We love a true story that makes us cry, but the best tragic memoirs offer something more than that: lessons in resilience and hopeful endings.
The titles below do exactly that, provoking both tears and moments of self-reflection. Though their authors write about devastating events, their words are also testaments to our ability to survive and overcome. Even amidst the greatest tragedies, there is hope, learning, and love to be found.
A Mother's Reckoning
In a controversial yet incredibly timely read, Sue Klebold writes about the notorious Columbine massacre. On April 20, 1999, Sue’s son, Dylan, and his partner in actual crime, Eric Harris, shot up their Littleton high school—murdering 13 innocent people and wounding several others—before turning the shotguns on themselves. In A Mother’s Reckoning, an uncensored Sue uses honesty and empathy to answer the question that has been haunting her for years: Where did I go wrong?
Tragedy doesn’t care if you’re on vacation. It stops for no one—including Sonali Deraniyagala, whose Sri Lankan getaway coincided with the tsunami that devastated the island in 2004. After she was swept up by a 30-foot racing wave, she was left clinging to a tree branch while debris and bodies rushed by. Her two sons, her husband, and her parents were among those bodies, all killed by the wave that struck them. Read about Sonali's terror, rescue, and shocking recovery in her bestselling memoir, Wave.
You don’t have to be an identical twin to relate to Christa Parravani's pain. She and her sister, Cara, were more than twins or best friends—they were soul mates. They shared everything, including a troubled and often traumatic childhood, until their paths split at 24. After being attacked and raped, Cara fell into a rabbit hole of depression and drugs, before dying of a heroin overdose. Her chronicles Christa's struggle to reassemble the pieces of a life—and identity—that was torn in half by loss.
You may recognize those flawless cheekbones from the pages of a glossy magazine, but supermodel Waris Dirie has a story so extraordinary, you have to read it to believe it. A native of Somalia, a barefoot Dirie grew up in a world of tyranny and unimaginable trauma. After being promised to a much older man, she escaped to the Somali desert at age 12, where she wrestled with the elements all on her own. Desert Flower tracks her amazing journey from a frightened child on the run to a model, mother, and U.N. ambassador.
A Widow's Story
From one of contemporary lit’s most prolific writers comes this tearjerker about love and loss. Joyce Carol Oates was married to Raymond Smith, an editor at the Ontario Review, for 46 years before he died due to complications with pneumonia. A Widow’s Story is exactly that—Oates' intimate account of her final days with her husband, and the unexpected aftermath of his passing. It's a must-read for fans of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.
One Liter of Tears
One liter? More like a couple buckets. One Litre of Tears is the heart-wrenching diary of Aya Kito, a young Japanese woman coping with a terminal illness. At 15, she was diagnosed with spinocerebellar degeneration, a rare disease that robs its victims of life’s simplest pleasures. Unable to eat, walk, or talk and keep her mind in tact, Aya's barely-functioning body quickly became a prison. Journaling was an outlet for her pain—and a reminder that she was still alive and breathing—that restored her stolen freedom.
Guantanámo Diary stands alongside One Liter of Tears as a gut-wrenching diary—though it's also a New York Times bestseller that the U.S. government probably wouldn't want you to read. It details the day-to-day of Guantanámo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. As collateral damage in the War on Terror, he was locked in the U.S. prison in Guantanámo Bay in 2002, though he was never charged of a crime. In his diary, he divulges the abuse he experienced at the hands of U.S. officials—something he endured every day until his release in late 2016.