I think that Tara Westover has a lot of guts to write this book. It is not your normal memoir as Tara is still only a young woman at the time of writing so, in terms of reflecting on your life’s events, it is a mere morsel of her experience to date. But blimey, a lot has happened to her in that short time and this book, her examination of her upbringing and the influence of her family on the person who she has become is truly gripping stuff.
Recommended to me by my good friend, Nina, this book is obviously popular as I reserved it at my local library at the end of the summer in 2020 and I got notified about it just last week, March 2021. And I can see why it would be so sought after as it is a very frank representation of Tara’s troubled relationships with her family, in particular, her father, her mother and her older brother, Shawn.
Tara is from Idaho, a place called Buck’s Peak, a homestead with a junk yard which is in the shadow of a mountain which Tara refers to as the Princess, as the outline of a figure can be seen in the way the rock has been formed.
Her parents are Mormons and very God-fearing people. Actually, that is probably a little inaccurate as they do not fear God; they have no reason to as they believe themselves to be the people upholding God’s values in the way that they are choosing to live: church-going; living a simple life; acting with restraint and morals. They fear for other people who do not conform to their ideas and see them as likely to incur God’s wrath for their immodest clothing and attitudes.
Tara’s father, in particular, is forthright in his views, seeing all federal services as a means to control him and influence him and suppress him, whether this is in the form of taxes or schools or hospitals. He wants to trust himself, his wife and his offspring to God and be self-sufficient, living without contact with government agencies as they are there to bind, not assist.
He is also convinced that when the “End of Days” comes, he will be prepared and so, he constantly looks to protect himself and his family from the government and their insidious ways, with guns and the stockpiling of provisions, being provoked more into this when an incident with another family and the FBI results in a shootout and people dead.
The world that Tara inhabits as a girl is insular. She goes to church and she helps out with the scrapyard and with her mother’s homeopathic infusions. She does not go to school, her mother ostensibly being in charge of home-schooling her children, although it is clear that this is not a priority. She spends time with her brothers and her sister, Audrey and it is the time that she spends in her brother Tyler’s room as he reads and listens to music that begins her education as her mind becomes introduced to new things and an awareness of what else there could be for her in her life starts to dawn.
Against her father’s better judgment, she does join a group where she sings in concerts but has to be mindful of her costumes, not wanting to appear like a whore when her father comes to watch her perform. Here, she begins to make friends although her social skills are lacking and you get a sense that she is hesitant because she feels awkward. Whilst the people who she associates with are also Mormon, they are not as strict in their beliefs, not as unflinching or as eager to condemn as her family.
This involvement with something outside of her family, however, is important as it is the first step in her becoming acquainted with a world which has been off limits. She has seen some of her brothers leave to become educated and go to high school, college and university but this does not seem to be an option for her at all, matrimony and motherhood being the culmination of her future aspirations traditionally, and so, she starts to educate herself with the encouragement of most of her brothers.
However, there is one brother, Shawn, the relationship with whom Tara discusses the most in this narrative as it casts a shadow, and a malingering black shadow at that, over her whole life for many years. At first, their sibling relationship is healthy and friendly and Shawn is protective of Tara. But Shawn has problems – a possessive and controlling nature which is uncompromising and can be brutal. He has skewed views on women. Some of the darkest scenes in the book stem from conflict with Shawn, conflict which is not generally deserved and is disproportionate to Tara’s behaviour, it usually resulting in violence or the threat of violence where Tara has no recourse but to submit.
Also, her relationship with her father is one of conflict. He has particular ideas of how Tara should live and conduct herself and Tara feels stifled by this, wanting to get a job in the town but being swayed to help her father at the scrapyard where there is no regard for safety or caution and bad accidents happen. There are many incidents in the book described which are life-threatening and a sense of urgency to get the person involved treated seems lacking, the fear of hospitals and modern medicine overriding any rational thought. This is seen especially in the incident where her father is severely burned and is treated at home using tinctures created by his wife. It is a surreal prospect – how he survives is beyond me.
I think the relationship in the book that disturbed me the most was not the ones with the most overt confrontations but the one that Tara has with her mother. I think that we all look to our mothers to be our protectors, our champions, our friends. Tara describes her mother as a capable woman, a midwife and talented herbalist who drives her own business in the valley where they live. However, conversely, she is a woman who is stifled by the men around her and their dominant views; you get the sense that she wants to be an ally for Tara but that her circumstance and her preordained role as a Mormon woman will not allow her to stray far from convention. I felt like she was fearful and did not want her actions in support of Tara to have repercussions for herself, which would be manifest in the reactions of her husband and her son but also how she would be seen in the eyes of God.
How Tara manages to get out of what can only be described as a toxic environment is to be applauded and I’m not really sure how she achieved it as she pretty much did it all by herself, despite the odds. She is obviously a highly intelligent and determined woman as you don’t get to study at BYU, Cambridge University and Harvard unless you have something about you and these are all successes which she attains whilst she attempts to separate herself from the grip that her family have over her.
However, these ties are not always easy to break. She has been indoctrinated by years of preaching or what Tara calls “testifying” which is a word used to describe the long diatribes that her father uses to subdue any thought of rebellion that she may be harbouring. She loves her family; they are a part of her and the shared history is very difficult from which to extract yourself if it is all you know, and the world that you now inhabit does not feel like it belongs to you nor you to it.
There is the discussion of mental illness in this story especially in relation to the key characters: Tara’s father is likely bipolar; Shawn has serious issues, maybe exacerbated by many severe head injuries and a lack of medical attention at the time; Tara herself who must have had PTSD in some shape or form.
Ultimately, what I took away from this book was a message of hope. Tara has been academically successful and this is to her credit. She has removed herself from an environment which was damaging rather than nurturing but has maintained crucial ties with some of her family in Idaho. She has written a book about it all which can only be cathartic and will perhaps have helped her to conquer her past and look towards her future.
And what it ultimately made me thankful for was my family who can be a little exasperating at times but are supportive, friendly and loving without condition.