The 5 Best Memoirs I Read in 2017

Wife, Just Let Go: Zen, Alzheimer’s, and Love by Diana Saltoon and Robert Briggs

For quite a while now, I’ve been interested in death and dying. I’ve noticed that most people pretend that death is something that will really never happen to them, and if you experience the death of a loved one, not that many people feel comfortable talking with you about that experience.

Diana Saltoon’s book, Wife, Just Let Go: Zen, Alzheimer’s, and Love, is a rare breath of fresh air in this realm. She not only talks about death and dying, she dives deep into the ocean of fear, unknowing, resistance, and pain to show the reader her journey to acceptance, and ultimately peace, when faced with the terminal illness and decline of her beloved partner, Robert Briggs. In this slim but powerful volume, we also find memories of Robert’s experiences with the Beat poets in the San Francisco scene in the 1950’s, a meeting he had with Eleanor Roosevelt that left an indelible, lifelong impression on him, and his chilling story of witnessing an atomic explosion as part of a US Army experiment.

We also see how Robert and Diana met, fell in love, and accompanied each other on life’s tumultuous path for over three decades.

Wife, Just Let Go took me only a couple of days to read, but it will stay with me for years. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.

The Inheritance of Shame by Peter Gajdics

I was mesmerized by this intimate account of Gajdics undergoing conversion therapy that aimed to turn him from a gay man into a straight man. The subject matter alone is compelling, but what really makes his story so intriguing is the psychiatrist who led his therapy and the abusive tactics he used on Gajdics. I have also had a couple of very scary relationships with narcissistic abusers in my life (one a former boyfriend and one a former boss) so I definitely related to Gajdics’ story. I haven’t met that many other people in real life who have gone through the crazy-making experience of someone who gaslights you at every turn and uses the most extreme coercive strategies to control and manipulate people. It was refreshing, to say the least, to see that Gajdics is throwing light on this topic. I believe it’s something many people have gone through (especially those of us who are highly sensitive, intuitive, or empathic—we seem to be targets for narcissists) even though it’s tough to find resources and support to deal with it or heal from it.

Gajdics’ book is an incredibly important work of art and social awareness not just for the LGBTQA population, but for anyone who has ever suffered mental, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit late to the party on this one. Friends have been urging me to read this book forever and it just didn’t call to me for some reason, but when I spotted it at a library sale a few months ago I scooped it up. When I started reading it that night I couldn’t put it down.

Strayed’s memoir is about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s about so much more. She explores the grief she went through in losing her mother to lung cancer the year before (Strayed was in her early 20s at the time and her mother only in her early 40s), her painful relationships with men, and the psychological damage from her relationship with her father. This was not an easy book to read and it’s not something you’re going to breeze through, but it is one of the most powerful books I’ve read and the intensity that comes along with it is a part of a whole package that makes for an utterly brilliant work of art.

Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story by Mark Matousek

I first heard of Mark Matousek due to the writing workshops he teaches (which I’ve heard are amazing), so when I saw this book on Amazon I made an impulse buy. And I’m very glad I did. Matousek’s book grabbed me from the first page when he talks about working for Andy Warhol and what the eccentric artist was like up-close-and-personal. He kept me reading, however, when he began to delve into the extreme personal crisis he had that led to him investigating matters of the spirit.

Matousek goes from the chaotic dog-eat-dog world of busy Manhattan in the 1980’s to a tiny remote village in Germany, where he first meets Mother Meera, a modern-day saint believed by her devotees to be the embodiment of the Divine Mother. From Germany, he travels onto India and then back to New York, where he finds out he has HIV, as does his best friend, a woman almost 20 years older than him who dies of the disease. Matousek’s story recounts the experience of being present with his friend as she goes through the process of dying.

Like Wild, Matousek’s memoir is seriously intense, but also worth it. I came away from this one with my worldview changed.

Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder

I’m a Gene Wilder fangirl. I’m not sure if it was Willy Wonka or Stir Crazy that got me hooked on Mr. Wilder’s comic genius, but I’ve never looked back (I’m obsessed with Richard Pryor too, go figure). When Gene Wilder passed last year, this little gem showed up on one of my reading recommendation lists and I jumped on it.

Gene describes his life from boyhood to his current day, which was his life with his fourth wife, Karen, who he met through work he did on the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil. He was startlingly honest throughout the book, revealing his experiences with everything from OCD compulsions, to awkward sex, to what it was like to fall in love with Gilda Radner, a beautiful but tortured artist in her own right, and see her through the ovarian cancer that took her life.

I came out of this book liking Gene Wilder even more, if that’s possible. Next on my list: more books about Richard Pryor.

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