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10 Great Memoirs about Growing Up with Toxic Parents

Growing up with toxic parents can be a profoundly isolating experience. The cocoon of home life can mean that these toxic relationships remain hidden for a long time, and perhaps even more importantly, because it is all that a child knows, it can prove quite a test to find a frame of reference to understand what is happening. To quote Veronica Jarski in her book For Adult Survivors of Emotional Child Abuse “Because the abusive parents are very secretive in their abuse (hiding their true selves when in public), emotionally abused children will assume that how they were treated at home was natural.” 

With this in mind, it can be comforting, helpful, and even healing, to reach out and find accounts of other people who have had to deal with the same kind of hardships and trauma. While there are plenty of examples of toxic parenting in fiction (you can read further lists on that here and here), memoirs have the advantage of being true-to-life. This helps readers in understanding that they’re not the only one who has had this experience, and helps them identify the signs of toxic parenting in other people’s lives, which can help them come to terms with it in their own lives. The aim of this list was not to create a checklist of misfortune, yet we have endeavoured to include a broad range of experiences and hardships, to reflect that no one person’s experience of toxic parents is the same. Of course, this list is applicable to anyone coming to terms with the effects of toxic parents, either from their own experience or in supporting a loved one who has had to handle a troubled childhood, however it is also a great starting point for anyone who simply wishes to know more about the perspective of children in troubled families. 

The Glass Castle

We begin this list with a classic of the genre, like the immensely popular Running with Scissors, The Glass Castle is one of the best known memoirs chronicling the experience of growing up and living with toxic parents. Jeanette Wall’s story is a fascinating blend of romance and horror. Her nonconformist parents, both artists and dreamers, led their four children (of whom Jeanette was the second) across the country, running from their debts and attempting to find a place to call home. Wall’s father Rex was charming and charismatic, when he wasn’t drunk, and her mother, who relished a life outside the norm, couldn’t stand the burden of day-to-day duties. Writing from the perspective of having transformed her situation into a typical middle class life, Wall’s account of this nomadic and often dangerous life is very even-handed, neither nostalgic nor blaming. Instead she has produced a book filled with loving generosity towards her family, while recounting a life filled with wonder but also with unspeakable hardship and neglect. 

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Driving with Dead People

Monica Holloway’s memoir describes a childhood filled with death and morbid obsessions stemming from the disturbing and destructive behaviour of her father. As a nine-year-old, she was drawn into a friendship with the daughter of the town’s mortician. Together they develop a fascination with death, spending all their time in the funeral home, lying in caskets, and later taking jobs as hearse drivers. All this is unsurprising, given her father’s obsession with photographing gory car wrecks and natural disasters. These photos dominated family slideshows, their holiday photos speckled among the horrific images of death. This, coupled with her father’s physically abusive behaviour, and her mother’s neglect and fervent denial of the situation, made for a traumatic upbringing. Holloway recounts her harrowing childhood, and her unusual and dysfunctional teenage years, as she tried to gain independence from her parents. Told with a clear-eyed and unsentimental voice, Holloway captures the confusion and hurt of growing up in an environment that she cannot understand and from whose consequences and effects she cannot escape. 

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The Tank Man's Son

The son of an abusive father, Mark Bouman recounts his experiences growing up under a reign of terror and violence. While such a story may be sadly commonplace to many people, what makes Bouman’s story perhaps an unusual experience of toxic parenting, was his father’s Neo-Nazism and psychotic game-playing. As Bouman himself notes, “his particular brand of insanity was both conspicuous and cruel.” Running his house like a boot camp, Bouman’s father would alternate between exacting unusual punishments and bring the boys on exciting adventures, such as scuba diving and driving the titular tank. Clear and concise Bouman draws a vivid picture of life under his tyrannous father. It should be noted that Bouman has spent 20 years as a missionary and brings his Christian perspective to the story moving from memoir at the very end to faith testimony. This testimony that tracks his journey towards forgiveness and compassion for his family. This sense of forgiveness keeps the narrative from self-pity and even manages to carry an light-hearted tone.

House Rules

Rachel Sontag’s experience with toxic parenting shows how a parent can cause terror without using physical abuse. Instead she was subject to an almost suffocating level of controlling and micromanaging from her father. Outwardly she led a comfortable middle-class life; the daughter of a doctor, she lived in a nice suburban house, went on family holidays, and did well in school. Yet behind closed doors she was subject to an unending list of requirements and restrictions known as the ‘house rules.’ When she failed to live up to these expectations what ensued was nights filled with insults and humiliation, where her father forced her to write self-berating letters of apology. As the narrative is told through the lens of Sontag’s adolescent self, this leads to a blurring of objectivity. While some of the descriptions may sound fairly typical of parents trying to wrestle with the fluctuations of their teenager, others clearly describe a life of overbearing control and restriction. This confusion however, is perhaps key to understanding the experience of this kind of toxic parenting, which leaves children on unsure footing, unable to find an objective perspective on what is happening, what constitutes abuse and what doesn’t.

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The Liars' Club

Raised in an east-Texas oil town, Mary Karr’s childhood was far from idyllic. On one side, her father was prone to drinking, hitting, and getting into trouble, on the other side her mother had a tendency to mental instability and short marriages. Karr saw more than her fair share of hardship and abuse, but the narrative she tells is far from a tough slog. Her father, the founder of the titular ‘Liar’s Club’, which refers to the tall tales he would recount to his friends, has clearly passed on his talent for storytelling to his daughter. Her deadpan Texas style turns on a dime between the raucously comedic and the devastatingly tragic. Despite the grim and bleak occurrences described in her childhood, such is the ferocity of Karr’s love for her family, and such is the eloquent poetic tone of her writing, that the book rendered a beautiful and captivating read. The message comes through that even in hard situations, with parents who are broken and damaging, love can survive and even triumph. 

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A Piece Of Cake

This memoir takes us a slight step away from the parameters of this list, instead presenting us with the string of horrific foster parents endured by Cupcake Brown in her childhood, and the deplorable effects this would have on her life. Brown’s life was filled with tragedy from an early age. Following the death of her mother when Brown was 11, she was placed in the ironically termed ‘care’ of foster parents who excelled in the sadism and cruelty. Her life now characterized by physical and sexual abuse Brown took to running away, which led her into prostitution, gang violence, and drug addiction. However, after a moment of epiphany the story turns to triumph in the face of adversity and Brown’s ultimate escape from her former life. Brown records her memories in the slang and urban vernacular of her childhood, recreating her world with vivid, bold strokes. Maintaining an edge of humor, Brown carries her undeniably harrowing story with frank honesty and captivating strength.

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Out of Place: a Memoir

From one extreme to another, where Cupcake Brown’s life was filled with the most overt kind of cruelty and abuse, Edward Said’s parents were loving and caring. They were not abusive nor violent, and yet they cast a long shadow over Said’s life. Edward Said was considered one of the greatest intellectuals of his age, he was a founder of the field of postcolonial academic studies and professor of literature at Columbia University. His early years were spent in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt, with his parents. His father was authoritative and domineering, instilling discipline, repressed emotions, and exerting a need for control. His mother, on the other hand, was Said’s closest companion, and although she showed him love and support, giving him a love of literature and language, she was also a source of uneasy emotional tension. Her nervous habits, her anxiety, her restlessness and her ambivalence put Said on unsteady footing. Clearly this memoir is not one of calamity and disaster, and yet Said carefully crafts the looming impact of his parents on his life, as he notes, "I existed as a child both fortunate and hopelessly miserable, neither completely one nor the other." Tracing his unhappy beginnings, Said outlines the messy relationships of parents and children, and the effects that can have throughout a person’s life.

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All over but the Shoutin'

Another example of a renowned writer emerging from unpromising beginning, in All Over But the Shoutin’, Pulitzer prize winning reporter, Rick Bragg tells the story of his early life in the dirt poor surroundings of northeastern Alabama. His father, an abusive alcoholic, doesn’t take long to walk out on the family, leaving Bragg, his two brothers and his mother in the dire poverty. While Bragg insists his story isn’t exceptional, his rendering of it is. Bragg captures the dusty dull landscape of the South, and the poverty ridden ‘white trash’ community he found himself in. While both his father’s presence and absence has a profound impact on his life, it is his mother that his story centres on. The image of courage and endurance his mother did all in her power to protect her children and provide for them. It is a memoir of the pain inflicted by bad parenting but more importantly it is a memoir of the power of good parenting, and its ability to triumph even in dire circumstances. 

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Borrowed Finery

In 1923 Paula Fox was born to a father and mother who were both an unfortunate mix of bohemian artist and neglectful and cruel parent. Her father was a hard-drinking screenwriter, and her mother would swing between icey anger and frosty indifference. Early on, they found themselves too self-obsessed to care for a child, and so they place Fox in an orphanage, before she was swiftly rescued by her grandmother. She was then passed around from home to home, occasionally ending up back with her parents, just long enough for their behaviour to show the worst in them, before being sent off again. This constant state of motion means we get snippets of the landscape her various lives, in Cuba with her grandmother, in Montreal, in Hollywood with an alcoholic family friend. Fox doesn’t waste time trying to understand her parents behaviour, and parts of her life remain a discreet mystery and yet the scenes of neglect and torment are haunting. Fox’s tone is delicate and understated, she glances over the most traumatising of events, casting a cool eye over her experiences. 

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Father and Son

We close out this list as we began, on a classic of the genre. Considered one of the seminal autobiographies in English literature, Father and Son recounts the childhood of Edmund Gosse with his religious fundamentalist father, the renowned naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse’s mother was of a similarly ardent religious bent as his father, but she passed away from breast cancer when Gosse was eight, and so father and son were left to struggle through with their opposing natures. Gosse’s father typified the Victorian approach of unexpressed emotions and repressive civility, which led to an almost suffocating level of family tension. The account describes his father’s need for control and his spiritual interrogations of his son. The two clashed on many points of religion and science, ultimately the breaking point for Gosse was in his father’s staunch denial of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This led Gosse to a breakdown of faith and an estrangement from his father. Gosse’s elegant prose, describes his troubled relationship with his father and his struggle for personal identity and intellectual freedom. 

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I love to read, cook, and travel. My favourite books are anything Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, but I also love non-fiction history and self-help.

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