The 10 Best Memoirs Of All Time
What is a memoir?
A lifelong bibliophile, in recent times I have turned a good deal of my attention towards memoirs. When reading one of the many which have proliferated during the last half-century, I look for two things: a deepened understanding of a separate culture, era, lifestyle, or a set of values partially or completely alien to my own. In addition, I hope to be stirred on an emotional plane. Each of the ten memoirs listed below provided both kinds of joy. Given their diversity, I did not choose their order in terms of preference.
Generally memoirs differ from autobiographies in that the latter tends to encompass the overall life of the writer thus far. Conversely, memoirs often focus on a specific area of the author’s life, such as a career or relationship. Maya Angelou, mentioned here, wrote a series of memoirs which, read in sequence, comprises a type of autobiography.
A biography recounts the life of another person, with a degree of detachment. Still, if the life of the biographer interweaves with that of the person described, the work can become a memoir. This is exemplified in Barbara Branden’s book “The Passion of Ayn Rand” to be discussed later. Naturally, these categories can overlap; there is no concrete boundary. I believe these are some of my best examples of memoirs.
1. Joyce Maynard - At Home in the World
Despite the fairly small body of work published by J. D. Salinger, its impact upon the literary world was astounding. Indeed, his novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” has become a classic, due to its candor regarding the difficulties of an adolescent in accepting a world which will never share his hopes and ideals. Hence, when Yale undergraduate Joyce Maynard, through a correspondence, was invited to meet J. D. Salinger, she felt amazed by this privilege. Their meeting led to a relationship so intense as to persuade her, after her freshman year, to withdraw from Yale in order to move into Salinger’s rural home.
It was doubtless difficult for Joyce to separate her feelings of love for this man, thirty-five years her senior, from the influence she knew he could have on her writing development and hoped-for career. Salinger assured her that, in time, she would succeed in writing anything she thought worthy of her ability.
In addition, he seems to have felt a genuine tenderness towards Joyce. This was voiced in his urging her to ask her parents to visit. This suggestion was unique in that Salinger had begun the semi-reclusive life which became part of his mystique to the writing/reading community.
Then, after a ten-month relationship, Joyce’s persistent requests to have children, which Salinger did not wish, induced him to end their relationship. Four years later she married Steve Bethel, had three children, and built upon her writing career. Still, she recounts, her time with Salinger and his rejection which never ceased to undermine her and her writing potential.
This memoir has been criticized as an exploitation of a brief involvement with Salinger, utilized as a platform for Ms. Maynard’s own writing. Arguably, the brevity of their liaison does not justify this virtual autobiography. Lastly, given the sparse knowledge available regarding Salinger, her memoir provides an opening into a life which has intrigued countless readers, and is likely to continue to do so throughout decades to come.
2. Dr Maya Angelou - Gather Together in My Name
The religious overtone of this title is a warning to girls and young women to sense malevolence before it can become overpowering. In a sense, Ms. Angelou offers her name and experience as a caution to others who might be engulfed by the clever treachery of a supposedly tender suitor. Ms. Angelou’s first book, “I Know why the Caged Bird Sings” has become a classic. Its sequel, Gather Together in My Name, takes us, as readers, into the next segment of her poignant and often turbulent life. Viewed in hindsight, we can follow those strategies deployed by a man old enough to seem concerned and protective, while young enough for her to find him seductive enough to allow her to believe whatever he claimed.
In fact, his goal was to exploit her youthful appeal to augment his unsavory income. This man’s tactics, doubtless honed and developed through practice, lured and bedazzled her into believing whatever he claimed. The ways by which she felt forced to face his deceit, and her resulting struggle to free herself is, I believe, relevant to girls and women, even in our more skeptical time, and perhaps any era.
Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.— Oscar Wilde
3. Barbara Bentley - A Dance With the Devil: A True Story of Marriage to a Psychopath
When Ms. Bentley met John Perry at the home of a friend, she felt enthralled by his charm. Her sole reservation lay in the fact that while she had been born in 1945, he claimed to have been an admiral in WWII. Still, despite their age difference, his charisma was such that shortly after their meeting she phoned him and suggested they spend an evening together. Appearing overjoyed, he said he had been afraid to approach her because of his age.
Their rapport soon deepened into love, at least on Ms. Bentley’s part. When she told John she feared involvement in that she had been terribly hurt by her ex-husband’s infidelities, he said she was far too precious to hurt. Sadly, his later attempts on her life made that statement a mockery.
As tends to happen with someone newly in love, Barbara was able to overlook peculiarities. Although they agreed to marry, she was allowed no contact with his family. In addition, he had no discernible source of income. Even acts of horrific rage, such as nearly killing her cat when he found it annoying, while deeply disturbing, did not dissuade her from marrying him.
Gradually, things began to unravel. Barbara started to question the validity of many of John’s vaunted achievements and current employment. When intensive research confirmed her doubts, she hoped to help him via arranging long-term psychotherapy. His response was to call her a spy, and then treat her as contemptible. While this memoir is often wrenching to read, it serves as a warning to those who, in a quest for love, fail do heed their own inner fears, and find justifications for strange secrecies and wild brutalities in a potential life partner.
4. Bob Smith - Hamlet’s Dresser: A Memoir
This memoir is unique in that it weaves together two seemingly separate strands in a way which leaves the reader with a visceral rather than intellectual understanding. Bob Smith grew up with a sister who struggled with developmental difficulties. As time passed, her behavior became more and more aberrant. By way of example, for hours, she would stand in front of the family’s refrigerator, opening and closing its door, apparently finding some comfort in this ongoing rhythm. Eventually, their father felt forced to bring her to a home for the developmentally challenged, by the pretense of a trip out for ice cream.
Bob Smith does not relate much about his life beyond that agonizing leave-taking. Instead, he describes his work in a Shakespearean company helping the actor playing Hamlet with costume changes and then teaching Shakespeare’s works at senior citizens’ centers. At no time does he mention friends or a significant partner. Hence, I finished this book with a sense of sadness, stemming from what seems to be his need to live on the fringe and margins of the day-to-day joys and difficulties which comprise closeness to others. At the risk of being unduly analytical, I sensed a guilt within him at his ability to live a “normal life”, while his sister will spend the rest of her life more-or-less confined to a care home. I finished this memoir with the hope and belief Bob Smith will overcome this futile self-deprivation by absorbing Shakespeare’s zest for the pleasures of living.
5. Deborah Layton - Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple
Throughout history, certain charismatic figures have drawn followers, to the point of being allowed absolute domination. In truth, this says as much about the craving in countless people to find someone with perceived wisdom to follow as it does about such accepted demi-gods. The need to belong to a group in an effort to alleviate human loneliness provides an equally strong incentive.
Deborah (Debbie) Layton first attended one of evangelist Jim Jones’ religious talks as a fairly objective observer. Intrigued, she returned, until her interest evolved into absorption. Once her continuing presence was noticed by Jim Jones, he decided to draw her into his group of disciples. At an age where one’s ego is open to indications of greatness, based upon few or no achievements, Debbie became persuaded by Jones to galvanize his endeavor to bring about global godliness and integrity. Indeed, such was Jones’ power to ensnare that by 1978, several members of Debbie’s immediate family had been drawn into this cult, called The People’s Temple.
As with all such groups, supposedly based on equality and complete trust in one another, a hierarchy developed which rendered even the most genuine friendship hollow. Who could one trust with the slightest complaint? If reported to Jim Jones, it could be viewed as a sign of disloyalty and potential rebellion, punishable in a variety of menacing ways.
In time, compelled by experience to comprehend the evil underlying the seeming communal love, Debbie found a means of freeing herself via a subterfuge. To reveal more of her story would lessen the reading experience of Ms. Layton’s gradual disillusionment, evolving into claustrophobia, and her means of gaining liberty. Thus, I will end this review by suggesting that no matter how many films and documentaries one may have seen on the Jonestown killings, there is far more information to be gathered from Deborah Layton’s account. In fact, she escaped only weeks before the Jonestown mass suicide via poison.
6. Barbara Branden - The Passion of Ayn Rand
While generally considered a biography of Ayn Rand, I view this book as a memoir. While briefly describing Russian-born Rand’s early life and emigration to America, Ms. Branden’s account centers on the complex relationships between Barbara and Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand; Ayn’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is portrayed as fairly peripheral.
As students, Barbara (Weidman) Branden and Nathaniel Branden were brought together by friends, due to their shared enthusiasm for Ayn Rand’s novel, “The Fountainhead”. While Rand received thousands of requests from those wishing to meet her, some sense of affinity urged her and her husband to become acquainted with Barbara and Nathaniel. Shortly thereafter, despite their age difference, a strong rapport developed. This bond grew to the point of Rand’s inviting her two young admirers to her home on Friday evenings in order to read them sections of her work in progress, the novel “Atlas Shrugged”.
Unfortunately, Rand began to encourage Barbara to marry Nathaniel. While feeling warmth and affection towards him, Barbara did not feel the delight and attraction she hoped to find with a husband. Still, his eagerness and the urging of Rand were enough to persuade her. Sadly, human emotions and destinies cannot be shaped, as can those of fictional characters. Hence, after a brief spark of joy, the connection between the young pair began to erode.
In time, despite their twenty-five-year age difference, a physical relationship began between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. Both were candid with their spouses who, though hurt and unhappy, agreed to accept designated times when the lovers could meet by themselves. As might have been foreseen, as years passed, each member of this foursome suffered his or her sense of anguish and loss. The 1999 film, starring Helen Mirren as Ayn Rand, is one of the finest adaptations of a book to the cinematic screen I have ever enjoyed.
7. Diane Nichols - A Prison of My Own
The word “prison” evokes an immediate image of concrete walls, locked doors, constant watching by guards, and worst, the claustrophobic sense of confinement. Still, in its broader sense, emotional bondage can create its own sense of incarceration. This became true of Diane Nichols when she received repeated phone calls from a Carol Ramon who claimed to be having a liaison with John Nichols, Diane’s seemingly stalwart husband and loyal father to their children.
John, in a fury at this true revelation, shot and killed Carol Ramon.
Once he had been sent to prison, Diane found her contented domestic life transformed into a quest for day-to-day subsistence for herself and their children. Having divorced John, she visited him in prison on a continuing basis. Slowly, Christianity began to enter his life. He attributed his understanding of his wrongdoing to his conversion. Diane was astounded to learn that throughout most of their marriage; he had lived a clandestine, amorous life, which he had hoped to conceal both from her and their community. When her sense of outrage and fury surfaced during some prison visits, John did not protest or attempt to defend his actions.
Due to his humility, Diane began to sense his genuine remorse. Might John become, once again, a part of their family? Ms. Nichols’ memoir is both tender but realistic. While she and John’s children cannot be sure if or when he will be released, each of them has grown to understand the scope of the word “imprisonment”.
A memoir is generally a tumbler of the finest wine with a dash of conceit.— Agnes P. Hilton
8. Mikey Walsh - Gypsy Boy
This book encapsulates the little known lifestyle of a large segment of Romany people. Almost from birth, boys are raised much like animals bred to fight one another. Failure to win such forced battles at least in the Walsh household resulted in savage revenge by his father, due to a sense of lost honor. Not surprisingly, in a culture steeped in machismo, a son’s being gay evoked an even fiercer brutality. Thus, when Mikey Walsh was found to have a male gender preference, his life, and that of his lover, became all but unendurable.
9. Jessamyn West - A Matter of Time
When renowned novelist Jessamyn West received a plea from her sister, Clara, to come and help her die, she felt almost no hesitation. For the vibrant, exuberant Clara to have penned such a plea, Ms. West knew she had made a genuine choice to end the diabolical pain of her terminal illness.
When Ms. West went to Clara’s home, these sisters and Clara’s husband agreed to treat this assisted suicide as a freeing decision, keeping tears and heartbreak in abeyance to the extent they were able. Hence, despite the horror and tragedy of the death of a woman with such zest for life still pulsing within her, this book ends with a sense of determination and triumph.
I have been half in love with easeful death— John Keats
10. Reeve Lindbergh - Under a Wing: A Memoir
Reeve Lindbergh was the last of the five children born to aviator Charles and writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Although a shadow of sadness caused by the anguish of the 1932 kidnapping/killing of the Lindbergh's first child, Charles Jr. was always in abeyance, by the time of Reeve's 1945 birth, a sense of familial stability had been regained. Reeve recounts her parents' attempts to create a life in which their children would be spared the merciless plague of ceaseless publicity.
While Charles Lindbergh has sometimes been described as an authoritarian father, Reeve saw him as a multi-faceted dad. Serious yes, in that upon returning from his sometimes long plane trips, he would ask each of his children to justify every penny of their pocket money spent during his absence. Still, she found him more open to engage in frolics and horseplay than was their tender but at times aloof mother.
Perhaps the initial loss of her first child created a reticence in Anne Lindbergh as to closeness with her later offspring. This grief was forced to re-surface when, prior to DNA testing, a series of greedy young men arrived at the Lindbergh home, claiming to be their lost son.
Some years after Reeve's father’s death from cancer, her mother developed dementia. Reeve writes of these final years with compassion and understanding, while acknowledging the frustration of coping with the consequences of a distorted sense of reality.
My final thoughts on memoirs
Having begun this article with my views upon what makes a memoir worthwhile to read, I will end with those aspects I find distasteful enough to induce me to close the book long before it has ended. This is often due to the memoirist seeming to justify writing a book of trivia, largely in hopes of finding a threshold to becoming a recognized writer. Hypothetically, an understudy for an actor might try to produce a seemingly deep connection based on a few chats during coffee breaks.
I also find it dishonorable to provide needless details as to involuntary words or actions spoken or carried out by those struggling with physical disabilities, or various types of dementia. One or two brief examples, conveyed with respect, will suffice. In short, my belief can be summarized thus: be frank, but play fair. Do not write one word regarding someone else which you would not wish to have chronicled regarding your past.
I hope these suggestions will enhance both your reading and potential in learning how to write memoirs. It is vital to remember that however uneventful our lives may seem in a global or universal sense, each human life contains a perspective which no-one else on this earth can ever provide for generations to follow.
Do you have a favorite memoir?
Please leave a comment and let me know what your favorite memoir is; I love to read books recommended by fellow readers.
© 2015 Colleen Swan