10 Most Harrowing Autobiographies Of All Time

Auschwitz | © Adam Tas/Flickr
Varia Fedko-Blake

Ever since the dawn of literature, people have eagerly chronicled their own experiences. Today, the autobiographical genre boasts a myriad of fascinating works and musings, which continue to give us impeccable insights into society, history, politics and above all, the inner workings of the human mind. From memories of impoverished childhoods to shocking experiences of conflict and war, here are ten essential autobiographies that are as harrowing as they are poignant.

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves

Although Robert Graves’s depiction of a turn-of-the-century childhood provides a fascinating glimpse into the age, it is how he chronicles World War I and his description of life in the trenches that remains with the reader past the last page. With a harsh honesty, Goodbye To All That pinpoints the dehumanizing horrors witnessed by the young officer during the war, visions that left him shell-shocked for the great remainder of his life. The text is so hard-hitting that comrade and fellow writer Siegfried Sassoon was far from pleased with the publication of some of the accounts.

1st Lancashire Fusiliers in trenches near the Somme, 1916

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans documents the lives of three generations of the Chang family throughout the turbulence and turmoil of China in the 20th century. Spanning the century, it contains the biographies of the grandmother, her mother and finally Jung Chang’s own. The text is a tragic tale of personal hardship in the face of nightmarish cruelty, as well as a optimistic narrative about survival and the endurance of the human condition. In many ways, this is perhaps one of the most critically acclaimed histories of China, all taken from a very ordinary and personal perspective that is refreshing to comprehend.

Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel grew up in postwar rural England, rejected and thinking herself incapable of any notable accomplishments in life. Despite this disillusionment, she has written beautifully about her early years with fascinating recollections from her childhood, before plunging straight into the difficult subject matter of her chronic ill health and her dealings with incompetent modern medicine that repeatedly mis-diagnosed her. Forced to take destructive drugs and go on patronizing courses of psychiatry, Giving Up the Ghost exposes a brutally honest identity struggle that resonates with its readers.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Many may not know that author George Orwell served as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War and his work Homage to Catalonia serves as a homage to his experiences during the turbulence of conflict. Politically, and as literature, it remains a text of immeasurable importance, especially due to its unflinching exploration of revolution and humanity during a chaotic period in history. Orwell fervently describes the courage of ordinary Spaniards and the honest mentality at the heart of revolutionary romanticism — something that also brought on mix reactions from critics at the time of publication.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tackles the memoir of a journalist who suffered a stroke that tragically left him with locked-in syndrome. The incident occurred in 1995 and after recovering from a coma, Jean-Dominique realized that he was physically paralyzed, despite being mentally aware. Able to just blink an eye-lid, he wrote the book via these signals. Taking approximately 200,000 blinks over 10 months, Bauby completed the masterpiece, giving its readers a glimpse into the life of a person struggling with the syndrome. A number-one seller in Europe following its publication, it remains a harrowing insight into how significantly the human brain can malfunction, whilst also highlighting the resilience of the human condition.

Jean-Dominique Bauby

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings remains just as poetic and powerful as when it was published back in 1969. It recounts her experiences of being sent away by her mother to live in a small Southern town with her grandmother, where she is subjected to racial discrimination alongside her sister. At the age of 8, Angelou is violently attacked by an older man, leaving her reeling from the incident for the majority of her adulthood. Only later, after relocating to San Fransisco, does the author accept the trials and tribulations of growing-up, as well as the liberating nature of her own human spirit. In tackling difficult themes of abandonment and abuse, it’s easy to see why Angelou’s text is considered to be one of the most powerful female writers today.

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi

To this day, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man remains to be one of the most hard-hitting examples of autobiographical literature in the 20th century. Written with a gentle voice, the text describes the life of an Italian Jewish writer as a member of the anti-fascist resistance during World War II, and most shockingly, his eleven-month experience of the horrifying Auschwitz concentration camp. Putting a raw spotlight on humanity in the extreme, this is a book that will make you take a sober pause and to prioritize the essential obligation to remember the terror of the past.


Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

In 1996, Irish author Frank McCourt published a series of memoirs of his impoverished childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn, New York. Enduring poverty, starvation, relentless filth and abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, as well as the casual cruelty of his other family members, Angela’s Ashes is a heart-breaking tale of the struggles of everyday life and the discrimination faced by millions. A quintessential immigrant story in many respects, it remains an honest description of a crushed childhood in a struggling economy.

Huts and unemployed men in New York City, 1935

Life After Death by Damien Echols

Damien Echols recalls his own living nightmare in Life After Death, an autobiography that reveals his own experiences at the core the US judicial system. Charged with the murders of three boys in Arkansas in 1993, he describes a trial that is plagued with inconsistencies, false testimonies and superstition, all marking him out as guilty even before he enters the court room. Finally released from captivity in 2011, Echols focuses on life behind bars, harking back to abuses at the hands of the prison guards and the horrific living conditions imposed upon inmates. This is a powerful read about perseverance, dealing with injustice and being falsely accused at the hands of the American legal system.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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