What to Read When You’re Broke Down in Hell


In August of 2000, I moved South for the first time in my life, from Montana to Texas. Six days after arriving, my only sibling died unexpectedly. The temperatures hit triple digits well into September, and our zip code ended in 666. I was busted up, to say the least, and I couldn’t help but think of Texas as my own personal hell—a hero’s underworld, at best.

While I’ve never quite hit bottom like that since, life always has a natural ebb and flow. So what do we do when we’re caught in a cosmic eddy of some sort? Books have my best company in hard times. In the opening lines of the poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” Montana poet Richard Hugo wrote, “You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.” We can’t always hop in the car and drive to Philispburg, so here is a list of my down-and-out favorites for when you have a case of the grays.


Slant Six by Erin Belieu
This collection of poems marries together the grand and the mundane, velocity and restlessness, which is kind of like life, in general, only life made better because Belieu’s ability to render it all heart-achingly beautiful. The poems are often funny, always down-to-earth, and undeniably wise, with lines like this: “I’ve given up sleep for dreaming / and art is still our only flying car, / but I can’t recall when anticipation / became the substitute for hope.” Each poem offers understanding for what ails you, and wit to buoy you in the interim.


Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
When you’re sad as hell and busted up, something about this title can still make you laugh, as in, Yeah shit IS fucked up and bullshit. Nick Flynn gets it, and this memoir about how addiction, depression, suicide, and homelessness that runs through his family will make you feel lucky to have a bed to sleep in (and understood if you don’t). I saw him on a panel about writing and suicide at AWP 2018 in Tampa. Someone asked if he thought he’d ever be done writing about the dark stuff. He said something like, The title of my next book is I Will Destroy You so maybe not. He laughed. I laughed. Perhaps he was joking, but I sure hope not.


Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Open this book. Pick a sentence. Any sentence. Read the sentence. Now? I dare you not to read another, and another. Is it a poem? A memoir? A novel? (It’s sold as the latter, but I find that label reductive in this case.) Though I do recommend starting with the first sentence and working your way through methodically, at least on the first go-around, there’s really no wrong way to bask in the glow of this moonbeam of a book. It’s a model of efficiency, precision, and wisdom as well as the most three-dimensional account of a marriage, and parenthood, that I’ve ever read. As my undergraduate dance teacher who was going through a wicked divorce once said during a rehearsal, in response to nothing, “No one knows what goes one between two people, not even those two people.”


All About Love by bell hooks
In November of 2016, I found myself in a whole new kind of broke down hell. Somehow, post-election, I came across this book and dove in, driven by instinct, not logic. Looking back, I suppose there were two routes I could take: lock the hatch on my emotional bunker, or grab each side of my rib cage and pull it open. I tried (and am still trying) the latter. Reading about love as a concept was new for me, as was bell hooks’s idea that many of us, despite good intentions and a proven ability to live benign lives, do not know how to love. Love is not just a feeling but a skill. The more we know how to love, the more we connect. And connection is the thread that mends divides, from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal to the political.


Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
I bought this book on a whim while traveling last fall, and I read it just as I was falling madly (and uncontrollably) in love. The book is a about an addictive, codependent relationship Febos survived, and so much more. The non-linear structure is hypnotic, and her voice is one I could read for days. I underlined many sentences in this book, and when I got suddenly and brutally abandoned a few months later, I went back and read ruts in those lines again to remind myself that I was exactly where I needed to be: cracked wide open, but only temporarily broken down.


Letters to Yesenin by Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison wrote this collection of prose poems in 1973, about the Russian poet Yesenin who hanged himself. After these poems were published, Harrison received literature from anti-suicide groups. It wasn’t until then that he realized he’d been contemplating his own death as he wrote, in spite of the final sentence in the collection: “I’ve decided to stay.” I know more lines from this book by heart than I do any other piece of literature, lines like, “Show me a single wound on earth that love has healed.” Why is that comforting? Because sometimes when you’re down-and-out, you don’t want someone to tell you why everything is okay. You want someone to get it so you feel less weird about not being happy.


Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
When your life kind of sucks, escapism is key. During a recent case of the Februaries (which, in Montana, can last from January through March), a friend of mine loaned me this slim, riveting novel about a single mother living in hiding with her daughter, whose sociopath father is a conservative political candidate engaged in a high-profile campaign. The plot is my favorite kind—a voice-driven slow burn that explodes at the end. The moment I finished it, I regretted that I couldn’t read it for the first time again.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
They say anger is a primary emotion that masks the deeper emotions, like sadness and fear. The raw, urgent voice of this book captured me, like a moody song you want to play on repeat. The story is one of anger and fear and grief, of a father unpacking his own experiences with racism and oppression as he raises a son in a world where he can’t guarantee his safety. This line from Anne Carson comes to mind when I think back on this book: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” Part of being down-and-out involves wrestling with this tragedy > rage > fear > grief cycle, and tracing it back to its roots (which are often a tangle of the personal, political, and cultural). Until we acknowledge the extent of our wounds, how can we hope to heal them?


Housekeeping (and everything else) by Marilynne Robinson
I first read the slim novel during my undergraduate years, and I found the cast of non-traditional female characters liberating and intriguing. Set in mid-century Washington state, a transient aunt returns to her childhood home to act as guardian for her school-age nieces. Robinson’s three other novels, Gilead, Home, and Lila, are equally spellbinding. She has a knack for capturing the tension of repressed Midwestern households— relationships negotiated without words, arguments punctuated by a gesture, a blank space, a long glance or averted eyes. This is the story of my youth, and I find it soothing that Robinson captured it on the page. In the end, her characters transcend these finite hurts and wants, showing us that every single human—no matter how down-and-out—carries with them at all times the capacity for grace.


Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Look, I know Sugar is no stranger to readers of The Rumpus. (For the three of you who don’t know, this book is a collection of Dear Sugar advice columns written by Cheryl Strayed.) Let me just point out that reading Tiny Beautiful Things when you’ve got the blues is like a juice cleanse for the soul. There’s some kind of good medicine that comes from witnessing the heartache of others, interspersed with a few entries that might whack your own personal nail on the head, all while the author calls you “sweet pea.” This books reminds us that we all get lost, we all get hurt, but we’re all inherently worthy, too.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Melissa’s debut memoir, Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back!  – Ed.

Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back by Melissa Stephenson
Growing up in a blue-collar family in the Midwest, Melissa Stephenson longed for escape. Her wanderlust was an innate reaction to the powerful personalities around her, and came too from her desire to find a place in the world where her artistic ambitions wouldn’t be thwarted. She found in automobiles the promise of a future beyond Indiana state lines. From a lineage of secondhand family cars of the late ’60s, to the Honda that carried her from Montana to Texas as her new marriage disintegrated, to the ’70s Ford she drove away from her brother’s house after he took his life (leaving Melissa the truck, a dog, and a few mixed tapes), to the VW van she now uses to take her kids camping, she knows these cars better than she knows some of the people closest to her. Driven away from grief, and toward hope, Melissa reckons with what it means to lose a beloved sibling.

Melissa Stephenson’s writing has appeared in various publications, including the Washington Post, Waxwing, Ms. Magazine, and ZZYZYVA. Her memoir, Driven, was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018. It was longlisted for the Chautauqua Book Prize and won the Indiana Emerging Author Award. Though born and raised in Indiana, she now lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids. More from this author →