People Watching for Grownups: Why I Love Memoirs and the Ones I Loved the Most

People Watching for Grownups: Why I Love Memoirs and the Ones I Loved the Most

If you’ve ever been caught in the unwavering gaze of a child, you know they are the world’s most unapologetic people watchers. Children will stare at you until their curiosity is satisfied or something else catches their attention. I was one of those children. On a trip to New York as a child, my mother had to keep me from staring at a homeless man on the train who was riding a broomstick with a foam cut-out of a horse head attached. My mother was worried my staring might upset him.  I just wanted to know where I could get a “horse” like his. There was no judgment, just curiosity.

There’s no denying my people watching has been tainted by a more critical gaze as I’ve gotten older, but I’m still genuinely interested in people. I wonder about the jokes that gave them their laugh lines or the heartaches that put the sadness in their eyes. I try to imagine what the girl staring out the window on the bus is passionate about or what makes my cashier at the grocery store worry. I want a chance to peep into the universes that exist in the minds of all the people who cross my path.

I think that’s why I love memoirs so much. Right there in the pages of a book, people lay out the intimate details of their lives. They share themselves with me. They unveil their fears and reveal their heartaches. They expose their ugly truths and divulge their deepest secrets. I’m always amazed by how often I connect with their stories and see myself reflected back in them.

Over the past year, I’ve committed to reading more memoirs, especially by women. It’s a decision I don’t regret in the least. I’ve learned some powerful lessons from other people’s stories that I don’t know if I would’ve gotten anywhere else. Memoirs aren’t just about being able to catch a glimpse into some else’s life, but a reminder of how, in the ways that matter most, we’re more alike than we are different.

Here are the memoirs that I’ve found most inspiring:

1.       Thanks to my Mother – Schoschana Rabinovici

This is the first memoir I read that I distinctly remember. I was 12 when I read this firsthand account of a girl and her mother surviving the concentration camps of the Jewish Holocaust. The history lessons in school in no way prepared me for this story, but I can easily say it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever read. I was heartbroken by how hateful humanity could be, but inspired by how remarkably resilient the human spirit is. This story of survival, even in the face of the most horrid circumstances, reminds me I’m never allowed to quit.

2.       Year of Yes – Shonda Rhimes

Shonda surprised me in the best way possible. Being obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder, and with Scandal still on my to-watch list, I revered Shonda as extraordinary and invincible. I never imagined she’d be afraid of anything, but here she was, in her own words, telling me that public speaking and TV appearances scared her. One of my inspirations is a scaredy-cat too. Imagine my relief! Reading about Shonda’s year of yes inspired my own, and I’ve been beating back my fears alongside the queen of Thursday night television ever since.

3.       I know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

This one’s for my writer chicks. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a black female writer who didn’t, in some way, find inspiration in Maya Angelou. Her memoir is all at once about the struggle against racism, coming of age and finding her voice in spite of the trauma she endured. There is so much in her story that I identify with, I can’t help but hold this one close to my heart. If your love for words sets you free, then Ms. Angelou’s story will touch your heart too.

4.       All Gone: a Memoir of my Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments – Alex Witchel

This memoir was a real comfort for me. I lost both of my grandmothers to dementia, my father’s mother just last month, and I live in constant fear of my mother developing it too. But reading Witchel’s book taught me an important lesson about legacy: the women we love, the ones who raise us, instill us with values, and assure us of our worth, can never really leave us. The mothers, grandmothers and aunties we’re so afraid of losing live on in the women that come after them.

A few other faves:

-          In the Body of the World – Eve Ensler

-          The Color of Water – James McBride

-          The Receptionist – Janet Groth

-          The Art of Sleeping Alone – Sophie Fontanel

-          Lucky – Alice Sebold


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