Dr. Angela's 5 Must-Read Biographical Books of All Time

Dr. Angela's 5 Must-Read Biographical Books of All Time

Welcome to Dr. Angela’s top five favourites!

Below, is a list, in no particular order, of my favourite biographical books of all time, and the reasons why.  The common thread of this unusual set of books is how fascinating the main subjects are when examined from a psychological perspective.

The Diary of a Young Girl
By: Anne Frank

Most people have read The Diary of a Young Girl in school. If you have never read it, it is a book that you should add to your bucket list of things to do in this lifetime. If you have read it, I urge you to read it again through your adult eyes and life experiences. Take the moment to place yourself in Anne Frank’s shoes and read her diary as if you are a teenager in an attic, hiding from the Nazis during World War II. You are sure to get goosebumps all over your body and gain a better perspective on your own life experiences.

I read Anne Frank’s diary as a young teenager in high school. I must have been the same age as she was when she wrote it. Her words left an impression on me, because as I was living my life as a young girl, she was fearing for her life not more than 50 years earlier. In my late 20s, I visited the Anne Frank House, in Amsterdam, where she hid during the Holocaust. As I stood there, I imagined her sitting in the dark, writing in her diary, as she had nothing else to do. My stomach in knots and my heart broken, all I could think of is how we can live in a world where such an event really occurred.

I decided then to read the book again. I imagined myself confined in a dark annexe of a house, with barely any food. Not allowed to talk, not allowed to move freely, not even allowed to use the toilet when the need arose. To add a layer of intricacy to my reading experience, I then imagined myself as a teenager missing out on many of the most interesting and amazing years of my life. She crushed on the boy that was in hiding with her. But what other options did she have? The freedom to experience life and the world, we unintentionally take for granted, was stolen from her. To add yet another layer to my vicarious process, I then imagined that my life was in danger. The outside world as I once knew it, burning to the ground, and innocent people hunted for no logically explainable reason.

Anne Frank’s diary gives a direct inside experience into racism at its most horrific. She was an innocent young girl hated and persecuted simply because. Yet despite the tragic story of her life and eventual fate, her strength and courage to survive transcend the pages of the book and make her a truly inspirational figure in history.  

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(Also available in French: Le journal d’Anne Frank)

Mankind. Have A Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks
By: Mick Foley

Contrary to popular belief, the world of wrestling, and particularly the Attitude Era (1997-2002) is not only about unnecessary violence and offensive content. By taking a step back, one can appreciate its sophisticated storylines, character complexities, and athleticism, which are not much different than those found in theatre and contemporary circus shows.

As an avid World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fan in the late 1990’s, I was initially not impressed with the deranged mask-wearing, hair-pulling (trichotillomania), boiler room dwelling character named Mankind. I was curious enough however about the person behind the mask. And so, I first read this book in my late teens, and to my pleasant surprise, I was not able to put it down. Twenty years and a Ph.D. in Psychology later, it has stayed with me, as one of my favourites of all time.

Mankind, the sado-masochistic, out of shape, barely athletic, social reject, made a name for himself by inflicting pain onto others and by putting his body through unimaginable torture, to prove his worth as a top entertainer in the business. Once you start peeling the layers off however, you discover his multiple personalities and gain access into his talent and incredible ability in creating elaborate characters. His alter-ego, Cactus Jack, is the king of hardcore wrestling whose favourite props, include a steel chair, thumb tacks, and barbed wire. His other personality is a ladies’ man; the softer, more fun-loving hippie, named Dude Love. When you peel yet another layer off, you get Mick Foley, a charming, funny, intelligent, educated, kind, and lovable human being.

In this autobiography, this WWE Hall of Fame legend wittily tells the story of his path to success from his younger years in amateur wrestling to his unexpected rise as a WWE fan favourite, all while showing the different layers of himself. Mankind is the story of an underdog that you fall in love with and root for. This book exemplifies that you should never judge a book by its cover (metaphorically speaking, and in this case, literally speaking, as well!).

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Thinking in Pictures
By: Temple Grandin

Thinking in Pictures is a fascinating autobiographical work by Temple Grandin, in which she gives readers a privileged access into her brilliant mind; a mind which happens to be autistic.

As a child, she resisted her mother’s hugs, not because she did not long for her affection, but because she was sensitive to touch and lacked control over the intensity of the hug. She later invented a hug machine (based on her observations of cattle) whereby the user could control the amount of pressure that is evenly administered throughout the body. This predictable squeeze was found to provide a calming effect and is now widely used with autistic individuals.

She also spent most of her life awkwardly navigating the social world, often having difficulty understanding the subtle social exchanges taking place between people. Something that comes naturally to most. She analyzes social cues through the interpretation of images in her mind, in a similar fashion that an anglophone tries to translate subtle references from the French language that do not exist in English. Some things are just lost in translation. However, what comes naturally to her, is her ability to visualize content and solve complex problems that only she can see. Her mind’s way of processing information is by default programmed to interpret the world differently. Words in themselves have no meaning to her. She must convert words into images in her mind to decode the meaning. Abstract words are harder to decode, because, concretely, they have no equivalent image associated to them.

In this book, she explains how the autistic mind functions, whereby words trigger a series of images by which a general construct can then be extrapolated. By contrast, when most people hear a word, a general concept emerges. She further explains how the autistic mind works associatively. A red house can lead an autistic person to talk about Canada. How? The word “red” is associated in the mind to the colour blue, Elvis sang about Blue Suede Shoes, Nike is a company that makes shoes, Gianni Antetokounmpo is a spokesperson for Nike, he was born in Greece, which is a country, like Canada. In a conversation about a red house (general), where most people would be talking about bricks, doors, and windows (specific), the autistic mind has travelled the world.

Through her ability to communicate her knowledge of the autistic mind, she offers valuable insight into the approaches parents and teachers should use to interact with autistic children to aid in their development.

With her charming sense of humour and impressive intellect, Dr. Grandin evokes feelings of empathy and admiration for her. This is quite paradoxical, if you think of it, because she makes her readers feel complex emotions that she can barely grasps herself. This book will definitely open your eyes to a way of seeing the world that you never imagined was possible.

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(Also available in French: Ma vie d'autiste)

The Stranger Beside Me
By: Ann Rule

Before reading this book, I invite you to try the following exercise: The next time you are at work, look over to a colleague that you get along with and that you appreciate. Ask yourself why you like this person. Is he kind, helpful, friendly, funny, and handsome? Close your eyes and imagine what he does on his spare time for fun. Does he like to go bowling? Does he like to watch movies? Which ones? As you base your imagination of this person’s life outside of work, on the stories he has shared with you, ask yourself this: What do I factually know about this person? Now, imagine that this colleague is actually a psychopathic sexual sadist that rapes and murders young girls on his free time. He does this without hesitation, the same way you walk your dog or cook supper. He then comes in to work the next day and sits beside you smiling like nothing unusual occurred, just as you do the following day after walking your dog or cooking supper.

Ann Rule was a true crime novelist. She was assigned to write about the killings of young girls long before any suspects were identified. It had never occurred to her that the killer could be someone she knew and that this book would end up involving her on a much more personal level than imagined. As her investigation dug deeper into the case, she discovered that the killer was not a monster from a nightmare or horror movie. In fact, he was not even a stranger to her. He was actually her co-worker at a crisis call center, whom she cared for and considered her “friend” of 10 years.

How can you ever trust your judgement again, after discovering that someone close to you is considered one of the Unites States of America’s most infamous serial killers. This creepy and unsettling true story not only tells Ted Bundy’s story from his youth up until his execution, but also gives us Ann Rule’s insider’s perspective on who he was as a person and on their relationship.

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She's Not There
By: Jennifer Finney Boylan

This is a story of a transgender person sharing her life experience in two genders. It is a ground-breaking book on transgender issues as it was published long before the LGBTQIA2+ movement gained popularity and began impacting change. Boylan published her book in the mid 2000’s when gender affirmation surgery was still called gender reassignment surgery.

James was three years old when he mentalized his gender identity as female. He went on with his life thinking it would go away, but it never did until she transitioned and became Jennifer. In this book, Boylan talks about her first life as a woman trapped in a man’s body, a limbo period between two genders, and finally her life as her true self – a woman. The story is intertwined with the experiences of her family and close friends.

While reading this book, I examined my own path to gender identity. As a biological female, I have identified as a female, as long as I can remember. Although I was what is considered a “tomboy” – I never played with dolls, I hated dresses, and I loved sports – I never questioned my gender identity. I have definitely always been a girl. So then I thought, what if I were born male and had to live in a man’s body my whole life? On the surface, I would feel awkward and silly. What would I do with all that body hair? And what about that thing dangling between my legs? In my heart, I would be so sad and devasted. I would not want any part of it.

Boylan’s witty writing provides a very light, funny, and refreshingly positive undertone to a very serious and complex issue. By sharing her personal experience, which is basically a human experience, she challenges preconceived notions about transgender individuals and opens the door for readers to question their understanding of gender identity.

Before reading the book, I invite you to reflect on your own gender identity, as I did, and challenge yourself to imagine your life if you were born in the wrong gender.

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