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April 9, 2012 9:38 AM   Subscribe

So I read Helter Skelter and now I can't sleep. What other books should I avoid reading?

I've read quite a few true crime books and while each is of course disturbing (to varying degrees) nothing else has ever given me nightmares like this. What other nonfiction books are just completely fucking terrifying and, given that I'm not pursuing a career in criminal justice or psychology or anything, maybe ought to be skipped?
posted by davidjmcgee to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 153 users marked this as a favorite
 
Miami reporter Edna Buchanan's non-fiction is hair-raising, but is also tremendously well written.

Elie Wiesel's Night gave me nightmares for a year, but it's still absolutely worth a read, if we are to even begin to try to understand the horrors of racism and the Holocaust.

In fact, I'd argue that a lot of disturbing things are worth a read -- while you shouldn't necessarily torment yourself, if violence and other social ills are to be understood, we can't just sweep them under the rug.
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:51 AM on April 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Do not read Kate Millet's The Basement. It's the story of the four-month-long torture and murder of Sylvia Likens. I read it decades ago and it drove me back into therapy. It's horrific beyond measure.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:07 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kind of OT: does Helter Skelter still open with an otherwise blank page that says "THIS STORY WILL SCARE THE HELL OUT OF YOU"? Because as a kid I would open my parents' copy, read just that page, and run away terrified.

Not a book, but the one nonfiction article I wish I'd never read is Gene Weingarten's piece on parents who forget their children in hot cars.
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:16 AM on April 9, 2012 [15 favorites]


In Cold Blood

Don't go near it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:19 AM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yes, it's good to be familiar with the details of the Holocaust but if you're looking to avoid particularly gruesome details or horrific situations, do not read "The Grey Zone", anything to do with Auschwitz's Dr. Mengele, or "Auschwitz: A doctor’s eyewitness account", written by the Jewish doctor who worked for Mengele.
posted by Melismata at 10:25 AM on April 9, 2012


While Chris Browning's book Ordinary Men is a remarkable study into how those ordinary men were turned into mass murderers as part of the Nazi machine, it will make you cry and feel nauseated.

A note: the article mentions Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners and briefly discusses how that book attracted more criticism than Ordinary Men, but it does not refer to the fact that Goldhagen's book has been completely discredited by serious historians of the Holocaust.
posted by winna at 10:33 AM on April 9, 2012


Push by Sapphire.
I read that book 10 years ago, and it still haunts me
posted by Flood at 10:34 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anything about Ted Bundy, for sure. Jose Saramago's Blindness gave me nightmares. So did the article on children in hot cars. I'll never forget that. There was an article recently about a rash of teen suicides in Minnesota that still haunts me.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 10:37 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and A Child Called It literally made me ill.

Sorry if I Godwinned the thread; Night is just truly a disturbing read.
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:38 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.

The violence, the impossible situation. The machetes, the killings in the church. I didn't sleep for a long time when I read it. It will wreck you but I still think everyone should read it anyway.
posted by mochapickle at 10:40 AM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Rapist File will make you want to hide under your bed wielding a barbeque fork and never come out.
posted by winna at 10:45 AM on April 9, 2012


And I Don't Want to Live this Life, the story of Nancy Spungen (of Sid and Nancy fame; she had undiagnosed schizophrenia) is pretty gruesome and depressing.
posted by Melismata at 10:51 AM on April 9, 2012


Not a book, but the one nonfiction article I wish I'd never read is Gene Weingarten's piece on parents who forget their children in hot cars.

That piece change me. It was horrible. I'm glad I read it, though, because doing something like that is one of my secret fears. It's made me a lot more vigilent.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:53 AM on April 9, 2012 [15 favorites]


An excerpt from the book Escape from Camp 14 (previously) really affected both me and my wife. It's a terrible story about living inside a North Korean prison camp. There's not much that can be justifiably compared to Nazi concentration camps, but North Korean prison/labor camps come pretty close.
posted by BobbyVan at 10:59 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Non-fiction" "autobiography" of France Farmer: Will There Really Be A Morning?

I *probably* shouldn't have read it as a young teenager, but whatcha gonna do?
posted by jillithd at 11:03 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Under the Banner of Heaven deeply disturbed me. The scene in which the kids are killed is told in excruciating, vivid detail.
posted by jbickers at 11:06 AM on April 9, 2012


That piece change me. It was horrible. I'm glad I read it, though, because doing something like that is one of my secret fears. It's made me a lot more vigilent.

I'll add that it's not horrible bad, it's horrible holy crap it's so easy to do that. It comes also with a very personal (twist?) ending that drives it home like nothing I've read before, probably; and not in a horrific way, but in a "close call" way. Because what almost happens derives from the seed bed that mimics pretty much every freaking busy day of my life. I actually think that many people should read that article.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:12 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not exactly like what the OP posted but Night by Elie Wiesel was the cause of much lost sleep for me. Just thinking about it brings up a sense of foreboding and hopelessness...
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:18 AM on April 9, 2012


Columbine. Very, very sad and haunting.
posted by indognito at 11:19 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


does Helter Skelter still open with an otherwise blank page that says "THIS STORY WILL SCARE THE HELL OUT OF YOU"?

The copy I have does not have that page.

Night and the Gene Weingarten piece were (understatement alert!) very very upsetting, but I do not regret reading them.

In fact, I'd argue that a lot of disturbing things are worth a read -- while you shouldn't necessarily torment yourself, if violence and other social ills are to be understood, we can't just sweep them under the rug.

I totally agree, but something about Helter Skelter (the randomness? the sheer brutality? the brainwashing? some combination of everything?) crossed the line for me from "this is worth reading for a greater understanding of the nature of human folly" into "I wish that I could unlearn this, for this knowledge does me no good whatsoever."
posted by davidjmcgee at 11:19 AM on April 9, 2012


Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in the Box still haunts me 20 years later.

For sheer horror, though, I really wish I'd never read about what Bob Berdella did to his victims. It literally ruined my sleep for months to the point that I had to talk to my therapist about how to stop replaying the scenes of torture in my head. (I don't even want to link to any sources, but if you're curious, you can google him or look him up on Amazon.)
posted by scody at 11:21 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Folks, this needs to not turn into a chat session about the books/pieces folks are mentioning. If you need to elaborate/clarify something specific about something, that's fine, but otherwise please try not to turn this into a series of side-conversations.]
posted by cortex at 11:23 AM on April 9, 2012


Hiroshima.
posted by brundlefly at 11:40 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


First They Killed My Father. The brutality/brainwashing of the Pol Pot regime and the accompanying grim need to SURVIVE, at all costs, and the children slowly starving to death--pretty rough.
posted by aarwenn at 11:40 AM on April 9, 2012


For a general/WW2 history book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin describes flatly, plainly, the experiences of living in Poland/Ukraine/Belorus from the 1930s to the late 1940s, basically over land fought over by two murderous totalitarian regimes bent on depopulating that entire region of class and race enemies.

After reading it, you realize that, in the West, we tend to talk about Auschwitz, but that's because many people survived it to tell their stories. Few people survived Chelmno, Soribor, etc.
posted by chengjih at 11:44 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


For complete "I really didn't need to know that" value, don't read The Crime of the Century or any other biography of Leopold and Loeb.
posted by Melismata at 12:13 PM on April 9, 2012


Storm of Steel is a flat-out amazing memoir about life as a german soldier in the trenches of WWI. It's the most gripping thing I've ever read. Don't be turned off by the weird association with nazism it has gotten since WWII.
posted by pjaust at 12:14 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


"This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen"
The title short story will stick with you, and maybe you will wish it wouldn't. I do highly recommend this book, though. Unless you would rather not.
posted by lothar at 12:20 PM on April 9, 2012


Happy Like Murders about Fred and Rose West and their serial crimes.
posted by Abiezer at 12:57 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do not read Kate Millet's The Basement. It's the story of the four-month-long torture and murder of Sylvia Likens. I read it decades ago and it drove me back into therapy. It's horrific beyond measure.
And do not read "Let's Go Play at the Adams'", which is a novel based on the same case. I read it when I was 13, and I'm still troubled by it.
posted by JeffL at 2:10 PM on April 9, 2012




I was horrified by The Suicide Cult: Inside Story of the People's Temple Sect.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:46 PM on April 9, 2012


Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There was a read that maybe I was too young for, because twenty-five years later I'm not sure if some of what I remember of it is something I really read, or part of a nightmare I've had based on stories from it. Whether or not the stories are sensational or not representational of everyone's experience there, my reactions to some of them were so visceral, that to this day I still have the heebie jeebies about peeling skin, downpours and mosquitoes and ...never mind.
posted by peagood at 5:03 PM on April 9, 2012


Mao
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:38 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I work in a used bookshop, and came across a copy of Cannibal which is full of very vivid descriptions. I am not squeamish about books usually, and this one was just awful.
posted by bibliogrrl at 5:45 PM on April 9, 2012


Among the Lowest of the Dead. It's about Florida's death row in the 70s and 80s. It's terrifying on a number of levels - when it describes some of the unspeakable crimes that were committed by the men and women there, and the pinpoint precision with which their deaths were planned. It's a brilliant work, but it did give me a few nightmares.
posted by deadmessenger at 5:57 PM on April 9, 2012


Along the same lines as A Child Called "It", there's an entire cottage industry of child abuse memoirs, mostly written by the survivors but some by folks like Torey Hayden. None of these books truly tell you anything except what you already know, which is that children are abused horribly every day, although there might be a sort of escalating 24/7 tv news factor going on, where increased publicity makes you think there's a torturer of children around every corner in the same way that people think crime is on the rise.
posted by clerestory at 6:55 PM on April 9, 2012


Not exactly nonfiction per se, but I've read many of the books in this thread and none upset me so much as "The Part About the Crimes" in 2666 did. Reading it before bed gave me the only nightmare I've ever had where I woke up sitting up in my bed, screaming.
posted by troublesome at 7:46 PM on April 9, 2012


Don't know if you're still reading this thread, but The Rape of Nanking , an excellently written book, was total nightmare fuel. Especially because its nonfiction and full of graphic pictures of civilians having awful things done to them by soldiers. I don't necessarily regret reading it because it's history, but I wish I could un-know or un-see some of the stuff in there.
posted by sundaydriver at 12:53 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Last night I was going to post this but it looks like I got beaten to it by today--Nanking and Unit 731 put me in a numb blanket of sullen despair for a long time when I first read about them. Cambodia does too, but possibly for different reasons--I'm still angry it doesn't seem to matter as much as other things in Western culture. Anyway.

Not quite related, but the opening description of a public execution in Foucault's Discipline and Punish made me feel sick for days when I read it back in college. Couldn't sleep or eat. I think it was because of the whole "still alive to the very end" thing. (shudder)
posted by ifjuly at 6:29 AM on April 10, 2012


None of the above suggestions hit home for me. Even though true crime is my favorite genre, I never got through Helter Skelter and barely made it though an Ann Rule book.

These are the books I will never forget:

The Road Out of Hell by Flacco

House of Secrets by Cauffiel

The Night Stalker by Carlo

"I": The Creation of a Serial Killer by Olsen
posted by qsysopr at 7:04 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Film: The Young Poisoner's Handbook.
(I am still angry about watching nearly an hour of this--literally could not continue. Ugh.)

Books: De Sade
Probably 120 Days of Sodom, but I don't care to check and be sure.

There have been a few others, but those were so awful that I still cannot handle the memories well if I think about them.
posted by jann at 7:27 AM on April 10, 2012


Rape of Nanking, Unit 731, We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. Basically the illustration that this shit is not just performed by a few irreparably broken people, but the majority of men, women, and even children are capable of horrifically awful things given the right circumstances and provocation.
posted by schroedinger at 7:53 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Strabge Piece of Paradise, by Terri Jentz. The story haunts me still.
posted by agregoli at 10:19 AM on April 10, 2012


Necronomicon
posted by swift at 7:14 AM on April 11, 2012


Re "The Rape of Nanking", the author of that book, Iris Chang, eventually took her own life, allegedly despondent over some mixture of her response to the subject matter and to the violently negative in some circles after it was translated and published in Japan.
posted by hwestiii at 7:46 AM on April 11, 2012


These don't involve death, but there are two vivid medical articles that I wish I had not read because now the details are in my head forever: Atul Gawande's The Itch, about a woman who compulsively scratched through her skull to her brain; and novelist Fanny Burney's 1812 firsthand account of undergoing a mastectomy without anesthesia.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:32 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


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