Tara Westover grew up in the mountains of Idaho. Suspicious of the government and committed to an extreme version of the Mormon faith, her parents home-schooled Tara and her siblings, although there was little structure or actual education to their schooling. And they refused to take them to the doctor, even in dire emergencies. Tara’s mother became a midwife and natural healer, and her father owned a junkyard, often recruiting the kids to work for him, even if it was dangerous.
For Tara, all of this was normal — until it wasn’t. As she got older, she became more uncomfortable with her life and eventually managed to go to college. And once she went to college, she began to understand how much she was kept in ignorance and how much of her childhood could be construed as abusive. Despite her upbringing, however, Westover was able to attend Cambridge and earn a PhD, but this required a self-transformation. The life she was prepared for on the mountain was not the life she chose.
Westover’s memoir has gotten a lot of attention, and so I was familiar with the broad outlines of her story. But what I ultimately found interesting about the book was the way she structured the story. On the surface, it’s a straightforward, chronological rendering of events. But as her self-knowledge grows, so does her ability to understand and narrate what’s happening to her. In the early chapters, events are shocking, but there’s a sort of sheen over them. She doesn’t describe her violent brother as an abuser, nor does she dig much into her mother’s subservience. She just describes what they did. These sections don’t lack introspection, but there’s not much analysis of why her parents are as they are.
As the book goes on, however, and Tara learns more about how other families live, about mental illness and faith communities and self-governance, she has a framework for understanding her world. She’s also more aware of the gaps in her knowledge and better able to see how her childhood left her unequipped for life off the mountain, even while life on the mountain was one of danger and subjugation. Her account becomes more self-aware, and, somehow, the material becomes more shocking as her understanding grows.
Another interesting element of the book is that of memory. There are a few incidents that Tara and other family members recall differently. She notes in both footnotes and an epilogue where some of the discrepancies lie, and they are significant, particularly in their emotional weight. If her father was or wasn’t present at a key moment, if he called an ambulance or not, these things matter. But the emotional memory matters, too. What people remember is shaped by their feelings about an event and the people involved.
What’s more, the book contains some epic examples of gaslighting, particularly in the later chapters, when Tara begins to challenge her family. Those who have chosen to remain on the mountain have to choose a truth that allows them to stay. Their confidence in their truth is so great that Tara herself has doubts. It’s no wonder that Tara isn’t sure, years later, what’s real. This dynamic was probably in play for decades.
The memory angle is a minor thread, but it interested me, as did the whole book, particularly once Tara left Idaho and started to wake up. It’s a fascinating account of how families shape us, and how we shape ourselves.