Everybody's family is dysfunctional in its own way.
April 1, 2010 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Memoirs from people who grew up in unconventional households?

I really enjoyed When Skateboards Will be Free (socialist parents), The Glass Castle (poverty/nomadic parents), and one of the books by Dorothy Allred Solomon (polygamist parents), I forgot which one.

Can you suggest additional well-written memoirs that focus on childhood and coming-of-age in unusal circumstances? I am especially interested in ones where the family put themselves into the circumstances, so the kids are dealing with being outsiders, rather than circumstances dictated by things like war, that the whole community suffers. Although that would be okay, too, if you really, really liked it.
posted by Knowyournuts to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
I think the recent ultimate on this is Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:42 PM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh the Glory of it All by Sean Wilsey from 2005 is great and fits your criteria exactly.
posted by k8lin at 2:52 PM on April 1, 2010

It was probably unconventional because of who they were, but almost anything about the Sedaris family, especially David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, would make that list for me.
posted by bearwife at 2:53 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not quite exactly the outsiders-by-choice, but Scattershot by David Lovelace, is a really interesting book about a family in which all members but one are bipolar.
posted by xingcat at 2:56 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture; looking through the list of books that "customers who bought this item also bought" shows other similar memoirs.

It's not a book, but the film Surfwise, about growing up in the Paskowitz family, certainly qualifies.
posted by Forktine at 3:04 PM on April 1, 2010

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer.
posted by IanMorr at 3:05 PM on April 1, 2010

Uncle Tungsten talks a little bit about growing up in the UK during wartime but also talks about growing up as Jews during and post WWII in a family of geniuses. Similar to Cheaper by the Dozen which is about growing up in a big family [12 kids!] with a weird genius dad. Dorothy Allison's book Two or Three Things I Know for Sure about growing up rural poor isn't quite a memoir, but is very good and is basically a coming of age story or set of stories.

If you like fiction too, you might enjoy We Have Always Lived in the Castle (hermits), Geek Love (freaks) and Housekeeping (crazy) which also have these themes.
posted by jessamyn at 3:07 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

House Rules, by Rachel Sontag reminded me a bit of the Glass Castle (still rather horrific, yet not so much like reading an open sore) and it struck a similar chord in me along the lines of "Holy abuse, wow - a successful person out of all that - and there but for the Grace of God go I, but maybe a little hardship would have done me some good".

(And if you liked the Glass Castle, Half-Broke Horses is also a good read.)
posted by peagood at 3:16 PM on April 1, 2010

Black Boy by Richard Wright, especially Part I; Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody is good too.
posted by Melismata at 3:20 PM on April 1, 2010

I really enjoyed the memoir Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham. After being orphaned at a young age, the author is raised by her two eccentric uncles in New York City during the 1950s. Parts of it are quite charming and funny, but definitely has its darker moments.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:24 PM on April 1, 2010

Born Dropped Out
posted by rhizome at 3:33 PM on April 1, 2010

Jedidiah Purdy's story fits what you're looking for, if you can stand the tone.
posted by availablelight at 3:34 PM on April 1, 2010

Another vote for Sleeping Arrangments! Also, Angela Ashworth's Once In A House On Fire is wonderful, about growing up as the odd ones out in 1970s Manchester.
posted by Catseye at 3:43 PM on April 1, 2010

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:54 PM on April 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oddballs by William Sleator is one of my all-time favorite memoirs. Absolutely hilarious, even now when I read it as an adult. It's written for a YA audience, because that's who he writes fiction for, but his family life was delightfully crazy enough to be entertaining to grownups. Also it's happy all the way through, which is a nice break from the traditionally tragic memoirs. You can read it for free online.

I also loved Look Me In The Eye, written by Augusten Burroughs's brother John Elder Robison (it seems to be less...embellished than Burroughs's books if that matters to you). Robison struggles with Asperger's but his tales of youthful (and adult) science experiments are amazing and often funny. His facility with machines and explosives led in part to his designing all of the pyrotechnics and crazy props for Kiss. He seems like a really interesting fellow.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 4:13 PM on April 1, 2010

The Liars Club by Mary Karr
posted by amme at 4:20 PM on April 1, 2010

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost by Rachel Manija Brown is about an American kid whose parents decided to move to an Indian commune.
posted by creepygirl at 4:28 PM on April 1, 2010

For two perspectives of the same dysfunctional family, there's Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff and This Boy's Life by his brother Tobias Wolff.
posted by scody at 4:34 PM on April 1, 2010

It's a little 'out there' but A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a fun read.
posted by SLC Mom at 5:08 PM on April 1, 2010

Seconding Cheaper by the Dozen (efficiency expert parents raising 12 kids) and adding that the sequel, Belles on their Toes, is even more interesting because the focus is on the mother working in a male-dominated field in the early/mid-20th century.
posted by bettafish at 5:29 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oren Canfield's memoir, "Long Past Stopping" is about growing up the son of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" guy, heroin, juggling, more heroin, and playing drums in the justifiably obscure aggro-noise band Child Abuse. It's harrowing and hilarious.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:45 PM on April 1, 2010

Boy by Roald Dahl
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:55 PM on April 1, 2010

The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:01 PM on April 1, 2010

You might want to look at the stories of "Red Diaper Babies."
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:06 PM on April 1, 2010

Some chapters of Harold Brodkey's This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:41 PM on April 1, 2010

Strange Little Girl: about growing up among drug users.

Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight: About an English girl whose parents went to live in Rhodesia during the civil war.

Beautiful People: (also released under the title Nasty) About a gay boy growing up in an eccentric, accepting family in the 60's in Reading, England.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:31 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Edmund Gosse's Father & Son is about growing up under the widowed fundamentalist naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.

Things The Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver "E" Everett tells of living with a genius father more akin to furniture, a dying mother and a suicidal sister.
posted by scruss at 8:28 PM on April 1, 2010

I really enjoyed Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller. It's about growing up poor and white in South Africa and Zimbabwe when it was still called Rhodesia. I think it fits your requirements in that Fuller's parents choose to remain in southern Africa even though they are (I think) originally from England. It's dark and brutal and startling to read.

Also, 2nding Geek Love, and Housekeeping for fiction.

Just noticed someone else mentioned Don't Let's go to the Dog's tonight, so I'm just 2nding it.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 8:37 PM on April 1, 2010

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical novel by Jeanette Winterson, about growing up lesbian in a fundamentalist family.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:26 PM on April 1, 2010

Does it have to be miserable? If quirky and heartwarming is allowed, I definitely recommend Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.

Sabine K├╝gler's Child of the Jungle was unfortunately clumsily written, but her story of growing up deep in the Papuan jungle with her missionary parents was still pretty fascinating.
posted by sively at 1:30 AM on April 2, 2010

Oh! And Tim Guest's My Life in Orange, his story of growing up in the Osho movement. Fits what you're looking for to a T (a childhood "somewhere in between Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies", as the author himself described it).
posted by sively at 1:42 AM on April 2, 2010

Great question! I enjoyed Dreamtime Alice, a memoir by Mandy Sayer. It's not technically set during her childhood, but is definitely a coming of age - begins at age 19 when she moves from Sydney, Australia to New York with her hard-drinking, nice but disorganised musician father. The two of them scrape together a very thin living from busking (she tap dances, he drums) in Manhattan and then New Orleans. It's a bit dark but very interesting, partly because of her father's character, her own unworldliness, and their relationship.
posted by 8k at 5:03 AM on April 2, 2010

Seconding Gosse's Father and Son. One of the best books I've ever read.
posted by feelinggood at 8:23 AM on April 2, 2010

Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer, sister of professionhal poker players Howard Lederer and Annie Duke.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:26 AM on April 2, 2010

Thanks for this great list! I suppose it would be obnoxious of me to mark them all best answer, but in my mind, they are.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:37 AM on April 5, 2010

This book contains a chapter with a good short account of the dysfunctional upbringing of the two perpetrators of the North Hollywood bank job. (Previously on Mefi)
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:44 PM on April 15, 2010

I'm reading Mary Karr's third book of memoirs, Lit, and loving it.
posted by lukemeister at 9:21 PM on April 19, 2010

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