Sick Lit: 10 Essential Illness Memoirs


Why do we read memoirs of illness? Is it to be confronted with the weakness and fragility of the human body and the unjustness and cruelty of fate? To experience vicariously the vagaries of an unexpected life? To be reminded of our own relative health? No matter the reason, these narratives have become increasingly ubiquitous in recent years, so much so that the genre has a name. Chicago writer Paula Kamen — who added her story to the shelf with her 2006 book All in My Head

— dubbed it “sick lit,” and, in her manifesto, defined it as “women fighting shame and isolation through telling their stories about ‘invisible’ illness.”

But if the genre was originally the province of women, men have also gotten into the game. Last month, poet Paul Guest published One More Theory About Happiness

, a memoir of the aftermath of an accident that left him paralyzed at age 12. And if these books were once only morbid, they now frequently incorporate humor as a mechanism for making sense of and coping with illness. In the spirit of the changing face of sick lit, we’ve cast a wide net — considering books about disabilities, addiction, and ailments both visible and not — to compile this list of ten exemplars — some old, some new, some well-known, others less so, some funny, some not, some by men, some by women — of the genre.

Have we missed your favorite? Tell us in the comments section.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

After French magazine editor Bauby suffered a massive stroke, he was left completely paralyzed except for his left eye. He used that remaining functional orb to blink out — letter by letter — this haunting memoir. Made into a beautiful and affecting film in 2007, this may be the ultimate wow-I-don’t-have-it-so-bad-after-all read.

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Before her tenth birthday, Grealy was diagnosed with potentially fatal cancer of the jawbone, the treatment for which left her face permanently disfigured. After you tackle this wrenching memoir, reward yourself with Ann Patchett’s account of her friendship with Grealy — who died of an overdose in 2002 — in the astonishing Truth & Beauty


Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel

This pioneering memoir of depression — and the promise and perils of pharmaceuticals — was groundbreaking when it was published in the grungy and angst-ridden nineties. A decade a half later, the book still jars, even if its author — once considered a literary heir to Sylvia Plath — has gone straight; Wurtzel graduated from Yale Law School and passed the New York State Bar earlier this year.

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg

Breast cancer memoirs have proliferated in recent years, and perhaps no subgenre has done more to incorporate humor into the illness narrative. Engelberg’s graphic depiction of her cancer experience combines unexpected form — autobiographical comics — with offbeat humor. Diagnosed at age 43, Engelberg passed away six years later in 2006, leaving many who related to her struggle feeling as if they’d lost a dear friend.

Wasted by Marya Hornbacher

Eating disorder narratives may be second only to breast cancer memoirs in volume, but these tales tend to be more somber in tone. Written when the author was in her early twenties and still close to the disease that caused her weight drop to only fifty-two pounds, Wasted is stark, compelling, and affecting. More recently, Hornbacher wrote the memoir Madness

, which deals with her struggle with mental illness.

My Lobotomy by Howard Dully

In 1960, at the age of 12, Dully became the youngest patient to be operated upon by Dr. Walter Freeman, the pioneer of the ice pick lobotomy. Intended to cure a perceived mental instability, the transorbital lobotomy instead was the first step in Dully’s descent into institutionalization and addiction. Part medical history, part memoir, this is a frightening tale of a discredited technique and the far-reaching harm it caused.

Darkness Visible by William Styron

Writers can be a moody bunch. Genius and madness are often ghoulish friends. Styron, an acclaimed novelist, fell into a deep depression in his later years, and Darkness Visible is his account of his descent and recovery. Part personal chronicle, part exploration of the illness in others, the book is harrowing but mercifully brief.

It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong

Perhaps the most famous testicular cancer survivor in the world, Armstrong is well-known for a few other things, including seven Tour de France victories, yellow bracelets, Sheryl Crow, and this book, which chronicles his illness and remarkable recovery. It’s been nearly a decade since the book’s publication and Armstrong is still cancer-free and still racing.

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg

Another list altogether could be devoted to addiction memoirs, but this portrait of the rapid descent of a successful New York City literary agent who nearly lost everything to crack deserves special mention. Clegg’s unflinching and honest depiction of the unflattering realities of drug addiction have made it one of the most talked about books this year. And unlike some other well-known memoirs of this ilk, this one appears not to be partially fabricated.

Pretty Is What Changes by Jessica Queller

A rare kind of pre-illness memoir, Queller’s book chronicles her decisions after learning she carries the so-called breast cancer gene and has a roughly nine in ten chance of developing the disease. A powerful narrative of loss — her mother, from whom she inherited the genetic mutation, fights a grisly battle with and eventually succumbs to ovarian cancer — and hope, it is a book about seeing into your future and changing your fate.