Let's term them self-help memoirs: books that use autobiography to mete out life lessons. Done well, they tell a gripping story and point the way toward understanding.
Take Paula Kamen's ''All in My Head." ''More than a decade ago, at the age of twenty-four, in a single moment, I found myself going from 'girl, emerging author,' to 'girl, interrupted,' " Kamen writes. While putting in a contact lens, the author was stricken with a headache so intractable that she has yet to gain relief. Kamen's book is about chronic pain, the sort that usually leaves sufferers by turns angry, physically drained, and totally hopeless. For most who experience chronic daily headache, getting through the day is a Sisyphean task. Yet Kamen describes her descent into headache hell with verve and wit.
She starts where most of us would, with traditional medical intervention. In the course of her search for a cure, Kamen bounces from neurologists to headache specialists to shrinks. None of them bring her relief. A cornucopia of pharmaceutical products later, the headache, which by this time has become a living, breathing character, still rules her life. Kamen's understandable frustration leads her to try self-medication, then massage and an all-natural diet. During this stage, she is a regular at the local Whole Foods. Her description of a typical expedition to this holistic shopper's paradise is priceless. According to Kamen, the clientele of laid-back yuppies can't bear to wait a second more than necessary; they'll run you over in the aisles or the parking lot, ''pelt you with pine nuts, scorch you with espresso, and poke you with the toothpicks left from the sample display of aged Spanish Manchego sheep's milk cheese." Kamen's head may be threatening to explode, but she manages to keep her sense of humor intact. Her prose is a pleasure, and as a fellow headache sufferer, I found this book packed with useful information. She covers diet, doctors, and alternative therapies, and even researches physiology. For readers who have headaches and for chronic pain sufferers, this book is a must-read.
Martha Beck's ''Leaving the Saints" maps an altogether different sort of psychic journey. Beck, who currently makes her living as a ''life coach," describes her decision to return to Utah after graduate school and raise her second child, Adam, a Down syndrome baby. Initially she feels a tremendous sense of relief at the communal acceptance of her decision not to have an abortion. But it doesn't take long for doubts to surface. It turns out that Beck, the daughter of a well-known Mormon scholar, or ''apologist," as she terms him, has a dark secret. One that, unfortunately, you've guessed by the third chapter.
It is hardly surprising that a church that has had ties to polygamy would side with men over women, as she tells the story, or that when Beck accuses her father of molesting her, she finds few friends and little support. Instead, she is shunned, and her family essentially disowns her. Beck becomes critical of the church. ''Even years later, writing this, I can feel the twinges of that old terror," Beck writes.
Beck's recounting of her journey from denial to anger to acceptance is one that other incest victims will surely find helpful. However, despite the explosive subject matter, I found my attention wandering. The writer's decision to move back and forth in time, spending an inordinate number of pages on an ultimately fruitless confrontation with her father, may be one reason. There's also the sense of anticlimax that comes with revealing the secret long after the reader has guessed it. But the main problem with this book is the voice. Even though the writing is fluid and ironic, there's a curious kind of detachment that undercuts the narrative's power.
Ben Polis's ''Only a Mother Could Love Him" takes a look at a more recent transformative past. Polis tells of his struggle with ADD and his ultimate victory over it. The writer is by turns charming and annoying. One might even term him insight-free.
Still, there's enough for an interested reader to work with. Polis charts his course from grade school on up, including his bad behavior, the hits and misses, and his eventual acceptance into college. The final third of the book is pure self-help, offering parents of ADD children advice on medication, schooling, sex, and even career choices. A sample tip: ''The only way an ADD/ADHD student can read for long periods of time is by forgetting that he is reading words. I suggest choosing a character and becoming that character throughout the novel. Instead of reading a book, you are now experiencing and living the book. Instead of reading the book and the book telling you what you are thinking, you must think outside the book." Or box.
Certainly Polis's story will strike a chord for many who are parenting ADD/ADHD children. It couldn't hurt for such parents to hand out Polis's life story to their kids. It just might inspire them.
Naomi Rand is the author of the Emma Price mysteries, the third of which, ''It's Raining Men," will be published in August.