What lurks behind the doors and beyond the borders of the world’s most shuttered societies?
It’s a question that fascinates us, and the answers are elusive—which is exactly how the leadership of these well-guarded communities prefer it, whether they’re operating within the closed borders of North Korea or holding forth in the secretive inner circle of Scientologists. But when a defector emerges from one of these places that’s so shrouded in mystery, sometimes, they bring the truth out with them. And when they do, it makes for a story more fascinating than any work of fiction. Below, some of the best memoirs by authors who risked it all to share their stories.
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The Girl with Seven Names, by Hyeonseo Lee
Since the end of the Korean War, North Korea has been a country shrouded in secrecy, and best-known by the average American for being the butt of various jokes by irreverent comedians and filmmakers. But for people like Hyeonseo Lee, who grew up with famine, fear, and public executions of anyone who dared criticize her country’s dictatorial leadership, life in North Korea is anything but funny. In The Girl with Seven Names, Lee tells stories of her life under the Kim Jong-Il regime and her harrowing escape through China, an experience she relived vicariously when she conspired to help get her mother and brother out of North Korea years later. Lee was initially made famous by a TED talk in which she described her struggle to defect; now, she works to help deprogram other escapees from North Korean oppression.
Troublemaker, by Leah Remini
After being indoctrinated as a child into the church of Scientology, Remini made a highly public split with the organization after being declared a “Suppressive Person”—the Scientologist’s version of persona non grata, disavowed and disconnected from the church and everyone in it, including her own family. Remini’s memoir of her path to intellectual freedom contains plenty of juicy gossip about Scientology’s famous adherents (she was a guest at Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes in 2006), but it’s her funny, poignant journey from indoctrination to independence that makes this a truly gripping read.
Escape, by Carolyn Jessop
Carolyn Jessop had $20 to her name when she fled the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where she was married off at the age of 18 to a man 32 years her senior. Merrill Jessop was Carolyn’s first husband. She was his fourth wife. When she escaped the community, a radical offshoot of the Mormon Church known for its polygamist practices and oppressive patriarchal power structure, she was not only destitute and terrified, but bringing her eight children with her. Carolyn Jessop’s memoir takes readers inside the guarded world of the FLDS church, which grew its ranks over the years by brainwashing its members, especially the women, into dutiful subservience. In the end, Jessop not only made history by escaping to freedom with all her children in tow; she was also instrumental in the prosecution brought against notorious FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
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Banished, by Lauren Drain
Most of us know the Westboro Baptist Church for making a frothing, hateful spectacle of itself at every available opportunity (they’re the ones who show up to the funerals of soldiers killed in combat holding “God Hates Fags” placards). But for Lauren Drain, the Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t just a public embarrassment or infamous hate group; it was her home for the better part of a decade. Drain and her family moved to the church’s compound when her father began producing a documentary about the group; seven years later, Drain was exiled from the church and disowned by her now-avid WBC family when she began to question its hateful practices. Her memoir is a chilling, unflinching look inside the cult that destroyed her family and very nearly claimed her identity.
The Witness wore Red, by Rebecca Musser
Like Carolyn Jessop, Rebecca Musser was a dutiful member of the FLDS church, and like Jessop, she was ordered into a polygamist marriage at an early age. She was just a teenager when she became the 19th wife of 85-year-old “prophet” Rulon Jeffs, a marriage so horrific that she ultimately had no choice but to flee. Musser’s memoir is a harrowing account of life inside the cloistered compound of Short Creek, where isolation, secrecy, abuse, and fear were the ruling forces. It’s also a triumphant story of her return years later, not as a wife, but as a witness, in the 2007 trial that finally saw Warren Jeffs, Rulon’s son, sentenced to life in prison.
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I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko
It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Published in 1946, Kravchenko’s memoir drew back the curtain on the collective society of Soviet Russia—and roundly ticked off a lot of Communists in the process. Kravchenko defected to the United States during World War II, in which he served as a Captain in the Soviet army. His memoir, published two years later, was an explosive tell-all about life in the Soviet Union, the ghastly practices of the Soviet prison camp system, and the country’s penchant for penal labor. At the time, Kravchenko’s defection was a big enough deal (and embarrassing enough to the USSR) that he lived under a pseudonym in the U.S. to avoid detection. But despite his best efforts, his choice to tell the truth may have cost him his life; he died 20 years later, in 1966, under decidedly mysterious circumstances.