Memoirs That Taught Me How Women See the World

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

No wonder I didn’t understand women. When I was growing up, every book I read was by a man. Now, thanks to the emergence of the memoir as a popular form, I have been inside the feminine mind, and learned what it feels like to see the world through their eyes. Reading offers the ultimate transgender experience, allowing me to freely cross the boundary that formerly separated me from the other sex.

To read more about my experience as a man trying to make sense of women, read my article in the Good Men Project.  In this post, I list some of the books that have helped me grow beyond the confinement of just one gender.

Childhood as a female
Memoirs have provided me with a feminine perspective on Coming of Age.

Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers
Coming of age in the Midwest, abandoned by both parents, raised by her grandmother. The author is the founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers

Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
The author’s zany, nomadic parents provided comical scenes, but how could any child be expected to emerge from that dysfunctional situation? Surprisingly, Walls grew up to become a successful, generous person. Glass Castle was one of the early memoirs in the Memoir Revolution.

Name All Animals by Alison Smith
Another Midwesterner grew up in a small town, mourning the fiery death of her brother and discovering her own sexuality.

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
A small-town girl describes normal life among neighbors, from the perspective of a child with an uncanny knack for frank observation.

Receiving Unregulated, Inappropriate Lust
When lust escapes the bounds of mutual consent and crosses into violence, it turns from joy to horror.

I Remember Terror Father Because I Remember You by Sue William Silverman
A woman remembers growing up with a father who manipulated the family into a strange, distorted arrangement in which he entitled himself to have sexual relations with his daughter. This excellent memoir provides a disturbing glimpse into the power of sexuality to distort normalcy. As a lifelong self-development junky and a memoir writer with now three memoirs to her credit, Sue William Silverman is a perfect guide to take readers on this disturbing journey. By allowing my mind to bump into these aberrations and not run away, I feel more capable of understanding the shadow side of sexuality.

Lucky by Alice Sebold
A young innocent 18-year-old goes away to college and during her freshman year is brutally assaulted and raped. With her innocence ripped away, she spends years first bringing the perpetrator to justice and then trying to put herself back together. This unmentionable topic comes out from hiding in this important memoir by a highly-respected novelist Alice Sebold.

Click here for my article.

Feminism – being female in the 60s
When I was in college in the 60s, the males were going crazy about the threat of the draft. Sadly, I had no idea what the females were going crazy about. Now, fifty years later, I finally know. In this collection of short stories, The Times They Were A’Changing: Women Remember the ‘60s and 70s, an anthology edited by Kate Farrell, Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lea Starfire, women who were coming of age during that era recount scenes of peak intensity when they were discovering that they no longer needed to stay quiet and obedient.

Click here for my article.

Pregnancy
Despite the fact that I came into this world through a women’s womb, the experience of giving birth is totally foreign to my male mind. I doubt I will ever understand the otherworldly mixture of pain and joy, but memoirs provide glimpses into the mind of an expecting mother, providing a way to share some of the discomfort, pressure, and love of having a baby.

Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields
A famous young woman, accustomed to being in the public eye, gives birth and realizes that her feelings about the baby are not spectacular love but something much drearier and darker. As beautiful as she looks on camera, the edgy, disappointing feelings in her heart make her miserable.

Click here for my article:

Expecting Adam by Martha Beck
Beck was a hyper-intellectualized young woman in a doctoral program at Harvard, when she became pregnant. Her academic peers looked down on her condition. Get rid of it. You’ll ruin your career. When the fetus was shown to have Down Syndrome, her commitment took on an almost mystical tone.

Click here for my article:

Young Married Life
One of the great transitions in a person’s life is to shift from a “free-agent” to a married one. This shift requires a profound change in mindset. I’ve read several memoirs that take me inside a woman’s mind during this transition.

Orchard by Theresa Weir
A young woman who reaches a moral and emotional dead end meets a guy from a family of apple farmers. She doesn’t know the first thing about farming, and his mother hates her, but somehow they get married and raise a family.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook
Lisa Fineberg Cook’s good looks and fascination with fashion gave her an easy entry into the fast social life in LA. When she married and moved to Japan with her husband, she had to shift gears and find a different way to relate to the world, as a wife rather than a hot date.

Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro
After Susan Shapiro had been married for a few years, she began to fantasize about her previous boy friends. Her reminiscence takes readers deep into the territory of a young woman falling in love, wandering about permanent relationships versus the passion of the moment, and the challenges of serial monogamy from deep inside a female mind.

A Mom’s Intense Responsibility for Her Family
With all the effort to involve dads in the raising of children, moms are often the first lines of defense, at least according to some of the powerful memoirs I’ve read. The moms in these books require almost super-powers of discernment and courage.

Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh
A woman with teenage children moves to Belize to try to jolt her family back into shape. Her story on one level seems like a sort of zany family adventure. On another level it is a look inside the workings of a family where husband and wife are attempting to make the transition from young to middle, while taking the responsibility for caregiving for their kids.

Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Some willful children seem to constantly slip away from guidance. Rachel Pruchno’s daughter took an extreme form of rebellion, including risk taking, lying, manipulation, and a variety of mental challenges which turned mothering into a continuous emergency. This mother’s background in psychology makes her an especially good raconteur of a family’s attempts to avoid madness.

Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney
Two young teen girls become increasingly defiant, running away at first just overnight, and then for longer and longer periods, finally disappearing altogether, while Mom goes crazy with worry.

Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent
Eleanor Vincent’s daughter, just beginning the exciting journey to become a vibrant young woman. On a dare or prank, a few friends get together and take turns mounting a horse, resulting in the freak accident that stole her daughter from her and sent her on a quest to understand her journey as a mother, attempting to separate from the finality of death and hang on to the celebration of her daughter’s life.

Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples
As her son came of age, he showed signs of musical genius. Then, just as he prepared to go out in the world and become independent, his mind started to unravel. At a time when mothers look proudly at their son’s achievements, Sharples was hurled into the nightmare of trying to keep her son alive despite his mental illness. Like Swimming with Maya, this memoir filled me with the heartbreak and courage of grief.

Two girl friends, two sisters
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Girls are supposed to have a special closeness in their friendships, but I’ve never been deep inside such a friendship until I read this in this loving, touching tale by Gail Caldwell. The two women turned toward each other, bonded by their sobriety (they were former alcoholics), their love for writing, and their love for their dogs.

Riding The Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon
The focus of this memoir is the bond between two sisters. The author is a news reporter who researches an article about her sister who rides buses all day. Their differences separated them in their younger years. The book is about the author’s decision to get to know her sister as an adult by riding the bus with her for a year.

Breast cancer
Sky Begins at Your Feet, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Breasts are the ultimate symbols of femininity, fertility, birth, and rejuvenation. Cancer adds mortality to the list. In The Sky Begins at Your Feet, against a backdrop of spiritual and social healing, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, takes us into her heart and community and shares the sorrows and determination of surviving.

Marriage and death
Marriage vows are until death, but what happens when one dies young? The loss of a husband to death deals a terrible blow to this author, with children to raise, and still many years of her life ahead of her.

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
A young woman with small children loses her husband in a freak accident and must go on a search for sanity and wholeness.

Again in a Heartbeat: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Dating Again by Susan Weidener
A woman tells the story of her marriage, from courtship, to parenthood, to the early death of her spouse. After her grief, she must continue to support her family and find herself.

Click here for the first part of my interview:

Marriage and caregiving
Women are often family caregivers. These memoirs take me inside the situation and let me see it from the woman’s perspective.

100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman
When her husband has a severe stroke, the author becomes his primary caregiver. In a tragic twist, his vast interest in playful turns of language have been cut short by aphasia, and together they work out new ways to communicate.

Inside the Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius
When her mother became impaired by Alzheimer’s, the author had to assume the role of caregiver. She wrote this memoir to help others in the same situation.

Spousal Abuse

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Leslie Morgan Steiner fell in love with a man who seemed like Mr. Right in so many ways. He was authentic, caring, successful and seemed to fit her perfectly. However, as soon as they moved in together and she began to cut back on her independence, his dark side came out. He turned into a nearly murderous batterer, with martial art skills and a mind-numbing ability to hurt her and then apologize profusely. I have known for years about the pattern of spousal violence, but this was the first time I had to immerse myself within the fear and insanity, not knowing when the next burst of violence would explode, and hoping that something would change to bring back the gentle man with whom I fell in love.

Making it as a writer
Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn
When Dunn left high school she had no idea what to do. But since she lived across the river from Manhatten, and she loved Rolling Stone magazine, one thing led to another and she ended up as a reporter there. Her journey inside the world of celebrity interviewing and magazine publishing offers a fun and at the same serious look at making it as a female journalist in that stratospheric world of letters and stars.

Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus by Susan Shapiro
Shapiro lives in New York City, obsessed with trying to “make it” as a writer in a city of writers, mostly men. Even though the high-pressured world of the New York literary scene is different from my own more modest effort, I’m fascinated by the mountains she is willing to climb in order to achieve her goals.

Trying to understand her relationship to her dad
Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour
The author reviews life with a father who was obsessed with his country estate, trying to hang on to the remnants of the British class system.

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron
The daughter of the novelist William Styron attempts to make sense of his life. More a biography of the famous writer than a memoir, this book looks at a famous man’s life through the eyes of his daughter.

In the Shadow of Fame by Sue Erikson Bloland
When growing up with a father famous for his sensitivity to the needs of children, one would think that this daughter would be the first thing on his mind. From the daughter’s point of view, though, she felt all but forgotten, as implied by the title of the book.

Daughters Whose Mothers Made Bad Decisions
These adult women look back on their early lives at mothers who were more consumed by drugs or men than by mothering. To survive, they ran away or were removed from their homes. The stories are filled with heartbreak, courage, and independence.

Here I Stand by Jillian Bullock
Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum
In these two coming of age stories, young woman run away, attempting to find their own safety when their mothers can’t provide it.

Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell
Orchard by Theresa Weir
Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent
In Orchard, these two memoirs, the authors look back on early life when their mothers were incapable of taking care of them.

Search for Responsible Adulthood
The transition into adult responsibility requires important shifts in perspective. These memoirs chronicle that shift.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
A young woman filled with confusion about the next steps in her life decides to hike by herself through the wilderness of the mountains of California, and as she negotiations blisters and strangers, she muses, reminisces and grows into a young woman. The book is an acclaimed masterpiece of the weaving of introspective work facilitated by external action, a sort of vision quest.

Saddled: How a Spirited Horse Reined Me in and Set Me Free by Susan Richards
A woman attempts to become a competent adult. Held back by alcoholism and bad taste in men, she befriends a horse who she credits with carrying her back to mental health.

Intellectually driven women on a lifetime journey to understand life
In these memoirs, women reach mature years, they look back across a life informed by stunning intellectual inquiry and achievement, demonstrating that ancient principle that it takes time to accumulate wisdom.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
Stet by Diana Athill
Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong
Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

Women wrestling with the oppression of a religious doctrine
World religions sometimes get tangled in sexual politics, for some reason expecting women to hide their bodies and placing other demands and restrictions. These memoirs take me deep into the minds of women who have wrestled with such dilemmas.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
An intellectual young woman, educated in the U.S. returns to Iran to teach English literature. However, the revolution sweeps away the rights of women, and bands of men roam the streets arresting women who wear makeup. To speak to women frankly, Azar Nafisi teaches the English literature in her home, risking arrest and imprisonment. The shocking scene when a female guard tries to rub the blush off her cheek, mistaking the coloration of her skin for makeup completes the humiliation of a woman who is forced to deny her femininity.

Click here for my article.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman
A woman in an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect is subject to layers upon layers of rules and restrictions on women. Required to take cleansing baths each month to remove her tainted menstruation, and to shave her head so others could not see her hair, Deborah Feldman wrestled with the confinement of her religion until she “escaped” risking the wilds of modern life.

Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
A Moslem woman, forced to marry against her will, flees to the West, where she discovers modernity. As a student of Western culture, she comes to understand the civic lessons of democracy, in which each individual has a responsibility not just to the honor of the tribe but to the well being of the entire society. Her memoir includes generous segments of essay, in which she describes a fabulous overview of the Enlightenment. Westerners take their freedoms and responsibilities for granted. Through Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s eyes we gain a fresh look at our institutions.

An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson
A young woman enters the religious order of the Missionaries of Mercy to follow Mother Teresa into service of the poorest of the poor. In the process, she learns how to hurt herself in order to suppress “bad thoughts” and watches in horror as her sexuality continues to break through despite her best efforts to contain it.

Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

One thought on “Memoirs That Taught Me How Women See the World

  1. Pingback: A New Way to Understand Women: Reading Their Life Stories -

Leave a Reply