Memoir is a genre of literature unique in that it invites any person to the page both as author or reader. It's the genres humanistic nature which makes its books universal. It captures a level of humanism prerogative of literature. Which is to say that the spirit of memoirs does not adapt well to screen. A memoir surpasses entertainment and instead offers its reader an opportunity to - quite literally - live another life. The act of reading, and especially writing, a memoir is transformative. A spectacular occurrence, given that stories reach the breadth of human experiences and encapsulate the insane, artful, mundane, and tragic. This broad set of subjects invites an enormous audience to the page, with the only prerequisite being literacy.
Because of their accessibility, memoirs find themselves as the project of authors both experienced and ill-equipped. They are often the first work a novice writer undertakes. They are simultaneously the most significant work non-writers will approach. Memoirs have become a tool for celebrities, politicians, artists, et cetera to "set the record straight." Similarly, a memoir is a project for otherwise anonymous people to write about their unbelievable encounters.
It's this latter category of memoir that mostly makes up the list below. The following is a short list of surreal stories that elevate the genre of memoir to cousins of horror, science-fiction, or dystopia. Stories which are true, yet read stranger than fiction.
Note: "buy from" links are affiliate links which allow Speculatively to make commission from your purchases.
In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park
Yeonmi's harrowing book recalls her escape from North Korea at the age of thirteen. In what should have been a momentous experience of freedom filled her with shame, as she was then forced into a series of "slave marriages" in China. Yeonmi comes clean about her past in order to become "completely free" in this tale of bravery, resilience. and restitution of family.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
This is one of those rare celebrity books that exceeds literary expectations. It's a coming-of-age story in apartheid South Africa. At the time of Trevor's birth, bearing an interracial child was punishable to five years in prison. And so, Trevor was raised in reclusion for much of his youth. This is a haunting and humorous tale of a man who was never supposed to exist.
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Wright's memoir is one of the most censored books in U.S. history. It recalls the horrors of the Jim Crow South in a raw, indigestible language. Nevertheless, it's an important reminder of America's recent racist past and a recollection of what it is like to grow up treated as something other than human.
Sickened by Julie Gregory
Imagine if a sickness you've been tested and treated for your whole life wasn't real. What if it was actually a sickness of your mother, who so desperately sought attention. That's the harrowing premise of Julie Gregory's memoir, which recalls her "lost childhood" and the path she paved as an adult to reclaim her own life and identity separate from her mother's claims of Julie's sicknesses.
Finding Me by Michelle Knight
Michelle Knight was kidnapped by a local school bus driver named Ariel Castro. She was then held captive in a basement for ten years. Michelle's memoir recounts the despicable abuse and torture she underwent, her escape back into the world, and journey to redefine herself as someone other than captive. Her story is a beacon of hope for all who go missing each year.
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
Susannah Cahalan woke up in a hospital room alone, unable to speak. She had no memory of how or why she was in that bed. And, she was unable to move. Unbeknownst to her, Susannah was also believed a violent psychotic. Brain on Fire is a surreal tale of madness, family faith, and a lifesaving diagnoses.
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
At the age of twelve Ishmael's village was overran by rebels and most of his family was killed. A year later he joined the government's army and became a solider, where he partook in killing, drug abuse, and a primitive life of survival. Ishmael's story is a tale of a broke childhood that will reside with you for the rest of your life.