These days, memoirs are often the target of contempt. A scathing slam in New York Times Book Review this year inveighed against "oversharing"; and in the New Yorker, the memoirist was likened to "a drunken guest at a wedding... motivated by an overpowering need to be the center of attention." If the narrative deals with socially unacceptable matters like abuse, addiction, family dysfunction, or even poverty, the scorn gets even thicker.
But in the right hands, these stories can have unmatched immediacy and redemptive power. To read an author who speaks about the darker parts of experience honestly, beautifully, humorously, and insightfully is more than just titillating — it makes the world a less lonely place. Each of these memoirs shows confessional writing at its best, forging a rare connection between writer and reader.
In The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliot mingles the coverage of a San Francisco murder trial to which he was marginally connected with an unpacking of his own troubled past: an abusive dad who may have killed a man himself, a mother he cared for as she died of multiple sclerosis, a series of group homes. With friends overdosing and committing suicide all around him, he found refuge in drugs and violent sex, working as a stripper, a professor, and a writer. The matter-of-fact, present-tense narration moves from Eliot's daily life to the unfolding courtroom drama to ruminations on the writing process. Restless and riveting, Elliot is a rising star — he has optioned the film rights to this book, and he also runs The Rumpus, one of the coolest literary sites on the web.
In A Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch carries on the transgressions of 80's feminism, gleefully breaking rules about storytelling as she looks for a way to write a book that is not an incest narrative or a recovery memoir or even the autobiography of an Olympic swimming hopeful, but that is faithful to a life that has contained those elements. From her druggy college days in Lubbock, Texas, through a doomed early marriage and a stillbirth, through promiscuity of many flavors, an apprenticeship with Ken Kesey and a very bad DUI, the author hangs on and is rewarded with an amazingly normal happy ending. Yuknavitch is a recklessly inventive writer whose work is a jolt of energy for those trying to find their voices on the page and their place in the world.
501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine proves that there's still a member of the Beat Generation wandering among us. A ridiculously gifted writer who could tell a good story about nothing, Ballantine has made sure he doesn't have to by spending most of his adult life as an itinerant writer, cook, day laborer, drinker, gambler, and moral philosopher. In this collection, he hangs out with the homeless in New Orleans and the speed freaks in San Diego, devises a plan to punch John Irving, loses a book contract with a New York publisher, and settles down to raise a family in Nebraska. Ballantine is unflappable, hilarious, and so observant of his fellow men and women that his half-cocked hobo lifestyle cannot be mistaken for anything but a spiritual path.
If you don't want to read about drugs, sex, or unconventional lifestyles, you should avoid these memoirs. But if you do — then pick them up. They offer a Wild West of personal revelation, still open to pioneers, adventurers, and those looking for gold.
Marion Winik is the author of The Glen Rock Book of the Dead.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.