Monday, April 1, 2019
Read by Julia Whelan
Published February 2018 by Random House
Source: checked out audiobook from my library
Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
Can we just talk about how often I forgot this wasn't a work of fiction? Because as often as you hear "you can't make this stuff up," it seemed more likely that this couldn't have really happened. And that it not only really happened but that it happened relatively recently.
Westover was born approximately September 1986. Did you catch that word "approximately?" Like the second half of her siblings, Westover's birth was never registered and, apparently, never recorded anywhere at home either. Some reviews of this book refer to her being homeschooled. She was not homeschooled; occasionally Westover's mother set her down to with some learning materials but made no real effort to educate her daughter. Why bother? Westover's parents had no notion that any of their children would ever leave the mountain they lived on or break away from their extreme Morman faith. But something seemed to nag at Westover from the time she was a young girl, at least as she recalls it. Westover is quick to point out that these are her recollections, which don't always jibe with the memories of others in her family.
What doesn't seem to be in doubt, despite what Westover's parents (and, eventually, several of her siblings, insist), Westover spent years being terrorized, abused, and threatened by a brother who undoubtedly suffered brain damage from a number of head injuries. But because she had this brother had once been close, even Westover wanted to believe that it wasn't her brother but something that she had done wrong. And because it was easier for her parents to believe that the child who was already pulling away was in the wrong, that the son who continued to work for them and support their beliefs, they sided with her brother again and again. It was heartbreaking how they time and again put their daughter's life at risk despite evidence of their son's instability.
Just as she admits that there will always be a part of her that wants to believe the lessons that her father taught her, even though, as a college student, she came to realize that her father suffered from mental illness. She can still remember many wonderful memories that built a base of feeling that helped her forgive her father when he repeatedly put Westover and her siblings lives in danger. The family was in two car accidents because her father insisted they get in the car late at night to begin long drives home; one of her brothers' leg caught on fire when he and her father were salvaging some old vehicles because of his lack of safety precautions; her brother, Sean's, multiple head injuries were nearly all the result of her father's recklessness and both of her parents' lack of trust in modern medicine; and Westover herself was almost killed because her father insisted she do work that was unsafe.
Thanks to the help of some friends, a Mormon bishop, and her own very hard work, Westover not only got a high enough test score to get into BYU, she also went on to study at Cambridge and earned a PhD. As smart as she is, as clearly as she came to see the reality that was life on the mountain, Westover often struggled mightily with a longing to be home. She never gave up on her parents, always hoping that they would stand behind her and acknowledge what her brother was doing to her (just as her father had always supported her singing when she was younger). Eventually, Westover found that, as much as she still loved her family, she had to cut her father out of her life.
Like Jeanette Walls in her autobiography The Glass Castle, Westover helps readers to understand how a child could be so desperate for their parents' love and support that they would forgive abuse and dangerous neglect. Unlike Glass, whose siblings pulled together to survive their parents, Westover's siblings splintered, some choosing to side with their parents in no small part because they their livelihoods depended on being a part of the family business. They have no education, they have no other skills, and they have been raised to believe that all of what has happened is a part of God's plan.