We all face our own unique series of challenges in life. We each struggle with different specific traumas, griefs, rock bottoms, or hurdles. But regardless of our difficulties, reading the stories of tragedy, transformation, and overcoming the odds is a powerful method for helping us through our own journeys.
There are far too many excellent memoirs on personal tribulation and transformation to count (and certainly to include here). But below are some of the best memoirs that take us through the greatest hardships of being human—and how we manage to come out the other side.
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
In this powerful and heart-wrenching memoir, Deraniyagala recounts the aftermath of the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami. In the disaster, she lost her husband, two sons, and parents—the five people who mattered most to her in the world. Derinayagala describes her terrible grief honestly, bravely, and sparing no details. It is a haunting account of how grief transforms us, and how the transformation we go through as we slowly emerge out of grief.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed’s bestselling memoir takes us through her months-long hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Along the way, we’re brought back into memories from her past—the death of her mother, the collapse of her marriage, her journey through drug abuse, and more. As she progresses along the trail and deals with all of the hardship involved, she grapples with her past and with becoming the woman of her future.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Kalanithi’s memoir is at once saddening and inspiring. While completing his neurosurgical residency at Stanford University, Kalanithi is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. As he faces his diagnosis, he explores his understanding of death and slowly comes to terms with his own. The memoir ended up being published 10 months after his death, at the age of 37. It is a remarkable story of arriving at bravery and humanity in the face of fear and tragedy.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
In her debut memoir, Miller tells the story of overcoming the trauma of being raped while at a Stanford University party with friends. She is catapulted into the pain of recovering from the event while also going through the re-traumatizing process of dealing with the legal part of the process and attempting to bring justice to her attacker. The strength she finds in the process is nothing short of inspiring.
Conundrum by Jan Morris
In 1974, Morris published this wildly brave memoir sharing her story of coming to terms with being transgender and subsequently going through the challenging process of hormones and surgery. Written at a time when transsexuality was far from widely accepted, Morris’s personal journey, transformation, and willingness to share are all the more remarkable.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Yousafzai grew up in Pakistan, in a region controlled by the Taliban. At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban. She not only survived but went on to become an international symbol of protest and peace and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
In this memoir, Bauby describes his life pre and post a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to walk, speak, or feed himself. The memoir is completely devoid of self-pity and instead frankly and calmly recounts his experiences and challenges along the way. It is an extraordinary story of the human spirit and the trials we are capable of surviving.
Educated by Tara Westover
Westover’s memoir has been incredibly popular since it was published in 2018. It includes the story of her life as a child and teenager, growing up in an extremely religious, isolated, abusive, and paranoid family. She ended up going to Brigham Young for undergrad and then went on to complete a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge. It is part story of living through immense challenges and traumas and part exploration of how education itself transforms and uplifts us.