Singular Memoirs

All memoirs, of course, are singular. Each tells the story of a piece of an individual’s life, so how could they not be? In some memoirs, though, the stories are told in ways that make them stand out. Perhaps it is narrative structure. Perhaps it is a way of putting together disparate parts of a life that put each in searing relief. Perhaps it is just a story so heartbreaking that your heart is broken along with it in the telling. Here, then, are four memoirs I’ve read that I see as singular rendered by memoirists telling their stories in unforgettable ways.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is a disturbing and utterly stunning book. It is a memoir of domestic abuse in a lesbian relationship and it shatters many typical preconceptions about both abuse and queerness. Told in a series of very short chapters (all with the format “Dream House as …”), it explores the author’s ongoing and harrowing experiences in her relationship, as well as how science, politics, and popular culture shed light on the issues she is addressing.

Consider, for example, one of the shortest of the chapters, Dream House as Entomology, in which Machado distills a bit of the emotional whiplash of domestic abuse in a few short sentences:

‘I know we were doing the polyamory thing when I was with Val,’ she says. ‘But now I don’t want to share you with anyone. I love you so much. Can we agree to be monogamous?’ You laugh and nod and kiss her, as if her love for you has sharpened and pinned you to a wall.

The writing throughout is lyrical and powerful. I often paused the audiobook to take in what she was saying, and since then I’ve bought the physical book so on rereads I can marvel at Machado’s facility with language and narrative form. In short, it’s a challenging book – be SURE to check trigger warnings – but I am VERY glad I read it.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is a fascinating memoir and one that took me a while to process. In it, O’Farrell tells the stories of 17 “brushes with death” she has experienced. Those encounters varied in terms of how closely they threatened her mortality, and the book considers the ways in which all of them affected her life (and she’s definitely led a fraught and interesting life so far!).

To start, I’ll say that this book (by the author of Hamnet, The Marriage Portrait, and other novels) is beautifully written. I’d recommend it just for the prose. But I also thought it was fascinating, as it made me think about my own “brushes with death,” most not as dramatic as hers. For me, there has been cancer, an emergency C-section, several serious car crashes when I could go back and look at the crushed metal inches from where I or a loved one was sitting, and even those strange moments when lightning hits the plane and you find yourself thinking “what if.” We’ve all had moments like that, and this book made me ruminate on my own, and how they have (and haven’t) changed me.

In Love by Amy Bloom and Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz

Memoirs dealing with end-of-life issues are incredibly powerful. Consider, for example, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Two recent entries into this category of memoirs are In Love by Amy Bloom and Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz. They are very different from each other, but both quite good.

Amy Bloom’s short book deals with an eventuality none of us would want to face. Her husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and wants to end his own life. The window for this decision is a narrow one, though, as once he is deemed incapable of deciding with a clear mind, the decision can’t be made. The book, then, considers the journey to diagnosis and the subsequent quest for an option to fulfill his desire, and the trip to Switzerland to Dignitas, a facility that empowers a peaceful and dignified assisted suicide. The writing is classic Amy Bloom (for those who have read her novels). It’s sparse, sometimes funny, often self- and other-deprecating, and always beautiful.

Kathryn Schulz’s memoir pairs the loss of her father (at 74 after many illnesses) with her own love story, a relationship with (and eventual marriage to) writer Casey Cep (called “C” in the book). Neither of these stories is at all extraordinary to the outside viewer. It’s a not-unexpected death and a relationship that develops in relatively typical ways. But both of these stories – the loss of father and the finding of a life partner – are absolutely extraordinary to Schulz, and she writes about her experiences, her feelings, and the very concepts of losing and finding in prose that is by turn philosophical and emotional.

I found these very different books – wrestling with both the end of life and the strength of love – powerful and affecting. They’re not easy reads (especially In Love) and you should be careful if end-of-life issues are triggering, but I know they will stick with me for quite a while.

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