Memoir picks: True gems about friendship and death
I promise these aren’t downers.
I recently heard the term “anticipatory death” discussed on Anderson Cooper’s “All There Is” podcast. People who experience anticipatory death may be dealing with a loved one who has dementia or Alzheimer’s, cancer, or terminal illness.
I had never quite heard of dying as anticipatory death, but instantly recognized it as a theme that draws me into memoirs. I’m intrigued by how people come to terms with a dying family member, spouse, or friend because it’s a moment in time that will stay with them forever. Plus, everyone grieves so differently.
I haven’t experienced anyone close to me dying—yet. Learning about this through memoirs helps me prepare for the inevitable. It also makes me feel so grateful for the friends and family I still have in my life. 🙏
These are some memoirs about family, friendship, and death. You won’t be able to stop once you start.
By Jennette McCurdy
What prompted me to read this book: I saw the title on Audible and was like huh, what, why? I immediately wanted why she was so glad that her mom died. What kind of a monster was her mother?
Quick summary: I wrote briefly about this one in my last memoir review.
Nickelodeon TV actor Jennette McCurdy worshipped her mother, Debra, and did anything to please her. She became a child actor and a Nickelodeon star because that’s what Debra wanted her to do.
Jennette’s story is about the unraveling of dysfunction and chaos from her abusive mother. Debra wasn’t physically abusive, but she was extremely manipulative. Debra also had an eating disorder, so she passed on her warped relationship with food to Jennette, encouraging her to skip meals. There were so many times when I cringed—like the scenes where Debra gave Jennette a shower—something she did until Jennette was in her late teens. 😲
Debra was diagnosed with breast cancer when Jennette was a toddler, though she was in remission for many years. Then, the cancer came back and spread to her brain. In 2013, at the age of 56, she died. Jennette was 21.
The most memorable bit: The beginning. It started at the hospital when Debra was in a coma. Jennette whispered something in her mom’s ear, certain this would wake her. She leaned in and said, “Mama, I weigh 90 pounds.” Oo man, there was so much to unpack in this opening scene. I was like whahh, whoaaaaa.
I loved this book so much I… Googled the crap out of Jennette McCurdy and watched all the interviews she did while promoting her book. I needed to know more about her story (and her mom)!
By Gale Caldwell
What prompted me to read this book: I read “Drinking: A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp (the next memoir on this list). The memoir was so brilliant I Googled the author to see if she had any other books published. I was disheartened to discover that Caroline died in 2002. However, I found “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” a memoir about her death (but more about friendship), written by her best friend Gale Caldwell.
Quick summary: Gale and Caroline had met briefly a few times because they were in the same circle of writer folks in the Boston area.
The two became friends right around the time Caroline quit drinking and got a dog. But their friendship really began after they ran into each other while walking their dogs in the woods. They bonded over their canine pals.
In “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” Gale writes mostly about their friendship but also relived the moments when Caroline was first diagnosed with lung cancer.
I really admire the prose in this book. It’s like reading poetry. Every word is intentional and beautifully written. I can feel their connection.
The most memorable bits: The most special moments were captured in the mundane things the women did together, like… when Caroline taught Gale how to row on the Charles River and when they walked their dogs and took trips to the woods together. Their daily phone calls and genuine concern for each other. Gale’s disapproval of Caroline’s smoking.
Caroline’s death was particularly tragic not just because of her age, but because of her epic struggle with the bottle. She finally won, believing she had many more days of AA and sobriety ahead of her, only to be punched in the gut with a death sentence.
I loved this book so much I… actually read it instead of listening. Gale’s voice shines through on every single page. I didn’t read this book, I watched it.
By Caroline Knapp
Technically, this is a memoir about addiction, but a large part of the story is about the death of the author’s parents. They died just a few months apart from each other. Also, it goes hand in hand with “Let’s Take the Long Way Home.”
What prompted me to read this book: I first heard about this from Marion Roach’s podcast, Qwerty, and quickly learned it’s a classic in the memoir world. Marion recommended it as a must-read for any aspiring memoir author.
Quick summary: This story takes you from casual drinking to full-blown addiction. Caroline’s story isn’t the typical story of addiction because she was a master at hiding it from her friends, colleagues, and boyfriends. She still had a job—a good one—as a journalist for the Boston Globe.
The way she describes her addiction is so sincere and relatable that I almost felt it too. Her struggle with the bottle started in college, but her legacy with alcoholism stemmed from her parents.
The author’s story of why she started drinking was a familiar one—to become a better version of herself, to let go in awkward social situations, and to escape. The need to drink transformed from just wanting to loosen up at gatherings to later hiding bottles of liquor from her boyfriend. She also had an eating disorder and smoked a few packs a day.
“Drinking: A Love Story” is a vulnerable and honest depiction of what happens when alcohol rules your life. Caroline started boozing at 19 and didn’t go to AA until she was in her 30s. That’s a really long time and while I read the book, there were times when I felt such frustration because she refused to believe she had a problem.
Caroline is a master at inner dialogue, reflection, and amazing prose. A large chunk of the book is narration, but it’s thoughtful and engaging, not boring or drawn out.
The most memorable bits: The bar scenes. They were so vivid and felt familiar (thinking back to my 20s and 30s when I’d get smashed). Caroline, enjoying happy hour at the bar across the street from her office, was giddy about her first sip of white wine. One glass turned into five, then a few whiskeys, and later, she’d polish the evening off with vodka before blacking out.
The next day was filled with panic—what did she say last night? Her brain sloshed in her skull, trying to recall. But she could only picture the haze that surrounded the evening. Did she say anything dumb? Was she out of line? Was she obnoxious? She would go through the endless loop of not knowing how she behaved the night before. Then, she’d go to the fridge and pop open a bottle of white wine to ease her nerves before the self-loathing would completely unleash itself. Now imagine this scenario occurring on a nightly basis.
I loved this book so much I… read her second book, “A Pack of Two,” which was about her relationship with her dog Lucille.
Bonus: Not a memoir but a binge-worthy podcast you will be obsessed with
I almost kicked myself for not knowing Anderson had a podcast. I used to work for his short-lived daytime show, “Anderson Live,” and loved working with him. He is exactly who you see on TV, genuine and kind-hearted, but maybe a bit more introverted in person.
The podcast is about his mother’s death. It’s about dealing with all of the things she left behind. Remnants of his childhood and his late father and older brother… stuffed away in a mountain of boxes. In the first few episodes, he records himself and wonders what he’s supposed to do with all of it.
But more than the old clothing and photos, it’s about Anderson feeling alone as the last surviving member of his family. His dad died after heart surgery when Anderson was 10 and his older brother Carter at 23 from suicide.
The podcast also features guests who have dealt with incredible loss in their own lives. I was especially moved by the episode with Stephen Colbert and a separate episode about Anderson’s nanny (he discusses anticipatory grief with his guest in this episode)—man oh man, I could not stop crying.
If books are too much of a commitment, listen to Anderson’s podcast.
Any favorite memoirs you’d like to add? Share it in the comments.