I love a good memoir. Though the ever-expanding genre has been criticized over the decades by people who view them as egotistical and insular, memoirs can be transformative. Tapping into a person’s unique experience and seeing the world through their eyes for a few hundred pages can expand our individual worldview, help us better understand our own experiences with broader issues—including grief—and introduce us to powerful voices who articulate and excavate their lives in ways that so few of us can. Among the many memoirs slated for release in 2020, these 17 represent the very best of the genre.
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If you love fascinating memoirs about women navigating male-dominated industries, then Adrienne Miller’s book should already be in your cart. Miller began her career in media as an editorial assistant at GQ magazine in the 1990s before becoming the first woman to serve as Esquire’s literary editor. Given that media is still an industry run by men—many of them white, many of them powerful, and way too many of them drunk on their own power—Miller’s 30 years’ worth of reflections show, alas, just how much hasn’t changed for women finding their footing in an industry that allows only a few of us to break through.
Stephanie Land, author of the bestselling 2019 memoir Maid, says that Strung Out “will change how we look at the opioid crisis and how the media talks about it.” I agree. Often, media stigmatizes the very people it aims to cover because there’s still so much we don’t understand about the development and impact of addiction. Erin Khar’s gift of a memoir examines her 15-year journey as a heroin user—and, perhaps more important, what brought her to drugs. Addiction stories are often linear (got hooked, hit bottom, got clean), but Khar instead offers a humanizing portrait not just of her own experience but of an issue that impacts more than two million people in the United States.
Prolific essayist Rebecca Solnit has long written about pop culture, politics, and mansplaining by weaving together her personal experience with a broader analysis, but it seems that Recollections of My Nonexistence is her first full-on memoir. Solnit brings readers to 1980s San Francisco for a comprehensive look at how she found her voice and her feminism amid discovering punk rock, witnessing rampant gender-based violence, and negotiating a culture of disbelief about everything from street harassment to rape. Recollections of My Nonexistence is also a memoir about writing, which is a gift from a writer as talented and transformative as Solnit. What shaped her perspective? How did she find the confidence to write with such stark honesty? These questions and more are answered.
Raechel Anne Jolie (who has contributed to Bitch) grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1990s, finding herself amid an alternative subculture of “race cars, Budweiser-drinking men covered in car grease, and the women who loved them.” After her father is struck by a drunk driver, leaving him with a severe brain injury, Jolie and her mother struggled to stay afloat: facing eviction, going days with electricity and water, and hurting each other to escape the pain of financial uncertainty. Rust Belt Femme follows Jolie as she leaves the neighborhood she called home for Cleveland Heights where a subculture with a lot of personality welcomes her, helping to define who she is and where she’s headed next.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people per minute in the United States are physically abused by their romantic partner, which breaks down to more than 10 million people suffering abuse in the course of a single year. It never becomes easier to read about intimate-partner violence, but it’s always necessary. Tanya Selvaratnam’s heart-wrenching memoir explores her volatile relationship with former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which included controlling behavior, death threats, and violent sex that she felt powerless to stop given that her partner was the state’s top-ranking law officer. Assume Nothing isn’t an easy read, but it’s an important window on how power insulates even the worst among us.
Crystal Rasmussen, born as Tom, never knew a life before drag queendom. Even as they grew up in northern England, Rasmussen knew they weren’t meant to blend in—standing out was a given. By the time Rasmussen leaves London for a fashion job in New York, they’d come into their own, and this hilarious memoir follows them through a year of adventures, from being onstage to being in bed to realizing the fashion world is even more cutthroat than pop culture portrays it. Diary of a Drag Queen is equal parts inspiring and funny as hell.
According to the Boston Medical Center, an estimated 45 million adults in the United States embark on a diet every year, and for an increasing number of adults, an obsession with losing weight begins in childhood. Marisa Meltzer, a contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker (who has contributed to Bitch), began her first diet at the age of 5, and since then has been on the familiar rollercoaster of losing and gaining weight. When Meltzer read the obituary of Jean Nidetch, the Queens housewife–turned–flamboyant founder of Weight Watchers, she realized how much her own journey ran parallel to that of the woman whose business became an emblem of our culture’s quest for thinness at any cost. This Is Big is an inventive memoir that examines Meltzer’s own experience with weight loss alongside Nidetch’s lucrative belief that community, not secretive shame, could transform people’s bodies and lives.
There comes a moment in many people’s lives when they realize that their parents or other guardian figures have lives, dreams, hopes, and goals outside of raising them and/or being a spouse. Comedian Sopan Deb’s revelation came as he approached his 30th birthday: He knew the basics about his parents, who’d immigrated, separately, from India to the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. He knew their marriage was arranged, and that his father returned to India several years into their marriage, leaving his children and his wife in suburban New Jersey, but he didn’t know much else. After the 2016 election, which found Deb juggling stand-up comedy and covering the Trump campaign for the New York Times, he decided to journey to India to reconnect with his father and in the process reconnect with himself.
Award-winning journalist and activist George M. Johnson is one of my favorite people to follow on social media. His insights about everything from representation in pop culture to sexuality and health keep myself and many others engaged, and he brings that same level of introspection to his powerful memoir-manifesto. Johnson’s book is geared toward young adults—a market that needs this level of realness about everything from finding and harboring joy to bullying to navigating queerness. All Boys Aren’t Blue is a game changer.
When Nina Renata Aron began dating her boyfriend, K, it didn’t take long for him to relapse. Addiction is a disease; it can come upon those who are afflicted without warning and the effects are felt by the person addicted as well as those who love them. Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls explores how addiction transforms K, transforms their relationship, and transforms Aron’s relationship to herself and to her childhood. It’s difficult to tell someone else’s story of addiction with empathy and understanding, but Aron balances it all beautifully.
I first learned about journalist and author Meredith Talusan in 2016 when she spearheaded Unerased, Mic’s award-winning multimedia project that chronicled the crisis of transgender women in the United States being murdered. Talusan has since been an integral part of them’s inaugural editorial team, where she still works as a contributing editor, and has been one of the strongest voices holding newsrooms accountable when they offer lip service to inclusivity but do not actually prioritize it. In Fairest, Talusan brings that same determination and brilliance to her own story, with recollections of immigrating to the United States, unlearning the gender binary, and, most important, coming into her own.
On October 3, 2016, Rahawa Haile announced on Twitter that she’d successfully hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine with a photo that captured the triumph. Since then, she’s published a canonical piece in Outside that detailed her experience and an incredible essay in BuzzFeed about leaving books by Black authors for other hikers to discover. Her upcoming memoir considers “what it means to move through America and the world as a Black woman.” Though there aren’t too many details on In Open Country, we know what Haile is capable of as a writer—and that alone has us thirsting to dig into this book.
Is it possible to find home again after being unexpectedly uprooted during a political upheaval? That’s one of the questions at the center of Wayétu Moore’s second book, which chronicles one of the most difficult experiences of her young life. At the age of 5, the civil war in Liberia forces Moore and her family—minus her mother, who’s studying at a university in New York—to flee the country. After a three-week journey on foot, Moore and her family are smuggled to the border of Sierra Leone and, from there, travel to the United States to reunite with her mother and begin a brand new life. The Dragons, the Giant, the Women is a beautifully written book about the experience of migrating—a story, particularly in this moment, that can never be told enough.
Recent years have brought us an array of memoirs and essay collections that specifically center the experiences of gay men negotiating the tenacious homophobia of the United States: Michael Arceneaux’s I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, Darnell L. Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, and Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives come immediately to mind. The success of these books feels like an assurance that we’ll continue to see stories like theirs move out of the margins of the literary canon. In The Groom Will Keep His Name, Matt Ortile, managing editor of Catapult, offers up his unique experiences as a Filipino immigrant figuring out how to date in a world where we’re all encouraged to be curated versions of ourselves. The book’s clever title reflects its witty and captivating takes on everything from one-night stands to dating apps and beyond.
Many of us have fragmented memories that cause us to question what’s real and what we’ve imagined. But when St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire, was deemed a “haven for sexual predators” in a May 2018 lawsuit filed by two of the school’s alumnae, Lacy Crawford realized that her hazy recollection of being assaulted at age 15 by two fellow students many years earlier—and the efforts of the school’s administration, including faculty and clergy, to shield her attackers from consequences—wasn’t something she’d invented or imagined. Once St. Paul’s extensive history of burying crimes and harming victims became national news, Crawford got access to files about her case that she’d never seen before; her experience of revisiting the trauma, realizing just how far the school had gone to protect her assaulters, and coming to terms with the cost of that injustice is the foundation for this incredible memoir.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey has long said that her mother’s 1985 murder at the hands of her ex-husband propelled her into the art form and has continued to haunt her even as she’s found extraordinary success that includes being named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2013. Trethewey told the Chicago Tribune in November 2018 that she thinks of herself as “someone who has lived in a state of bereavement my whole adult life,” and in Memorial Drive, she explores the loss and lingering grief that has shaped so much of her work. Trethewey’s heartbreakingly beautiful memoir honors her mother, Gwendolyn, while also indicting a culture that fails to protect abuse victims as they try to retrieve their lives from the clutches of their abusers.
Since the #MeToo movement spotlighted predators in Hollywood, journalism, and beyond, a number of memoirs have taken stock of how power dynamics can shape—and exploit— an array of relationships, including platonic ones between teachers and students (Donna Freitas’s Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention) and those where the boundaries of friendship are betrayed by rape (Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl). Alisson Wood, winner of the inaugural Breakout 8 Writers Prize and a creative writing teacher at New York University, adds to this growing canon with a chronicle of her two-year relationship with her high-school English teacher.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Alisson Wood’s name and to clarify that Raechel Anne Jolie’s father was not killed by a drunk driver. (January 6, 2020, 6:13 p.m.)
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