There exists a genre or species of ‘bestseller,’ a popular and compelling type of book best characterized as ‘confessional memoir.’ You may have read one or more of these without realizing it. They are stories of survival. In each of these the author describes in vivid detail his or her traumatic childhood, adolescence, or adulthood in a dysfunctional family or society racked by abuse or neglect, economic or emotional insecurity, mental illness, alcoholism or drug addiction, violence, or some combination of these factors. Usually, but not always, each ends with the author’s eventual triumph over these horrendous circumstances, and in some cases with a coming to terms or even reconciliation with those responsible for the heartache.
The appeal of the confessional memoir, derided by some as ‘misery lit,’ lies, paradoxically, in a sensationalism that is curiously inspirational: the reader is gripped by the unspeakable casual horror inflicted on vulnerable children or naïve teenagers by the circumstances described, yet reassured by the knowledge that the author has nevertheless managed to endure and survive these same circumstances, otherwise the books could never have seen the light of day. Whether the author has exaggerated or even suppressed details of the mistreatment is a separate question, but a possibility which the wise reader cannot rule out. One such memoir, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, was exposed as largely fictional and thus discredited. Other confessional memoirs include Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, about the author’s traumatic Irish childhood, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, which describes a bizarre childhood in which the author’s mother sends him to live with her psychiatrist; Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs, which details a life of privation in the post-Stalin Soviet Union; Mary Karr’s trilogy The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit, the first of which is her account of growing up with an alcoholic father and troubled mother in a refinery town in East Texas; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, about growing up poor and deprived in Appalachia, and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which describes its author’s family life at the hands of profoundly irresponsible peripatetic parents last glimpsed by the reader ‘dumpster diving’ in a back street in New York City. The book was recently made into a Hollywood movie.