Tara Westover is the youngest of six children born to Mormon survivalist parents from Clifton, Idaho who had strong ideologies and mistrust of anything associated with the government. She never went to public school and had limited teaching at home from one of her siblings and sometimes her mother. When she was 17-years old, she left her family home in the mountains of Buck’s Peak to enroll in Brigham Young University based solely on having passed the ACT tests with an exceptional score. She eventually earned a PhD from Cambridge University, having somehow earned scholarships, qualifying for grants and working to fund her education. But it’s her personal journey that preceded her education that is the strongest message of her story.
the heart of the story…
Tara’s father owned a scrapyard and all of the children were expected to help out, beginning at a young age and ending only when they left the mountain for other endeavors. It was dangerous work and her father didn’t seem to view safety as a priority. Tara’s mother was a midwife (unlicensed) and later became skilled in herbal healing remedies. There was little in the way of outside influences and Tara was almost an adult before she was exposed to anything other than her parents’ points of view. She describes events that I found heartbreaking, suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of one sibling who was allowed to continue doing so unchecked. Tara also believed her father had a mental illness, possibly being bipolar, and the behavior she described certainly seemed to fit that unofficial diagnosis. It was remarkable that Tara ever gathered the wherewithal or courage to leave her family and seek a formal education as her father had a dim view of schools at any level. But her biggest challenge took much longer to achieve, acknowledging that the only way to maintain any relationship with her family was by acknowledging that her truisms differed greatly from those of her parents but remaining silent about it.
Julia Whelan, one of my most favorite narrators, delivered a powerful performance. She did this story justice, never embellishing the most difficult parts of Tara’s recollections, letting the eloquence of the words stand on their own. If you have a choice to read or listen, I’d go for the audio format.
the bottom line…
I delayed reading this book because I thought the emphasis was on how Tara developed a formal education and thought that might be a bit predictable. This was not that kind of memoir as I found her struggle for independence from her family, both in her thinking and physically, much more powerful. It defines her and every path she chose. While I’m still unclear as to not only how she was accepted into college but even made it through, I don’t question the abuse she suffered and the indifference to it by her parents. If I had any doubt about that, it was dispelled when her mother wrote her own book, leveraging the name of this one, not only victimizing her daughter again but presenting herself and her husband as being unblemished prophets. Whereas Tara changed the names to protect her siblings and never named her parents, her mother’s book took none of those precautions. It’s a difficult story I found thought provoking as I considered how much of my own truisms, initially formed by my parents, were reshaped as I was offered alternative points of view from the outside world and my own reaction to learning that Mom and Dad could be wrong. It’s a story I’d recommend you discover and judge for yourself.
- Release Date: February 20, 2018
- Narrator: Julia Whelan
- Audio Length: 12 hours, 10 minutes
- Publisher: Random House Audio