9 Chilling Memoirs That Prove Real-Life Is Just As Scary As Fiction

by Charlotte Ahlin

People read memoirs for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, we want to feel close to someone, or to vicariously live their adventurous life. Other times, we're reading a memoir to find the truth behind some story we've heard, or to laugh at how this author, too, had an awkward teenage phase. And sometimes we just want to be scared out of our minds. Memoirs have the power to inspire or to utterly disturb you. You can read about murder and horrific torture, knowing that everything on the page has actually happened to the author. Here are a few of the most chilling memoirs of all time, because truth is often more frightening than fiction.

In case the title didn't tip you off, this is not a list for the faint of heart. These books include first hand accounts of cults, war, and child abuse. A few of these memoirs were written by actual serial killers. So if that's not that kind of memoir you're interested in reading, feel free to pick up one of the myriad books out there that does not deal with cannibalism. But if you're interested in memoirs that will send shivers down your spine and give you several waves of nausea... well, read on:

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'My Friend Dahmer' by Derf Backderf

Before Jeffrey Dahmer was a notorious serial killer and cannibal he was just "Jeff," the oddball high school kid. Derf Backderf has crafted a chilling, insightful graphic memoir about his own friendship with Jeff, back in the day. It's a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man... but yeah, it'll still give you a bad case of the creeps.

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'First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers' by Loung Ung

Loung Ung came of age during the Cambodian Genocide. At five years old, she was forced to flee from the invasion of the Khmer Rouge, and the next four years of her childhood were filled with death, disease, famine, and almost inconceivable cruelty. First They Killed My Father is the story of life in the midst of one of the worst genocides in human history, and it makes for a riveting, gut-wrenching memoir.

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'The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes' by John Borowski

OK, so this one isn't strictly a memoir all the way through, but it does contain the entirety of H. H. Holmes' published confession and autobiography. The so-called "World's Fair Serial Killer," H. H. Holmes confessed to 27 murders, although some sources allege that he committed over 200. Reading his sickening story in his own words is just about as chilling as it gets.

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'The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult' by Jerald Walker

This book is "a memoir of growing up with blind, African-American parents in a segregated cult preaching the imminent end of the world." So... that right there is already extremely disturbing and also a bit confusing. But Jerald Walker illuminates all in this gripping memoir of growing up in a doomsday cult (but spoiler alert: the world didn't end in 1975).

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'A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier' by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah was only twelve when his home village was attacked, leaving him alone in the middle of a war zone. By thirteen, he'd been "recruited" as a child soldier for the government. Beah's memoir is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking as he recounts the violent acts he was forced to commit. It's truly a first hand account of surviving through hell and back.

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'A Child Called It' by Dave Pelzer

Dave Pelzer's memoir, A Child Called It, is perhaps the most well known memoir of child abuse ever written. His later work My Story includes this first, harrowing story of severe abuse in Pelzer's early childhood, as well as his two subsequent memoirs of growing up and processing his trauma.

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'Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing up In a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs' by Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer

The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints is an infamous, intensely strict offshoot of the Mormon Church. Elissa Wall is a former member, and her courtroom testimony eventually helped to convict sect leader Warren Jeffs of numerous crimes. Stolen Innocence is her story: how a young Elissa was abused, brainwashed, and forced into marriage, and how she eventually escaped the brutality of the FLDS.

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'A Wolf at the Table' by Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs managed to mix humor with horror in his childhood memoir Running with Scissors... but A Wolf at the Table is a far darker dive into the psychological games that ruled his house as a small child. This book focuses on the shadowy presence of Burroughs' father, and the insidious abuse he inflicted on every member of his family.

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'Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood' by Julie Gregory

"Munchausen by Proxy" is a bizarre form of abuse, in which a caretaker pretends that their charge is sick, even inducing symptoms in children to fake a grave illness. This was the reality of Julie Gregory's childhood: her mother made her sick. Constantly. She was medicated, x-rayed, and operated on for years until she finally reached adulthood and discovered that her lifelong illnesses has been pure, grotesque invention.

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