I don’t know about you, but I had a pretty happy childhood. However, I find stories about difficult childhoods interesting. Most of the time, the people who survived and wrote a book about the experience ended up with a good sense of self and good sense of humor. Being able to “make lemonade out of lemons” is a quality that I admire. Here are some books along these lines that I have immensely enjoyed. For the most part, these books are life-affirming, uplifting loving and funny–even though the childhoodsthey describe are harrowing and frightening.
- The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
- Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
- Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
A little more information on each book…
Growing up in a hard-scrabble town in Texas, Mary Karr’s family life was marred by alcoholism, violence, and mental illness. But oddly enough, you don’t end up pitying her, and she doesn’t pity herself either. A fierce love for her family comes through loud and clear. For me, the most vivid parts of the book was her mother’s mental illness and ensuing insanity and manic depressive episodes. The author brings you right into the room with her as her mother goes on a rampage, and you end up feeling a child’s confusion and love for a mother she can’t understand. Both parents come off as monstrously selfish but, deep down, you know they love their kids. It is a tribute to Mary Karr and her siblings that they survived their childhood and even flourished.
This book opens with the author riding in a taxi in New York City on the way to a charity event and seeing her homeless mother rooting through a dumpster. An opening like that kind of gets your attention. The story of the author’s childhood with “free spirit” parents who continually move their kids from town to town — often vacating homes in the middle of the night — is a manual on how not to raise children. The author and her siblings are often left to fend for themselves … from getting food to getting an education. Although the alcoholic father and an ambivalent mother who cares more for her art then her children’s welfare are the parents, it is really the author and her siblings who parent each other. How they survived and even thrived in the most difficult of circumstances is nothing short of miraculous. And the author’s “coming to terms” with the realities of her parents is tremendously moving.
You would feel worse for Augusten Burroughs and his unusual and difficult childhood if he wasn’t so darn funny about it. Saddled by an alcoholic father and an unstable mother (pretty much a staple of books about difficult childhoods!), Burroughs is “given up” for adoption to his mother’s psychiatrist … a move that might seem wise until you learn how nuts the doctor and his family are. That Burroughs is able to spin comic gold from a gut-wrenching childhood is amazing to me. That he never gives up on his mother is even more astounding. Burroughs continues to document his life in subsequent books. Dry is his memoir about his stint in rehab), but this is the one that is the “must read.” It was also made into a movie (which I’ve never seen).