This is a remarkable and brave book, remarkable because it gives a staggering insight into a mindset unfamiliar to most of us, and brave because it is incredibly difficult to share a shameful or traumatic family past with the world at large. It takes guts to tell the truth about your family, and if debut author Tara Westover has done this it is probably because it was the only way for her to regain her sanity after so many years of what can only be called abuse. The end result for the reader is that they get to experience, through this memoir, how destructive it can be to live entirely in the shadow of your parent’s beliefs, only to realise that one day you have to break free and pay the price for doing so.
I have never been so directly moved by a memoir. Horror, disbelief and relief washed over me in waves during the reading of this book and when it came to an end I felt the full force of the author’s powerful conclusion: that we all, to some degree, inherit the demons of our parents, and that the process of growing up is really just the path to overcoming them. When you reach the end of that path, as Tara Westover says, you are “educated” — not educated in the sense of earning a diploma or certificate, but educated because you have taken back control of your life, or in Tara’s case, wrenched it from the clutches of your family and their demons.
“She’s not going anywhere until she admits she’s a whore,” Shawn said.
He grabbed my wrist and by body slipped into the familiar posture, head thrust forward, arm coiled around my lower back, wrist folded absurdly onto itself…. “Say it,” he said.
But I was somewhere else. I was in the future. In a few hours Shawn would be kneeling by my bed, and he’d be so very sorry. I knew it even as I hunched there.
Referring to her brother, author and narrator Tara Westover says, “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you”. The same is true of her parents, whose influence she struggles to shake off, even in the worst moments. The fact is that family units are the structure you use to build a sense of self. You give them power because you trust them and when that trust is broken you are stripped back to nothing and have to start from scratch. The trouble is: how do you do that when you have no other reference points but theirs? How do you rebuild yourself with a sawn-off shotgun, an End of Days rucksack of emergency provisions and no concept of an alternative?
Barred from almost all contact with the wider world as a child growing up in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was one of seven children. Her father refused to send her to school, and her only contact was with like-minded families, mostly Mormon and often White Supremacist, people who have opted out of the System because they perceive it as a threat.
I blurted out what I’d come to say: “I want to go to school”.
He seemed not to have heard me.
“I’ve prayed and I want to go,” I said.
Finally Dad looked up and straight ahead, his gaze fixed on something behind me. The silence settled, its presence heavy. “In this family,” he said, “we obey the commandments of the Lord.”
We often talk about fundamentalism in various regions of the world, but we don’t often talk about it in relation to the US. America has always appeared to us as the Land of the Free; we forget that every culture, like every family, has its dirty laundry. The Westover’s are of course just one family, but the distrust and paranoia that shape their lives are probably quite common in some parts of the US. By the end of the book, the Westover family has been carved into two parts — one part chooses the shadow of the mountain, or the shadow of ignorance, while the other breaks away from it. Shedding this ignorance could be perceived as not just a personal journey but also a national, if not international beacon of hope.
Any Cop?: And… the writing is beautiful. Rooted in the landscape of the Westover world it is earthy, resonant and intuitive: a narrative of truth. It doesn’t let you go until the final page, and even then, it doesn’t let you go.