Tara Westover, PhD, presents the harrowing saga of her rural, abusive upbringing and her escape into the larger world and a life of the mind.
Lacking any formal education, Tara Westover emerged from a hardscrabble background which she describes in gripping detail to enroll in Brigham Young University as a teenager. After graduating with a BA, she earned two degrees from Cambridge – a MPhil and a PhD in history – and she taught at Harvard as a visiting fellow.
Accidents and abuse were part of Westover’s upbringing. Classrooms and medical care weren’t. Born in 1986, she grew up in rural Idaho, the youngest of seven. Her father’s mental illness defined her repressive, restricted, violent world. Westover draws on her vivid memories and journal entries to illustrate the physical, emotional and intellectual landscapes of her life.
All of my father’s stories were about the mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what to do if I left the mountain.Tara Westover
The Washington Post, O:The Oprah Magazine, NPR, The Guardian, Good Morning America and other print and broadcast outlets named this number one New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe bestseller among the Best Books of the Year. Vogue wrote, “The questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?” The New Yorker said, “Westover is a keen and honest guide to the difficulties of filial love and to the enchantment of embracing a life of the mind.”
But dissenting voices raised concerns over Westover’s immersion into the horrific. For example, The National Review found that, “Westover’s memoir never comes full circle. She never explains the purpose of sharing these deeply personal details, perhaps because she’s still wrestling with the implications of her own conclusions and decisions.” And, unsurprisingly, members of Westover’s family strongly denied her memories; her mother went so far as to self-publish her own memoir in response, Educating.
Tara Westover shares her memories of growing up on Buck’s Peak in the Idaho mountains. Her father, Gene, ran a junkyard. Her mother, Faye, was a midwife and herbalist. Faye gave birth at home to five boys and two girls – Tony, Shawn, Tyler, Luke, Audrey, Richard and Tara. Like her siblings, Tara didn’t know what a classroom looked like.
Westover says her education consisted of watching her mother blend oils, do manual labor alongside her father and siblings, and read The Book of Mormon and the New Testament. She details how she responded to the dangerous rages of the people around her and how she weathered her father’s control, manipulation and failure to protect her from her abusive brother Shawn. The descriptions of the physical torment she endured at Shawn’s hands are heart-wrenching.
Westover tells of studying religious texts and 19th-century books and writing essays for herself. With encouragement from her brother Tyler, Westover drove 40 miles to the nearest bookstore to buy a study guide for the ACT college preparatory test.
I reasoned…that my passing the ACT [test] was so unlikely, it would take an act of God. And if God acted, then surely my going to school was His will.Tara Westover
Westover sat for the standardized test and did well, but she didn’t know how to write a college application, so Tyler did it for her. Brigham Young University accepted her. She began classes in January, at age 17, without ever having attended high school.
Westover brings the reader into her sense of amazement as she describes learning to distinguish fictional characters such as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables from historical figures such as Napoleon.
She allowed herself to see a doctor – though her parents always forbid it – and to take antibiotics, as much out of curiosity as need. Short on funds, Westover fought against returning home and working for her father. A bishop gave her the paperwork for a grant application, explaining that she could receive money and not have to pay it back. Westover recalls a daring episode when she returned home to steal her parents’ tax returns, so she could provide the necessary financial information. Just as she does in discussing her abuse, Westover understates the courage she showed by believing in herself.
I said I shouldn’t even be in college, that I should be made to finish high school first. Or to at least start it.Tara Westover
Westover remembers swearing she would never accept messages from people who put limits on her life. She pledged to follow her passion for politics and history. As she writes, “The skill I was learning was…crucial…the patience to read things I could not yet understand.“
In time, Westover became an academic success. She recounts her study-abroad program at England’s Cambridge University. She applied for and won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, earned a master of philosophy degree at Trinity College, Cambridge and went to Harvard as a visiting fellow. In 2014, she earned her PhD from Cambridge.
Westover describes being home from Brigham Young and working on a roofing project with Shawn. He brutally beat her, but Westover did something she hadn’t done before: she wrote in clear, precise language about the attack in her journal, avoiding the vague words she’d previously used to hide the brutality.
I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World.Tara Westover
Westover discloses that when her sister Audrey told their mother about Shawn abusing her, Faye dismissed her accusations. Faye betrayed her daughters by telling her husband Gene what they had said. Westover writes perceptively that abuse, control and manipulation chained Gene and Faye together; they exiled anyone who demanded change. As of 2018, Westover wrote that she enjoys close relationships with her brothers Richard, Tony and Tyler, but hadn’t seen her parents in years.
Beacon of Hope
Westover weaves her personal narrative with vivid descriptions of time and place and emotion. She depicts her brutal upbringing without portraying herself as a victim. She intends her story to offer hope to women in similar situations. But, as with all first-person narratives, readers must judge the credibility of her recounting.
Westover acknowledges the possibility of flaws in her memories and uses pseudonyms for the most hurtful people in her life while presenting her horrid family dynamics with clear-eyed realism. All she endured and how – with belief in herself against impossible odds – makes this a moving saga of perseverance.
We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories.Tara Westover
Readers who’ve endured trauma might beware of potential triggers, such as troubling physical and verbal assault. Those interested in family dynamics, domestic violence, bipolar disorder and how abused people find their voices will find Westover’s memoir compelling and inspirational.
Other worthy yet wrenching memoirs include Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.