The best autobiographies I read in 2020

Disclaimer: These are all the autobiographies (and I think one is actually a biography) that I read this year. But since I enjoyed each book and would recommend them all, I figured I could get away with this headline.



Educated, Tara Westover


Tara Westover grew up living in rural Idaho in a survivalist Mormon family who didn't believe in modern medicine or going to school. Instead they believed the world was going to end and spent much of the time preparing for the End Days. Educated is the story of a childhood that many of us can't imagine.


It's also the story of Tara's desire to escape and her pursuit of education in order to find a better life.


There's a lot of darkness in this coming-of-age tale, such as the medical problems within the family that were left untreated, including a serious brain injury to her mother, a strict father and increasingly violent brother. But it's also a story of hope, determination and the transformative power of education.


If you like memoirs of former cult members or are a fan of Louise Theroux's documentaries about people living on the fringes of societies, you'd probably enjoy this too.



Motherwell: A Girlhood, Deborah Orr


Written by the late Scottish journalist Deborah Orr, this sharp, darkly funny autobiography is her story of growing up in a working class family in Motherwell against a backdrop of the declining steel industry which had a devastating effect on both the area and her father.


Motherwell: A Girlhood is a tale of the dream, and difficulty, of social mobility, and the conflict that can arise when you feel both affection you have for the place you grew up and a deep desire to leave. Similarly to Tara Westover, Deborah also uses education to escape her childhood home as soon as possible - although she can never quite break the ties to Motherwell, and her own mother.


The difficult relationship between Deborah and her mother is also a key theme running throughout the book. There's clearly love there, but there's also a constant battle of control over the direction of Deborah's life.


I struggles with the first chapter of this book but persevered (I have a rule to give books 50 pages before giving up on them) and I'm glad I did.



House of Glass, Hadley Freeman


This is a sprawling history of The Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman's ancestors, inspired after finding a box of momentoes at the back of her elusive grandmother's wardrobe following her death.


House of Glass chronicles the lives of Hadley's grandmother and her three brothers from before the First World War, throughout the Second World War and beyond. As a Jewish family they fled the pogroms in Poland, only to be in France for the outbreak of the Second World War.


As you can imagine with a tale about a Jewish family trying to survive through two world wars, there is a lot of heartbreak in this book. Particularly, for me, at moments that highlight one of Hadley's grand-uncle's trust in the authorities and naivete about what his fate will be.


The darkness of this tale is alleviated throughout with a portrayal of a loving family doing it's best to survive against all the odds. Plus, Hadley's grandmother and granduncles are characters so vivid and varied that they could be the cast of a film, notably another grand-uncle whose life included working with Christian Dior and meeting Pablo Picasso.


The size of the hardcover version of this book could be off-putting to some, but they would be missing out.



Unnatural Causes, Dr Richard Shepherd


Dr Richard Shepherd, a leading forensic pathologist in the UK, has worked on some of the world's worst crimes, well-known deaths and natural disasters including the Bali nightclub massacre, Princess Diana's death, the killing of Stephen Lawrence, the 2005 London bombings and the World Trade Centre attack.


Unnatural Causes chronicles both these high profile cases as well as lesser-known ones, from his very first case as a forensic pathologist to the pinnacle of his career. There are some parts that may make for hard reading if you are a little bit squeamish.


He also talks honestly about the impact having such a career had on his personal life and his ability to be both a good husband and a good father, as well as his own childhood including the early death of his mother.


It's an absolutely fascinating insight into a career not many people choose, full of interesting facts about our own bodies and the human impact of devoting your working life to dealing with something most of us try our best to avoid, death.



I think I might be able to just about squeeze in one more autobiography before the year ends - or at least start it - luckily I already have Just Kids by the inimitable Patti Smith ready and waiting for when I finish the novel I'm currently reading (Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kagawuchi).