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The truth shall make you free!

By Sally Bland - Nov 17,2019 - Last updated at Nov 17,2019


Tara Westover

London: Windmill Books, 2018

Pp. 384


Veering between gruesome scenes of violence and inspirational heights, Tara Westover takes the reader on the virtual rollercoaster of her highly unusual, often tortuous childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. One of seven siblings, she was born and raised in rural Idaho by devout Mormon parents, whose interpretation of their faith precluded sending their children to school, going to doctors, taking standard medicine, or having any contact with government. Yet, Westover is careful to state in the beginning: “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief.” (p. xiii)

Indeed, the deeper one gets into her memoir, the more one sees that her all-dominating father is more than a strict Mormon: He is possibly bipolar and definitely a megalomaniac, sharing much of the prejudice, fundamentalism, paranoia and conspiracy mentality of the extreme right and the National Rifle Association. In his obsession with self-reliance in preparation for the “Days of Abomination” (the End of Days), he exposes his family to many dangers and near-deadly accidents as they work together salvaging heavy metal from junkyards and undertaking risky construction jobs. Total obedience to his every word and taking insane risks are seen as tests of faith. “Dad always put faith before safety.” (p. 244)

In this world view, gender roles are strictly delineated, with women being totally subordinate to men, and super modest in order not to tempt them. This is the rationale for the father allowing one of his sons — clearly a psychopath in need of professional help — to abuse Tara, her sister and mother. One of the saddest aspects of the memoir is watching Tara’s mother gradually subvert her own ideas in total obedience to the father — a double irony since it is her successful midwifery and homeopathic cottage industry that become the family’s mainstay.

To be fair, there are positives in their life, from the natural beauty of the mountain they live at the foot of, to the horses they raise and the survival skills they learn. The crux of the matter is that this is Tara’s family and she loves all of them, even the abusive brother. Her memoir chronicles her long, drawn-out battle with them and especially with herself to reclaim her life and be the person she wants to be. “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” (p. 229)

When she was sixteen, one of her brothers encouraged her to go to college. Thus began a long and difficult journey whereby she acquired an education, beginning at Brigham Young University in Utah and culminating in a PhD from Cambridge with a thesis entitled “The Family, Morality, and Social Science in Anglo-American Cooperative Thought, 1813-1890,” Mormonism being one of the four intellectual movements analysed — a previously unexplored topic. The price she paid, however, was immense, being branded a devil and a traitor by her father who convinced most of the family to cut all ties with her. The only support she got was from her three brothers who had themselves left the community on the mountain.

What holds the often-chaotic narrative together is Tara’s lucid and honest prose. The number of obstacles she had to surmount went way beyond the lacking educational background she had to make up, from getting used to living in the noise of a city, to making friends. At first she reports: “My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us. On the mountain, I could rebel. But here, in this loud, bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to every truth, every doctrine he had given me.” (p. 183)

Gradually, via her college education, especially extensive reading in psychology, philosophy, history and feminism, she gained confidence in herself as a woman, to the point that at age nineteen, she “decided to experiment with normality”, adjusting her life style to better sync with her fellow students and friends and her own ideas. (p. 245) 

Still, she made many attempts to reconcile with her family, only to discover that it was not only a question of stated beliefs but of how different family members remembered pivotal incidents in their life together, particularly her violent brother’s abuse. “All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.” (p. 345)

She considered “surrendering my own perceptions of right and wrong, of reality, of sanity itself, to earn the love of my parents”, but finally understood that: “What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.” (p. 346, 350)

Tara’s journey is not only about acquiring intellectual knowledge, but more deeply about the connection between intellect and emotions. She was forced to confront very elementary human questions about family, love, betrayal and responsibility. In the end, her journey seems to confirm the Biblical quote: The truth shall make you free.

Totally unexpectedly, one of the last chapters of the book finds Tara in Jordan where she has travelled to meet a friend, and they huddle around a campfire in Wadi Rum!

“Educated” is available at Readers.



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