I picked this up knowing the broad strokes: rural girl in highly religious community and no formal education per se claws her way into and through the education system, to eventually receive a PhD. That’s right, broadly. But this memoir is not just about “book learning”: it’s about learning about your family, and learning that there are many ways to have a life, learning how to trust yourself when it seems like everyone else has given up on you, and learning to nurture your own instinct and being.
In short: this was a surprisingly heavy book. It’s delicately written, so much so that you almost can’t believe what you’re reading: Did her father really just put her life in danger and then blame her for it?! Did her mother really forget how old she was? Did her brother really… you get the idea.
Tara Westover’s memoir focuses first on her family and their rural community–community may be a strong word because mostly, their community seems to be their family, run be her father, the patriarch. They a fundamentalist Mormons, isolated such that Tara doesn’t know there’s another way to be–others, even mainstream Mormons, are “gentiles” and “lost.” As she grows, she sees glimmers of other ways of being – she gets her birth certificate at 9; her brother decides to go to college, against their father’s wishes; her mother becomes a midwife at her father’s instruction and hates it–but Tara sees her shimmering with strength and confidence when she assists a birth. Tara’s father routinely puts his family in physical danger, not to mention the emotional dangers of patriarchy, gaslighting, and bullying. They believe that the end times are nigh and prepare accordingly – canning food, building shelters, emphasizing at every turn a survivalist mentality.
Gradually, Tara finds her path to BYU, where she learns about things that were never mentioned or severely glossed over: civil rights, the Holocaust, mental illness. Clearly a bright student intent on overcoming her disadvantages, she works and works and writes and writes, and finds a few mentors along the way (one of whom compares her to Pygmalion). Her struggle with her family only intensifies as she finds her path away from End Times theology and fundamentalism, across the pond to Cambridge. She returns home and finds herself increasingly not at home–a familiar feeling to anyone who has left the teachings of their youth and then returned to find that home hasn’t changed, but you have.
This book is great, but it is hard. I left fundamentalism too, and many of the themes here are familiar (I, too, hunkered down on Y2K expecting the worst; I, too, was shocked when I first saw someone wearing “JUICY” pants at college) but her experience, the intensity and physicality of it, is extreme, and sometimes extremely hard to read. Her real-time process of learning who she is, and who her family is, is almost overwhelming, especially from a third-person perspective. You want to scream, “HE’S GASLIGHTING YOU!” through the pages.
One other thing: I was surprised, honestly, that so many random internet reviews focused on how “unrealistic” her story was, or how they weren’t really “survivalist” because they had a phone. Her story struck me as not only realistic, but likely–inevitable, even! America is a big place, and insular communities, religious or no, have tried-and-true methods of staying isolated if they want to, phone or no phone. I, for one, can easily draw a direct line from my experience growing up in a fundamentalist-but mainstream-ish religious community to Tara’s experience. It doesn’t seem unlikely to me at all that her father would face no consequences for putting his family’s lives in danger; or that Tara would never have heard of civil rights; or that she would be constantly surprised at her own academic abilities, after focusing solely on her role as a woman in an isolated religious community for years and years.
Anyway, as you can see, this is a great conversation-starter book, a great book for anyone who has the emotional bandwidth to listen to the author’s very difficult struggle to find herself. I also found it interesting, if appalling, to see abuse told in a first person perspective, when she didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what was happening. Tough, but a great book, and deserving of all its accolades.