doctoral dissertation. We learn about a third of the way through the book that she kept journals, but she is a bit vague about a few things. How, for example, did her family pay for the professional medical treatment of severe injuries that several of them experienced? And—with some justification—she is quick to praise herself and to quote the praise of others.
An astonishing account of deprivation, confusion, survival, and success.
In the provocative essays collected in her first book, Jerkins meditates on how it feels to be a black woman in the United States today.
Brought up in suburban New Jersey, educated at Princeton, and now living in Harlem and working in publishing, the author often feels like an outsider. Her essays, usually deeply personal and always political, examine that unease. In the first, she goes back to elementary school, when she realized that “the only thing I wanted was to be a white cheerleader.” Other pieces consider the fraught issue of hair for black women, the self-repression imposed by the taboo against being thought a “fast-tailed girl,” the social pressure to identify as a “human” rather than as a “black woman,” and her ambivalence about the “black girl magic” movement. Some of her most effective essays take unusual shapes: one is an open letter to Michelle Obama, addressing her as “the beacon that reminds white people that 99 percent of them will never reach where you are,” and another is an ironic list of instructions on “How to Be Docile,” which provides the black female subject with everything she needs: “looks, deference to man, suppressed sexuality, silence.” At times, particularly in the final essay, which lists many of the black women the author believes could have helped her and didn't, Jerkins comes across as whiny. Sometimes, as in the piece about the many reasons she decided to have labiaplasty, she appears to be working hard to justify her actions. While she identifies herself as a feminist, the primary “other” against whom Jerkins sets herself is the automatically privileged white woman, “supported, cared for, and coddled.”
At its best, the book reveals complicated, messily human responses to knotty problems. Never intended as the final word on the black female experience in America today, it uncovers the effect of social forces on one perceptive young woman.
A science writer’s account of her frustrating experiences with the medical establishment as she tried to understand an illness that defied easy explanation and diagnosis.
Futurism associate science editor Norman is nothing if not a survivor. She overcame dysfunctional family circumstances to become an emancipated minor at age 16 and attend Sarah Lawrence College on a prestigious scholarship two years later. However, one day during her freshman year, she was hit with pain so debilitating that she was forced to leave school permanently. The first (male) doctor she saw assumed she was just another “bright and wound tight” college girl whose problem “was of a sexual nature.” He dismissed her with prescriptions for antibiotics and advice to drink lots of cranberry juice. Soon after, Norman began in-depth research—which she presents throughout the book—on female health issues. She discovered that her struggles to be taken seriously for extreme pain were actually a legacy of “the medicalization of female internal sensations, which began as early as the 1800s.” Feeling powerless to question the all-male medical establishment, women “[began] to question their reality,” much as the author started to do in the face of doctors that implied her problems, which included heavy, fatiguing menstrual cycles and, later, painful sex, were imagined. Eventually—and thanks to Norman’s tireless self-advocacy—doctors correctly diagnosed her with endometriosis, a condition in which “displaced uterine tissue” caused painful lesions on other internal organs. Interviews with experts and continued self-education on the topic showed Norman that, contrary to popular conception, endometriosis was not just a “female disease” or a “period problem” and had also been found in men. Compelling and impressively researched, Norman’s narrative not only offers an unsparing look at the historically and culturally fraught relationship between women and their doctors. It also reveals how, in the quest for answers and good health, women must still fight a patriarchal medical establishment to be heard.
Life inspired by the buzzing humanity of a great city.
Gornick (Emma Goldman, 2011, etc.) takes her title from George Gissing's novel The Odd Women (1893), about a “darkly handsome, high intelligent, uncompromising” woman who scorns “what she calls the slavery of love and marriage.” Courted by a man who respects and excites her, she insists on independence, fears her own emotions and retreats from their relationship. Like Gornick, a “raging” feminist in the 1970s, Gissing’s heroine “becomes a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which so many of us have found ourselves, time and again.” Regret, anxiety and nostalgia inform this finely crafted memoir, built of fragmentary reflections on friendship, love, desire and the richness of living in New York. For the author, New York is a city of melancholy, peopled by “eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvelous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of the stranger.” At times, she walks more than six miles per day, daydreaming, observing and trying to “dispel afternoon depression.” She interacts with beggars and shopkeepers, overhears snatches of conversation and revels in a city that she admits to romanticizing. “If you’ve grown up in New York,” she writes, “your life is an archaeology not of structures, but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another.” Gornick chronicles ephemeral relationships and thwarted love affairs and, in particular, her friendship with Leonard, a gay man who, like Gornick, has “a penchant for the negative.” They meet weekly, unfailingly, “to give each other border reports.” Her friendship with Leonard leads her to consider Henry James’ relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, “a woman of taste and judgment whose self-divisions mirrored his own.”