The Best Books About Alternative Parenting Gone Wrong

No one can mess you up as much as your family can

The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenenbaums

It’s possible that one day I’ll get away from writing about childhood trauma and the effects it has on the grownups we become, but that day is not today, nor was it five years ago when I started thinking about a new novel.

I’ve always been fascinated by cultish environments, and what better way to screw up a kid than to remove them from the world and force them to adopt a world view that’s questionable at best? Ergo, Meadowlark, a novel with two cult-like communities—one a harsh spiritual compound with strict expectations even for children and the other a kid’s theoretical dream world without rules (or school!).  

Both extremes prove problematic to the kids in the novel but being able to justify going down the rabbit hole of research in service to the book was incredibly fun (although, obviously, at times difficult) for me. I got to read a ton of books about alternative ways of raising children, from the truly painful (I recommend staying away from anything about The Children of God) to the cringingly misguided (Google “Indigo children” for a good time waste).

Below you’ll find eight books about alternative parenting gone awry because there’s nothing we love more than reading about parents who do a worse job than we do.

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Well-meaning missionary parents bring their four daughters to the Belgian Congo to proselytize to the natives and to teach their girls how to save the savages. Instead, one daughter ends up dead, the others reject Christianity altogether, and the “savages” revolt. 

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Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover’s memoir is about her parents’ commitment to bringing up their family with bizarre survivalist and religious dogma. Schooling consists of reading the bible, medical care is limited to herbal tonics, and horrific abuse is deemed part of family life. 

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Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

What happens when a rich socialite mother is left penniless with no way to provide for her family? She hatches a scheme to hide her four children in her wealthy parents’ attic, promising to come get them when her father dies and leaves them his fortune. Chaos ensues. Spoiler alert: one kid is killed by rat poison-laced donuts, another kid’s growth is forever stunted, and the last two end up in an incestuous relationship that goes on for another five novels. Compulsive tween reading. Also, NOT FOR TWEENS.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Walls grows up with parents who prize nonconformity and idealism over basic needs. Their nomadic lifestyle works out just fine until the family is crippled by the father’s alcoholism and the money runs out. The Glass Castle is the rare memoir where the writer can hold both criticism and compassion for her parents’ lifestyle choices.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary’s father is a psychologist who studies animal-human behavior, and what better way to study animal-human behavior than to raise your human child alongside a chimpanzee? The novel traces Rosemary’s tragic loss of Fern, her chimp sister, and the fallout from her parents’ early choices. 

Cartwheels in a Sari by Jayanti Tamm

Cartwheels in a Sari by Jayanti Tamm

Selected by her parents’ guru, Sri Chinmoy, as the chosen one, Jayanti Tamm traces her bizarre childhood in this memoir about what it was like to grow up alongside a “living god” and what happened when she finally decided to break free.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

A circus-geek family who breeds children explicitly to create their own collection of human oddities. Enough said.

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