I saw how much hype this book by Tara Westover got when it first came out almost two years ago and I was hesitant to read it. Part of me wanted to be part of the conversation, but nothing about the book really appealed to me. Then my book club elected to read it, so I opted for the audiobook, which is narrated by Julia Whelan, who’s a good narrator.
I don’t know what to say about this book. My initial reaction when I finished was just “oof!” It was a relief to finish it, which is not to say I didn’t like it, but it’s not an easy read.
Tara was the youngest of several kids raised in the mountains of Idaho by Mormon parents, including a father who is convinced that the end of days is coming, that the government is evil, and that he’s the only one who follows the teachings of Christ and Joseph Smith – everyone else says they believe, but they don’t practice, according to Mr. Westover. He also believes that the medical establishment is a scam because only God can determine whether someone will live or die, so any time someone gets injured on the farm (which is very often because he’s so careless), he insists they don’t need a hospital, because they are “righteous” and have angels watching out for them.
Despite the number of times his recklessness results in various family members getting seriously injured, everyone miraculously survives and he takes that as proof that he’s right. The result is that Tara and her siblings are extremely tough and self-sufficient, knowing their father won’t look out for them and their mother won’t intervene.
I know all marriages are complicated, but Tara’s parents’ marriage seems especially convoluted. Her dad is the type of Mormon who believes that women are superior to men and that they should provide for the family while the women stay at home and do the housework. He also believes that pretty much all women are whores, which makes for a very confused Tara as she’s growing up. As if puberty weren’t confusing enough on its own, Tara is busy trying to figure out if she’s “the wrong kind of woman”, and if so, how to avoid such a fate.
Mrs. Westover agrees with everything her husband says to his face, but then does small things to undermine him behind his back, including letting Tara participate in local dances and plays and buying her costumes her father deems “whorish”, then pleading ignorance and feigning shock and anger at the director when Mr. Westover finds out.
None of the children are sent to school because of their father’s conviction that school is designed to brainwash them to become members of the Illuminati. They are taught to read so they can read the Bible and their mother makes a show of homeschooling them, but doesn’t make much of a real effort on that front. Nevertheless, two of Tara’s older brothers manage to get their GEDs and take the SATs so they can get out of there, get an education, and get jobs that can actually support them and the families they want to have. Their father strongly discourages them from pursuing that path, but they ignore him and pursue it anyway.
Because of a combination of her father’s displeasure and her own internalized sexism, Tara vacillates between deciding to follow in their footsteps or stay at home. At one point, when she tells her mom she’s decided to stay, she’s surprised that her mom is disappointed, saying she doesn’t want to hear that and that, of all of her children, she thought Tara would be the one to “escape this place”. Yeesh!
Tara does, eventually, take the SAT and miraculously manages to get a high score and an entrance into Brigham Young University. She’s only 17 when she first enrolls and is shocked to have roommates who dress “immodestly”, meaning they wear modern, tight-fitting clothes that show their legs and arms. Even more shocking is that, despite wearing these “whorish” clothes, they still go to church (since BYU is a Mormon school, that shouldn’t have been surprising, but poor Tara has been so isolated that many things are surprising).
One of Tara’s first and most jarring wake-up calls is in a history class when her professor mentions the Holocaust and she asks what the Holocaust is, only to have the professor ignore her and her roommate tell her “that’s not funny”. So she promptly goes to a computer after class and spends a few hours learning about the Holocaust.
Obviously, attending school was a huge culture shock for Tara, but it involved much more than just learning about math and history (things she had never really been taught). It also involved learning about mental disorders, (including bipolar disorder, which seems to describe her father to the letter), what n—er really means and why it’s unacceptable for white people to use it, and the fact that her older brother, Sean, is abusive and everyone else in the family supports and defends him over protecting Tara. Her older sister, Audrey, initially vows to support Tara, but then backtracks after their parents convince Audrey that she’s lying and must reject Satan.
Only Tara’s brother Tyler stands with her, which is good because she needs his support to remain strong enough not to go back on what she said and beg their forgiveness. It sounds crazy to an outsider, but it’s understandable that it’s hard for anyone to turn their back on their family. As easy as it is to blame Audrey, it’s worth noting that she did not go to school, instead settling down not far from her parents with a husband and kids of her own. She was dependent on them, whereas Tyler, like Tara, had gotten out, making it easier for him to denounce both Sean and their parents.
Tara said she reached out to her mom when she was in town, saying she’d like to see her, but “wasn’t ready to see Dad”. Her mom responded that she couldn’t be expected to go where her husband wasn’t welcome and that was the last word as of the end of the book.
This is definitely a rough read, but it’s very well written and I’m sure it’ll make for a great discussion with my book club.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else about which you had reservations, but ended up glad you read?